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Don't Substitute Poetry for Religion

[R.S.] Thomas’s poetry confronts not just the absence of God but what literary critic J. Hillis Miller has termed “the disappearance of God.” For Miller, the nineteenth century and its experience of the eclipse of God was a major turning point in the spiritual history of humanity. It is a perception described powerfully by Matthew Arnold in his essays and poetry, most famously in “Dover Beach,” where he portrays Victorian religious experience as the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith.

For Arnold and a poetic tradition that runs at least up through American poet Wallace Stevens, the temptation was to substitute poetry for religion. “More and more,” Arnold wrote in his famous essay on “The Study of Poetry,” “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”

Arnold’s experience was not the happy exuberance of a Nietzsche and his proclamation that God is dead. It was, rather, that God has withdrawn. “Our duty,”’ Miller says of Arnold’s view, “is to testify bravely to the existence of God in a time when our dwelling place is in the desert.”