Joyce Kilmer, John Paul II, and the artistic vocation

All who reverence the Bible, but especially Christians, ought to have a deep appreciation for words and for those who take words and give them form and meaning.

Left: Joyce Kilmer's Columbia University yearbook photograph, c. 1908 (Wikipedia); right: A bust of St. John Paul II in the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, Italy. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: The following Presentation on Catholic Poetry, in celebration of the centennial of the death of Catholic Laureate, Joyce Kilmer, was delivered by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan, on June 15, 2018.

Having prayed for the repose of the soul of Joyce Kilmer, we have done the most important thing possible. However, that should not stop us from exploring the craft which he turned into a holy vocation.

Whenever my thoughts turn to a serious consideration of poetry, I am reminded of a great scene in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. As the nouveau riche has decided to gain some culture to accord with his newly gained wealth, he hires a tutor to introduce him to the world of letters. At one point, he is taught the distinction between prose and poetry. He asks his master: “So when I say, ‘Nicole, fetch my slippers and bring me my night cap,’ is that prose?” When he is assured that that is the case, he replies: “Well, what do you know about that! These forty years I have speaking in prose without knowing it! How grateful am I to you for teaching me that!” I trust that you all know the difference between the two forms of literary communication, but I suspect that some or even many may not have as deep an appreciation of poetry as you ought.

The English word “poet” or “poem” comes from the Greek verb which means “to make” or “to do.” A poet, then, is a maker or fashioner. But of what? Of words. In our contemporary world, awash in words, we have lost the meaning and power of a word. Not so the ancient Hebrews, who handed on to us their poems of creation found in the first chapters of Genesis. There we learn that the Prime Creator or Maker fashioned the universe by speaking it into existence: God “said” something, and it happened. The sacred author of the psalms – theology in poetic form – could thus rhapsodize: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6).

The word was also seen as an extension of the self. A word is a part of the speaker. And so, when I speak a word, it is not an exaggeration to say that a part of me is now abroad in the universe. Furthermore, once that word is spoken, it has a twofold existence: it is always my word, but it also has a reality of its own. Even more to the point, once a word is spoken and takes its effect, that word cannot be taken back – a lesson we learn in the story of the ill-gotten blessing of Jacob as the blessing gained even in deceit cannot be revoked (cf. Gen 27).

And can it be an accident that the Evangelist who turned theology into poetry – St. John – would zero in on the title of “Word” to speak of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in that supreme poem which is the prologue to his Gospel? The Father “speaks” forth His Word which, in turn, becomes flesh.

All who reverence the Bible, then, but especially Christians, ought to have a deep appreciation for words and for those who take words and give them form and meaning. Jacques Maritain, the great Thomistic philosopher, devoted several works to a consideration of the connection between art and philosophy or, perhaps better, philosophy as art.1 Maritain would have us reflect on art as contemplation and art as communication. In other words, the artist is one who first contemplates the mystery of life and then – and only then – attempts to communicate what has been contemplated. This vision is encapsulated well in what became a motto of the Dominican Order, a motto gleaned from the Summa Theologiae of their illustrious son, St. Thomas Aquinas: Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere (To contemplate and then to hand on to others the fruits of contemplation).

In the lead-up to the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II directed letters to various groups and persons to engage them for the Holy Year. One of those audiences was addressed in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”. With the insight of a philosopher and the sensitivity of a poet and actor, he penned a work of great value. (Parenthetically, wasn’t it wonderful to have a Pope of such culture? Of course, his successor, Benedict XVI, likewise shared that gift.) Permit me to share with you but a few of his gems:

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when – like the artists of every age – captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

That is why it seems to me that there are no better words than the text of Genesis with which to begin my Letter to you, to whom I feel closely linked by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly marked my life. In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future. (n. 1)

He goes on:

In fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity. The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman). (n. 1)

He then asks:

What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing – ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it – and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God. (n. 1)

All of which leads him to conclude:

That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission. (n. 1)

The Holy Father speaks of the work of the artist as contributing to his own “spiritual growth.” He elaborates on this thus:

Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation – as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on – feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole. (n. 3)

Because “society needs artists,” he says, their work is essential to the common good; their “output,” we could say, springs from “a spirituality of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people” (n. 4). That same spirituality causes to arise the virtue of humility, whereby

True artists above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom “God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands” so that “we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:24, 29). If the intimate reality of things is always “beyond” the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery! (n. 6)

From what does the artistic vocation arise and to what does it give rise? The poet-pontiff asserts:

Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every “epiphany” of the inner beauty of things. (n. 6)

Christian artists do not fashion their works in isolation from artists in general. John Paul points out that early Christian poets stood on the shoulders of the giants of Greek and Roman authors and developed from there:

There appeared as well the first elements of art in word and sound. Among the many themes treated by Augustine we find De Musica; and Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Prudentius, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus and Paulinus of Nola, to mention but a few, promoted a Christian poetry which was often of high quality not just as theology but also as literature. Their poetic work valued forms inherited from the classical authors, but was nourished by the pure sap of the Gospel. . . The “beautiful” was thus wedded to the “true”, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal. (n. 7)

Honing in specifically on literary art, the Pope says:

The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God. (n. 12)

Citing several passages from the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul places his encomia in a long line of ecclesiastical encouragements to the artistic community. He also argues that while the Church needs the arts, the arts likewise need the Church – if they are to flourish as they should.

