Wednesday 30 January 2008

John Milbank's poetry: the mercurial wood

For my own education and edification, I’m currently re-reading all of John Milbank’s works (some I’m just reading for the first time, e.g. The Suspended Middle and his doctoral dissertation on Vico). So anyway, I was surprised and delighted to discover that Milbank has also published a volume of poems, entitled The Mercurial Wood: Sites, Tales, Qualities (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1997), xiv + 69 pp. (Unfortunately, copies are very hard to find – I had to borrow it from the library.)

Nothing pleases me more than a theologian who also writes poetry. (In fact, two of my favourite contemporary poets are also theologians: Rowan Williams and Kevin Hart.) Even if Milbank is a better theologian than he is a poet, this is still a very nice collection, with moments of real beauty and insight. Take, for instance, the depiction of the liberating power of Christ’s beauty in “November: The First Advent”:

        True Siren, Whose voice
        Searing my ears,
        Slipped also my contracted bonds.[1]

Or take the beautiful evocation of the gift, in “Outremer: An Allegory of Rudel”:

        That is my end, a total gift
        To her, at last. Ripened
        Yet beyond the sun,
        And past the final sea,
        Besides, besides,
        In this return
        I give, am given,
        Learnt at last.[2]

But perhaps the most striking feature of Milbank’s poetry is its depiction of the relation between nature, time, and eternity. Under the sway of time, “nature’s thickets”[3] are dark, decayed, twisted. The bones and dust of time pile high, “Like the ruins of a school, / Scrawled across the night.”[4] Nature is threatened by a hidden, seething “war without blows” – “The world is turning in a catastrophe.”[5]

And yet there is always “a remainder / not chaos,” which can be glimpsed “behind things.”[6] If you look intently, you can perceive “the gateway / Where the Spring slips through.”[7] Behind and beneath nature’s thickets, there are sudden, startling appearances of a primal harmony, “something superadded”[8] – a lost innocence which is also the promise of eternal newness, creation’s long-awaited childhood.

One of the central images of Milbank’s poetry is thus that of spring – a spring which draws near from the future, full of promise yet “all unknown.”[9]

        And there stretch trees across the country,
        Like a scattered, shattered henge,
        Waiting the night of snow,
        While Spring waits for them.[10]

Here, strikingly, it is not the barren wintry trees that wait for spring – it is within their power only to “wait the night of snow” – but it is spring which waits for them, drawing them gently yet irresistibly, all “green and shoot and bud.”[11] The new spring which waits for creation, then, is nothing other than the primal harmony of eternity itself – an eternal love which transforms nature only by fulfilling it:

        But our last year’s forever changed
        In retrospect: eternal love,
        The creeping time of almost there
        And all unknown.[12]

Although this eternal love remains yet “unknown,” it pierces through creation in moments of startling, anticipatory revelation. Its strange otherness is nothing else than the world’s bringing-to-fulfillment – or rather, the world’s return to a forgotten childhood of perfect peace. Thus, in what I take to be Milbank’s finest lines, we read of such an epiphany “In the Roseland”:

        By night a black-stone setting
        For the three elusive silvers
        Named water, moon and sky.
        These tongues she offers to my tongue,

        Till lapping mouth to mouth we sing,
        Of twinings and of twinings back,
        Ways out to headlands as the one way home,
        While eyes are launched to undrowned dreaming.[13]

This extraordinary image – “lapping mouth to mouth we sing” – evokes a return to innocence, to harmony, to peace as the truth of creation and the secret beneath all things. We are lonely; but nature presses her mouth to ours in a kiss of peace. We are far from home; but the mystery of eternity gathers us up in a song of peace, and shows us “the one way home.”


[1] “November: The First Advent,” p. 41.

[2] “Outremer: An Allegory of Rudel,” pp. 31-32.

[3] “Rufford Old Hall,” p. 16.

[4] “Chalk-Downland: The White Dance,” p. 50.

[5] “Just after Fleetwood,” p. 6.

[6] “Wilmington Long Man,” p. 20.

[7] “At Duck’s Down Evening,” p. 49.

[8] “Ode to Grey,” p. 59.

[9] “November: The First Advent,” p. 40.

[10] “Tree by Night,” p. 63.

[11] “The Mercurial Wood,” p. 3.

[12] “November: The First Advent,” p. 40.

[13] “In the Roseland,” p. 27.


Anonymous said...

Lex poeticae, lex fidei?

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Kim, that sounds like a very good summary of Milbank's understanding of poetry. Or, at the very least, lex poesis est lex theologiae. (Thus it would be best to read his theology in light of his poetry, not vice versa.)

Kyle said...

I concur with you about theologians and poetry. I revel in Gregory Nazianzen and presently I am wading through Prudentius' Hymnus in Honorem Sanctorum Martyrum

I wish more theologians would write poetry. Like, what if DB Hart or FL Shults wrote some poetry? Delightful!


Anonymous said...

By the way, isn't it delicious when Platonists write poetry?

Of course the Plato of RO bears little resemblance to the old anti-Homeric fuddy-duddy that I learned about in Philosophy 101. Catherine Pickstock even contrives to give a glowing account of Plato on embodiment. Which rather strikes me as would Karl Barth writing a response to Emil Brunner called Ja! But, hey, if scripture has a wax nose there is no reason why Plato's shouldn't be plasticine.

Ben Myers said...

Actually, Kyle, D. B. Hart does write poetry (and very beautiful poetry, too): he wrote a big epic poem; and then he disguised it as prose and called it The Beauty of the Infinite.

Shane said...

lex poeticae lex fidei quite rightly expresses Plato's position on the poets--Plato invented theology (by which I mean he coined the word 'theologia') to put clamps on the poet's depictions of the gods for political purposes. It wouldn't do very well for Zeus to go about raping and pillaging in the storybooks if you want the boys to be brought up right, after all.

Ben Myers said...

That's a good point, Shane! To revise the formula one more time, maybe Milbank's approach should be summed up: locutio Dei est lex poesis et linguae. We can speak only because we sing; and we sing because we participate in God's own life of infinite poetic utterance.

Anonymous said...

This is great - i had no idea Milbank was a poet. Thanks for posting these quotes.

Kyle said...

Ben, excellent point! Then it's not implausible that his lectures are not tangential prose (beautifully captivating prose I might add) but actually disguised poetry. ;)

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