John F. Deane's book "In Dogged Loyalty. The Religion of Poetry: The Poetry of Religion" (Columba Press, 2006) traverses the great tradition of English religious verse in light of the troubled situation of Irish Catholic belief and practice today. The author’s ‘dogged loyalty’ to both faith and poetry, at a time when both are being undermined by the philistinism of the Church and of a nouveau riche society, turns out to mean loyalty to the human condition in all its complexity and quirkiness. Again and again he shows that well-known and lesser-known religious poems were rooted in flesh-and-blood situations that are glossed over in conventional piety. Reading these poems with Deane as guide becomes a roller-coaster ride through depths of doubt (quizzical shafts from Emily Dickinson), through rallyings of pluck (‘Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,/The clouds ye so much dread/Are big with mercy, and shall break/In blessings on your head’, Cowper), to heights of religious joy. The format of the book – combining essay and anthology – makes for ease of access, especially when Deane places his own poems in context.
Though ‘poets tend to the earthy and pagan movement of our living rather than to the regulated and doctrinal tenets of a faith’ (p. 114), the author wants to reconcile both, in a richly incarnational manner. ‘Here, I know, is where I part company with orthodoxy’, he adds – a remark that speaks volumes about the failure of communication between Church and culture. Vatican II calls for the art of our times to be given free rein in the Church, yet a fear of art, and of the human density of poetry, has prevailed in the architectural and linguistic debacles of recent decades. The forthcoming new translation of the liturgy will no doubt again reveal the divorce between religion and poetry rather than their Blakean ‘marriage’ (p. 152).
Deane blames on our crassness of soul and of language the wars and injustices that now blight the planet. ‘The untruth of political jargon leads ever and again towards holocaust’ (p. 23). Human speech, and human speech before God, face today ‘the censorship of indifference’, as both Church and State subscribe to lowbrow notions of how language is to be used. Far from bringing the Church nearer the people, this repressive indifference is linked with bureaucratic estrangement from the reality of human joys, hopes and fears. The bridges built by poets such as Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton have fallen into disuse as the Church has turned her back on the times.
Deane places his chosen poems before us not for desultory tasting but as an act of defiance. The voices of the poets, unacknowledged legislators, stand in judgement over us. ‘For what do poets serve, in a needy time?’ asked Hölderlin. Keane’s answer, impassioned yet serene, reminds us of the soul-building and world-changing power of inspired language. The decline of our language is a decline of spirit, a decline of humanity, for which no newfound wealth can compensate. A Church built on the enfleshed Word should be to the fore in arresting this decline.
Joseph S. O’Leary (The Furrow, October, 2006)