With what we can call the “philosophy of art” in place, we can now proceed to reflect on the specifics of Catholic poets and Catholic poetry. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a poet in his own right, helps us:

When a “Catholic Literature in the English tongue” is spoken of as a desideratum, no reasonable person will mean by “Catholic works” much more than the “works of Catholics.” The phrase does not mean a religious literature. “Religious Literature” indeed would mean much more than “the Literature of religious men;” it means over and above this, that the subject-matter of the Literature is religious; but by “Catholic Literature” is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.2

Our honoree of the day, Joyce Kilmer makes the application to poetry more directly, explaining his choice of poets for his Anthology of Catholic Poets:

There are in this book poems religious in theme; there are also love-songs and war-songs. But I think that it may be called a book of Catholic poems. For a Catholic is not a Catholic only when he prays; he is a Catholic in all the thoughts and actions of his life. And when a Catholic attempts to reflect in words some of the Beauty of which as a poet he is conscious, he cannot be far from prayer and adoration.

This all-encompassing notion of Catholic identity would resonate well some decades on with Opus Dei and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. A Catholic who has drunk deeply from the well of Catholic wisdom cannot help but share that wisdom in all that he thinks, says, writes and does – not simply when he is expounding on articles of the Creed. A truly Catholic sensibility gives rise to poetry. Praising the work of Francis Thompson, Kilmer says that Thompson “made of the language of Protestant England an instrument of Catholic adoration.” We shall see that realized so beautifully shortly in Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.” In a prose which could be mistaken for poetry, Kilmer ends the introduction to his anthology thus:

The poet sees things hidden from other men, but he sees them only in dreams. A poet is (by the very origin of the word) a maker, but a maker of images, not a creator of life. This is a book of reflections of the Beauty which mortal eyes can see only in reflection, a book of dreams of that Truth which one day we shall waking understand. A book of images it is, too, containing representations carved by those who worked by the aid of memory, the strange memory of men living in Faith.

Who might be included in the pantheon of Catholic poetry? The medievals admitted none other than the pagan Roman Vergil; indeed, the great poet of the Golden Age of Roman literature was so highly regarded for his “Christian” disposition that believers of the Middle Ages accorded him a feast in the liturgical calendar! Needless to say, Dante would have to occupy a high place in the roster of Catholic poets, which moved John Paul to observe that “a wonderful poet like Dante Alighieri could compose ‘the sacred poem, to which both heaven and earth have turned their hand,’ as he himself described the Divine Comedy” (n. 8). “Making poetry” is indeed a joint work of “both heaven and earth.” Shakespeare would likewise need to be entered into the catalogue of Catholic poets – whose Catholicism is now well agreed upon by the most serious literary commentators, thanks in no small measure to the research and writing of Joseph Pearce.3

However, by the criteria established by Joyce Kilmer, we shall not have recourse to the yeoman efforts of Dante and Shakespeare. Kilmer’s anthology is limited to the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. A month before our guide’s death on military duty in France, he expressed his hope that poetry would reflect “the virtues which are blossoming on the blood-soaked soil of this land – courage, and self-abnegation, and love, and faith – this last not faith in some abstract goodness, but faith in God and His Son and the Holy Ghost, and in the Church which God Himself founded and still rules.” Unfortunately, poetry did not stop an even bloodier war to follow because, one could say, precisely because faith in God and His Church did not take root in that “blood-soaked soil.”

So, now that we have studied the nature of poetry, let’s treat ourselves to some examples of Kilmer’s work and then to some pieces that he recommends in his anthology, works created by the likes of Hilaire Belloc, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, G. K. Chesterton, Father Frederick Faber, Father Leonard Feeney. Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sister Madeleva, Blessed John Henry Newman, Joseph Mary Plunkett, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis Thompson, Oscar Wilde.

If Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet is right in asserting that “the play’s the thing,” then let’s get to it.

Endnotes:

1See, for example: Art and Scholasticism (1920); Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953); The Responsibility of the Artist (1960).

2Idea of a University.

3See: The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (Ignatius Press, 2008).

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 79 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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  1. Homily at the Requiem Mass commemorating the centennial of the death of Joyce Kilmer – Catholic World Report
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