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July 16, 2020

Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

A lecture by Professor Anthony Domestico (Purchase College)
Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

Time & Location

July 16, 2020


During the 1930s and 1940s, poets read theologians and theologians read poets. According to literature scholar Anthony Domestico, both poets and theologians sought to show “how materiality has a radical openness to that which simultaneously exceeds and sustains it.” In his recent book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press), Professor Domestico argues that the “poets of theological modernism,” namely, T. S. Eliot, David Jones, and W. H. Auden, were preoccupied by the question of reason and revelation. What is revelation, and how can we reason and write about it? What is the sacramental, and how does its wedding of the immanent and transcendent inform the aesthetic act? In this lecture, Domestico argued that, for these poets, to write modern poetry was to ask such questions, and to ask such questions was to enter into contemporary theological debate. 

Following an overview of major trends in modern theology—liberal, analogical, and dialectical—Domestico offered an original interpretation of the theological influences on modernist poetry through the lens of the analogical/Thomistic and dialectical/Barthian religious imaginations. His argument was that Eliot, Jones, and Auden as theological poets were interested not simply in the aesthetic or social meaning of religion, but in the philosophical truth of doctrine, particularly regarding revelation in relation to nature and history. Examples focused on Eliot’s Four Quartets. In Domestico’s reading, these poems reveal a Barthian vision of nature and grace, despite the Thomistic affinities of Eliot’s properly theological work.

The evening’s discussion, which included scholars of literary modernism, covered the following subjects:

  • Whether these poets conceived of poetry, rather than theological systems, as alone capable of expressing the inexhaustible mystery of revelation

  • How the influence of dialectical theology—known for its religious particularity—on Eliot can be reconciled with his drawing inspiration from non-Christian religions

  • How Barth and Eliot might interpret the Genesis narrative of creation with respect to the question of a metaphysics of participation, and, relatedly, the implications this understanding of matter has for Eliot’s view of institutions, chiefly the Church

  • The extent to which Jones, in his poems but especially in his essays on sacrament & sign, aligns with Hopkins vs. Eliot on the immanence of God

  • The possibilities today for creative experimentation facilitated by political and social disruption, akin to the literary modernism of the interwar period; the contemporary conversation between poetry and theology

This was the second event in Zephyr’s summer series on poetry & theology.


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Associate Professor of Literature, Purchase College

Related Publications

Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press)

“Following the religious turn in other disciplines, literary critics have emphasized how modernists like Woolf and Joyce were haunted by Christianity’s cultural traces despite their own lack of belief. In Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, Anthony Domestico takes a different tack, arguing that modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and David Jones were interested not just in the aesthetic or social implications of religious experience but also in the philosophically rigorous, dogmatic vision put forward by contemporary theology.

These poets took seriously the truth claims of Christian theology: for them, religion involved intellectual and emotional assent, doctrinal articulation, and ritual practice. Domestico reveals how an important strand of modern poetry actually understood itself in and through the central theological questions of the modernist era: What is transcendence, and how can we think and write about it? What is the sacramental act, and how does its wedding of the immanent and the transcendent inform the poetic act? How can we relate kairos (holy time) to chronos (clock time)?

Seeking answers to these complex questions, Domestico examines both modernist institutions (the Criterion) and specific works of modern poetry (Eliot’s Four Quartets and Jones’s The Anathemata). The book also traces the contours of what it dubs ‘theological modernism’: a body of poetry that is both theological and modernist. In doing so, this book offers a new literary history of the modernist period, one that attends both to the material circulation of texts and to the broader intellectual currents of the time.”

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