The Savior in Word and Image

The Poets' Jesusby Peggy RosenthalOxford Univ. Press. 189p $29.95

Last spring I ran a seminar on the contemporary Catholic imagination in America, and at the end I asked my students to write about their own religious imaginations. One found a surprise: she discovered she had a religious imagination. But she shouldn’t have been surprised: everyone has onea set of images (sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes) that uniquely embody God and religion for that person. Cultures have religious imaginations too, and in The Poets’ Jesus, Peggy Rosenthal, lecturer, retreat-giver, and Ph.D. in English, explores poetic portraits of Jesus in many cultures, especially in the 20th century. She imagines changing cultural contexts as stage sets, noting where Jesus is placed on stage, what costumes he wears, what roles he plays, and who or what else is out there with him. Wonderfully, she also revels in the poems themselves and in their ability to touch a reader.

The first chapter, Jesus Christ and More, is a whirlwind 20-page survey of 18 centuries: Jewish-Christian hymns in Paul and John; early Eastern praises (Christ as celestial milk out-pressed from a young bride’s fragrant breasts, as holding all creation in His womb); Western poems in Latin and Anglo-Saxon (Christ as shepherd and Tree). Jesus is allegorized (Hildegard of Bingen, Dante), humanized (the Franciscan tradition), a baroque lover (John of the Cross, sonneteers in New Spain and France), a contemporary German (Luther), a presence in the poet’s soul (the Metaphysicals), a self-discoverer (Milton), a Chinese sage (Zhang Xingyao), a teacher of morals (the Enlightenment), a dear Redeemer (Pietism).

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The second chapteragain a survey, but not as breathlesslooks at 19th-century Romanticism. Beginning with Mary Ann Evans’s (George Eliot’s) refusal to go to church in 1842, it examines the century’s swirling personal/philosophical/religious currents that focused on the individual self. Poets swirled in those currents too, as the century between 1770 and 1870 (Goethe to Renan) linked theology and poetry and proclaimed the Poet as Seer. Writing more of Jesus than of Christ, Goethe (who believed him divine) and others (who didn’t) found Jesus in glade and storm, on lofty mountaintop and in poetic creativity. Blake found him in reintegrated humans, as an artist, as the Resurrection & the Life, and as the Lord, the Universal Humanity. Emerson found everyone as divine as Jesus. Whitman found him the great egalitarian, and everyone was more divine than God. Others were more conventionally Christian: in Germany, Annette Droste-Hülshoff linked self and nature with Sunday Gospel texts, and in England Felicia Hemans esteemed mountain solitude as a place to pray like Jesus in inviolate stillness.

The seven later chapters, the heart of the book, study the 20th century’s movements and cultures. Modernism’s Jesus is pale and shrunkenfor Arthur Hugh Clough, sadly unresurrected; for Baudelaire, wimpishly abandoning humans to the Devil’s corruption; for Rubén Darío, ruefully ceding to a pagan Pan; for Pound and Eliot, part of a wrecked civilization; for the Dane Ole Wivel and the Russian Vladimir Lvov, regrettably just a human. A chapter on Arabic poetry the voice of society’s soul offers an archetypal Christ: a great prophet, sufferer for the people, risen life-giver and mythic figure like Tammuz, Adonis, Ishtar and the Palestinian martyrs.

In other chapters, postmodernism’s Jesus is disillusioned (empty mouth, unspeaking eyes). Africa’s Jesus is politicized (Lord God, forgive white Europe). The West’s Jesus is absentdesired but missing (a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease). Sometimes Jesus is between absence and presencehe’s present, we’re absent (When they were driving in the nails/ I listened to a steel guitar). Sometimes he is Jesus Presentyet more an incarnational presence than a Gospel-person (a Presence...in her own bones).

As I read the book, I rejoiced, I bounced in my steps, I flung out hosannas (I usually don’t bounce or fling hosannas). Why? The Poets’ Jesus offers featherlight learning, fresh poets (Hungary, New Zealand, Korea, Germany, Chile, Syria), bright comparisons, clear summaries, apt examples, fresh insights: Twentieth-century poets came to know that placing the person of Jesus in the spotlight on center stage would be to risk sending most of their audience nervously toward the exits. With a keen sense of each poet’s intellectual and theological context, Rosenthal not only probes the religious imagination but also studiesfrom obviously fresh sourcesthe history of theology and the history of belief. She expresses both the simple importance of Christ/Jesus and the iconic centrality of the cross. In doing so she takes seriously both content and imagery: a brisk antidote to the excesses of theory.

A short book, The Poets’ Jesus is brilliant in taking two limited areaspoetry and the figure of Jesusand turning their intersection into a grand survey of intellectual history and the history of belief. And an initial surprisehow each writer or culture makes Jesus into a self-imagefast grows into wonderment: how the self-mirroring or culture-reflecting Jesus is really history’s lovely re-incarnating of the incarnation.

The subtitle is apt; for reading, for thinking, even for meditating. The Poets’ Jesus is a millennial book.

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