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Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

A lecture by Professor Anthony Domestico (Purchase College)

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Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period
Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

Time & Location

Jul 16, 2020, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM PDT


About the Event

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.


About the Speaker

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College in New York, and the books columnist for Commonweal. His research focuses on modernism and its relationship to intellectual and religious history. His recent book, Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, is available from Johns Hopkins University Press, and his essays have appeared in Religion and Literature, Literature and Theology, Christianity & Literature, the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, and Persuasions. He is also a working book critic, with reviews in the Boston Globe, Boston Review, Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Review, San Francisco Chronicle, and Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. He teaches courses on modernism, the history of the lyric, science fiction, Jane Austen, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and many other topics.

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