Walt Whitman, like his contemporary Emily Dickinson, was the first truly modern American poet. He wrapped up his theistic morality in blank verse and earthy metaphors. In the final analysis, though, Whitman produced far more human goodness than spiritual veracity. The Negro spirituals, however, are a rich metaphor of biblical metaphors and narratives.
Archive for June, 2015
Herman Melville was a great author who tries to preserve the essence of Christianity without embracing its dogma. In other words, Melville articulated a sort of modernism that presages the cynicism of later naturalism. Perhaps the best way to understand Melville is to understand the pathetic chaplain who met with Billy Budd the night before Budd was executed. The poor man was neither a lucid theologian nor a capable counselor. But he had good intentions. For years Melville fraternized with his Christian friend Nathaniel Hawthorne with no clear results but the disappearing whisper of Judeo-Christian symbolism and morality.
This author chuckles when he remembers Thoreau. I lived in Divinity Hall, Harvard University, where both Thoreau and Emerson lived. There is a Harvard Divinity School legend that Thoreau was lazy and charming–a fatal combination in the search for a productive Christian life but fared him well in the pretentious rarefied air of ante-bellum New England. Thoreau was sort of a theist, sort of a romantic, but mostly a sanguine, facile thinker who lived alone on a pond for a year but purported to have taken his clothes home to his mom to wash every weekend.
Emerson was a failure at farming and at pastoring. Unitarianism was a haven for his injured soul but this cold, leprous faith offers little succor to the heart. Perhaps it was this passion, a sort of apostasy, that empowered his human centered but romantic directed poetry and prose.
Longfellow, Holmes, et al., were all mediocre romantic poets (but the best we had to offer) in a literary world that was dominated by Wordsworth and Shelley (in England). Their metaphysics was as muddled as their writing was ordinary! Not so with Emily Dickinson who presents somewhat of a problem. She apparently grew up in a Christian home and, at least when she was young, went to Church. However, later in life she becomes modern and cynical. However, that in no way diminishes the quality of her work–which was iconic and brilliant.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a born again Christian who married a beautiful, but Unitarian woman. He was, in short, unequally yoked to an unbeliever! This no doubt weakened his Christian resolve. Still, his protagonists are inevitably theistic, moral, laudable characters which resonate with our own Christian penchants.
Edgar Allan Poe was a genius and the best short story writer of all time. He was also a confused, tortured man. This author feels that Poe was born again. There is evidence that his adopted family took him to Bible-believing churches and that he might have embraced Christ as savior. On the other hand, Poe explored the supernatural in ways that were new to Americans and may have put him in harm’s way spiritually.
William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving were nascent (early) romantics, which means, they embraced some of former Christian theistic symbols, and Judeo-Christian morality, but flirted with early nature-loving idolatry. At least deism is dead!
During the revolutionary era there were Christian giants, James Madison among them. However, many patriots were deists. This included Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. However, readers should be careful not to judge these great men too harshly. One would have preferred a more pristine statement of Christian faith from both; however, there is good reason to believe that both knew the Lord and loved Him with all their hearts. There is no doubt, however, that the slave and great poet Philis Wheatley was a Christian theist. Her poetry is full of Christian/biblical metaphors.