I thought about Woolf, and Faulkner, and Yeats, and realized: we’re nuts.
I love the modernists. Those messed up people were determined to live morally–even though they felt certain that God had abandoned them. God was so last-century anyway, even if He did exist. Which He didn’t. And they don’t need Him anyway. At least that’s what I got out of reading Yeats and Faulkner.
Yes, their viewpoint isn’t Christian, but in its expression of stark, lost humanity their work reflects the world that God came to save, and it is beautiful, in a foreign, negative-image kind of way.
Dr. Anthony Esolen is best known for his book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child as well as his respected translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Additionally, he writes for several Christian magazines. I had the privilege of studying Dante and the two modern poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats under his direction last summer. One of Dr. Esolen’s recent articles (http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/a-nation-of-sludge) proved especially thought-provoking to me, because it is full of yearning in the way that I used to go wild over. However, when I first read the article something didn’t sit right with me. I used to love this sort of thing–something chock full of sadness and beautiful in a way that really touched the heart because of it (that’s the reason why I loved Tolkien so much).
“And so my heart yearns for a place that was. It was not perfect, as nothing on earth is. But it had all the simple sunniness of ordinary time, because it was ordinary: there was an order to it,” Dr. Esolen says.
He celebrates the beautiful old traditions and ideas that marked time, that structured it and gave it order so it could move as God’s love drew it; that idea is all over Dante and Eliot too. But the irony–and one of the two elements that helped me crystallize my response to Dr. Esolen’s article–is that he opens with W.B. Yeats’ classic poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Although I read the article months ago, this thought didn’t hit me until I was thinking it over again yesterday.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
It’s a short poem, and yet within it Yeats captures the longing for a place to go home to much better than Dr. Esolen or I can. But Yeats wasn’t a Christian–in fact, he was full-out pagan, holding seances and believing in the occult. His favorite everything, pretty much, resided in Irish myth and legend; if he could have, he would have been born in that era. Yeats lived his life stuck in what Eliot calls (with uncanny aptness) “the backward glance.” Yeats kept his face turned backward, so to speak, and he missed — everything — that spills over with news of God that lay in the future.
I love Yeats, but reading him made me less eager (healthily so, I think) to indulge myself in longing for the past; maybe in time God will grant me the wisdom to navigate it as Dr. Esolen does. Yeats broke my heart as I studied him last semester. He came so close to seeing who God is. Yeats’ poetry is wildly beautiful, but he didn’t take the leap of faith to God; rather he let himself get lost in the misty Irish fogs of millenia past. What Dr. Esolen says in his article resonates so strongly with the Yeats poem he quoted that I was depressed all day after I first read it. I want to go home, I thought after reading the article. Here are Dr. Esolen’s closing words:
There is only one choice; and to tell the truth, it was always the only choice. I will arise and go now to my Father’s house. It is time, Christian, to go home; there are no homes to be found anywhere else.
After I thought (and thought and thought) about it, I realized: I’m not okay with this. Yes, I want to go home. We all do. Including the modernists. The atheists, evolutionists, homosexuals, even the pro-choice people–they want to go home.
But they don’t have one.
They don’t have one. As Christians, our lives are transformed by the very existence of God; even though Christianity and suffering/persecution/fill-in-the-bad-thing-here go hand in hand, we have a home to go to in the end. Nonbelievers have nothing–and that reflects backwards into their lives now, and drains their lives of meaning. Yeats’ dream of a peaceful island is really the same thing as Dr. Esolen’s plea to go home; we’re homeless here. Dr. Esolen is so right–I want to go home to my Lord and see Him face to face, to be finally rid of my sins and to cry with relief that all the bad is done and all the good has barely begun. But Dr. Esolen, as opposed to Yeats, does know God. We have the luxury of looking back and seeing our God actively involved in time and working on our behalf, and that should be an encouragement to us to keep on going. Our work’s not done yet.
Yes, it’s become a nation of sludge, looking backward. But, looking forward–faring forward–it’s still God’s world. “I would have lost heart,” says the Psalmist, “unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and it’s in the modernists too. I saw it reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last fall in American Lit; Quentin (I have a weakness for conflicted academics) couldn’t stand everything he deemed wrong in his world so — but I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a photo-negative image of God’s goodness, but is nevertheless still effective in showing how and why we need the Lord; His absence is truly evil, and not in the “why do the wicked succeed” kind of way either.
Psalm 27 is my favorite chapter in the Bible right now.
4 One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His temple.
5 For in the time of trouble
He shall hide me in His pavilion;
In the secret place of His tabernacle
He shall hide me;
He shall set me high upon a rock.
Isn’t that just heady? Especially verse 4 – to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple. Makes me think of Augustine. I want that so badly, but David doesn’t mind the sludging part of life as much as he could have (I’m misappropriating Dr. Esolen’s argument a bit here, but I hope it’s not unjustified. Saul went nuts trying to regain God’s favor by killing God’s anointed–which seems like a nice modern dilemma to get yourself tangled up in). Anyways, David closes the psalm with verses 13-14.
13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the LORD
In the land of the living.
14 Wait on the LORD;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the LORD!
In the end, the worst sinner is just like us, only worse off. We both want to go home, if we’re honest with ourselves, but we know where home is and Who is waiting there. The nonbeliever doesn’t. So we can’t go home yet. It’s still “fare forward” for us for a while longer, but we can make it. Until either Christ comes again or takes us home, the nonbeliever would be lost in between this world and the next and at the crossing of the river they’d be denied entry into the eternal fellowship we’re given with the Father–the fellowship that makes us truly free to enjoy this astonishing world God gave us. Be of good courage–it is truly God that we serve.