English Poetry’s Biblical Heart

Scripture and the Poetic Imagination
By David Lyle Jeffrey
Baker Academic, pp. 223, $26.99

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Review by David K. Anderson

What really happens when a poet quotes from or alludes to the Bible? In Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination, David Lyle Jeffrey argues that something much richer than a mere flourish or the conformation of a point of doctrine is at stake. To a degree unprecedented in European literatures, Jeffrey argues, Scripture infused the creative heart of English poetry, feeding its deepest springs not only with moral and metaphysical postulates, but with a vision of what was highest and yet most personal.

Opening in the seventh century with Caedmon, who sang at the beginning of the English tradition of the beginning of all things, running through the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, and ending in our era, Jeffrey covers a wide range of poets. Some important figures — Langland, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eliot — are absent or mentioned only briefly. But the project is not a comprehensive survey but a series of intimate studies, albeit one bound together by a strong sense of the unique potency the Great Book held for these writers.

This is very much a book of two halves. The table of contents announces a division between medieval poetry and poetry “Since the Reformation.” The chronological division would mean little, except that it coincides with a methodological division.

Both halves clearly work on their own terms, and because Jeffrey maintains an emphasis on Scripture’s depth of penetration into the poetry. In the first set of chapters, we feel the weight of Jeffrey’s considerable learning, while the second set is marked by his readerly sensitivity.

Part one demonstrates Jeffrey’s expertise in medieval literature. The chapters are, on average, longer than those later in the volume, and their arguments are more technical in nature, with greater historical contextualization. The first discusses the influence of Franciscan spirituality on medieval theater, mediated by the Franciscan homiletic practice of biblical paraphrase, while the third takes up the medieval Christianization of the corpus of Ovid.

The focus here is on the Manciple’s Tale, widely regarded as a low point in The Canterbury Tales. However, Jeffrey impressively weaves the Manciple’s stilted adaption of an Ovidian story into Chaucer’s larger moral framework, suggesting it is to be read against the subtler and more compelling Parson’s Tale that follows it, and corrects the Manciple’s tinny moralism with the Parson’s emphasis on divine mercy.

The most striking chapter in the section concerns the very different use that Dante and Chaucer make of a specific New Testament passage: the Sermon on the Mount. Jeffrey argues that the Beatitudes that the pilgrim hears chanted as he ascends the terraces of Purgatory are used as straightforward reinforcements of Dante’s theological vision. Chaucer, whom Jeffrey suggests is under the influence of Wycliffe, shows much greater interest in the depths and complexities of these texts, demanding that the reader consider not only their substance, but the intention of the character who cites it, an ethos Jeffrey suggests mirrors that of the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jeffrey turns to the poetry of the last four centuries, appreciations take the place of technical arguments, albeit appreciations that demonstrate both his penetration and the brilliance of the material. A chapter on Donne and Herbert’s prayer poems offers capable if unsurprising readings, but it is followed by an engrossing survey of the literary legacy of the King James Version, whose phrases poets continued to echo long after it had been superseded in the churches it had shaped. Tight and insightful, he covers Handel, Cowper and Coleridge, King and Du Bois, as well as unbelievers like D.H. Lawrence and the Shelleys.

A well-argued chapter follows on how 20th-century poets came to resist closure in their verse, thus also rejecting the biblical ideal of “the fullness of time,” and then we have a final group of chapters on several late 20th-century poets. Authoritative and supple, it is marked by sense of reverence for the poems and a gift for bringing out the full implications of their many and varied biblical allusions.

Jeffrey’s parallel treatment of two poems about fatherhood by Anthony Hecht and Gjertrud Schnackenberg is truly gripping. Opening with a perceptive discussion of our culture’s loss of faith in fatherhood, Jeffrey then shows how both writers resist that loss by depicting how a loving human father can intimate the love of the great Father of us all.

Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination is premised on an all-too-rare sense of poetic excellence. At times a judiciously polemical tone emerges, whether about specific cruxes or the manifest failings of the guild of literary studies. Jeffrey’s interpretive gifts, his wide knowledge of both poetry and the Bible, and his vivid conviction about the vital importance of both to our culture make his book important, especially given how hard that culture seems to be working to forget what it once knew of both.

Dr. David K. Anderson is an associate professor in the Department of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma, where he specializes in Renaissance literature.


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