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Recovering Jesus through poetry

  • 02 April 2007

In Dogged Loyalty : the Religion of Poetry, the Poetry of Religion, by John F. Deane. Columba Press, 2006. ISBN 1 85607 534 6, RRP $25.00 website John Deane grew up in an Ireland where his life "began with a Jesus of morne misery, a severe minister of don’ts and do’s, of pain and sorrow, of eyes that squinted at you as they followed you everywhere." This same Catholicism has for some time now been questioned and rejected in Ireland, but unlike those who have walked away, Deane claims, "I have turned to poetry to recover a Jesus of more relevance and truth." He goes to poetry to help pick up the pieces of a broken religion and to find in poetry what Seamus Heaney calls the “unexpected and unedited communications” that poetry gives to religious tradition.

This is a collection of essays about poets’ work that is fixed unequivocally in the early 21st century, a time when poetry is easy to ignore, easy to dismiss – a matter of indifference to most people. Deane intends here to draw attention to the real poetry that survives change. For him, "the poet invents the metaphor, and the Christian lives it." This searching out of religious truth through poetry has particular resonance in an Ireland that has become estranged from its religious inheritance. At the end of his life Enda McDonagh insisted that one solution to the Irish religious impasse was to explore poetry and here is one effective enactment of that philosophy.

Henry Vaughan is appreciated because of his distaste for the age, "the religious bickering and the doubts about practice and ritual," and his poetic "shifts from a pleading or a complaining mode into quick cry of personal distress or longing." "The couth and gracious couplets" of the Puritan Anne Bradstreet are given special treatment. He admires her "honesty and self-knowledge", her struggles with desire. Revolutionary thinkers like William Blake are emblems of possibility. John Clare’s God is "not the God of theologians, of pastors or mystics, but the God of the countryside." Deane’s Donne is perhaps his central model, a man of concerns.

One concern is his vacillation between "God and his mistresses … between east and west," and how the poet reasons with dichotomy. Another is the bafflement of the innocent before dogma. But it is Donne who shows Deane, for example in the sonnet ‘Batter my heart, three person’d