What Would It Mean to Be a Catholic Writer?By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Berwyn, PA. Randy Boyagoda, my old neighbor from the Catholic ghetto that grew up around the Studebaker mansion in South Bend, writes about the dearth of Catholic writers and artists in our day, in the new First Things. He begins,
I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.
These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.
Literature is yet another place where, to mix a metaphor along with the thought of Pope Benedict and Richard John Neuhaus, the naked public square has extended its desertification. (I would not have to mix that metaphor, if I were only more comfortable with the bare necessity of using the verb “to nake,” rather than just its form as a dressed up adjective). I go along pretty much all the way with Boyagoda’s argument. But, for those who may be in search of a Catholic literary presence in the last century, or in our own day, I direct them to my new essay in Dappled Things: “Orders of the Analogical Imagination: An Introduction to Catholicism and Modern American Poetry.” There, I outline and criticize a tradition that begins with George Santayana, but which extends through to the present day. The essay constitutes an “Introduction,” because I have promised to more people that I can count that I will write a comprehensive book on the subject. To date, I have published six of a proposed eighteen chapters.
I take a more than academic interest in these questions, of course. I have done what I could to add a few stones to that tradition and to articulate an account of art and literature that would help to make the efforts of contemporary writers a bit more auspicious. On which note, in the latest Notre Dame Review, two sonnets from my sequence La Rochefoucauld’s Ghost have just been published. The Review has not put the poems themselves online, and so I include versions of them just below. Versions, I say, because as soon as I see my poems in print, I usually cringe and write them over again in hopes of not making myself cringe in the future, and so these are the post-cringe versions of the sonnets. What the Review has done, however, and has much thanks from me for the favor, is to publish as part of its online supplement to the issue my own commentary on the poems and the sequence from which they come, which can be found here.
Here are the poems.
The living columns girding Nature’s halls
Whisper, descant, or flash dense knotted words;
Man walks amid these runic forested walls,
Finds welcome in their intelligible accord,
Their myriad echoes bounding till suffused
Into a deep and verdant unity.
All tones and voices twine in air that moves
With the perfumes of night, the stench of day:
Unfaded scent from off an infant’s skin,
An oboe’s music soft, a lush field’s green—
The stuff of riches, rot, glory and sin,
Expands and binds all things, seen and unseen,
Till amber, musk, invisible incense,
Anoint the embrace of intellect and sense.
YEATS IN LONDON
Here he sits, scribbling of black pigs and fate,
Of time and Twilight tales, that bare broomstick
Blavatsky called stout Protestants come late
To bite and tear away the briars thick
With Catholic degeneration: notebooks filled
By thoughts transformed to symbols. Through the glass
All London roils in thickening fog whose still
Obscurity seems like a gnostic masque
Where all he won’t believe may still be seen:
A vision’s second-hand remembering
That shames the cold room’s bare walls.
His Da, stirred
In anger from his studio, where each brush
Stroke re-inscribes the real, sighs now, “You’re just
A poet, Willie, no philosopher.”