Tag Archives: Scholarship

Summa Comparison Texts

So my brain needed a good, relaxing bath in sound reasoning after walking down memory lane with the Modern Western Philosophy crew.  A dip in the Summa, of course, was just what the Doctor ordered.  Of course, what that meant was trying to find a few texts that would be likely to come into direct conversation with the texts I’d picked as an intro to that tradition.

Here’s what I found, with no particular explanation.  I’m hoping our Summer Seminar conversation will make the connections.

In our knowledge there are two things to be considered. First, that intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter. Secondly, we must consider that our intellect proceeds from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality; and every power thus proceeding from potentiality to actuality comes first to an incomplete act, which is the medium between potentiality and actuality, before accomplishing the perfect act. The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly. A thing thus imperfectly known, is known partly in act and partly in potentiality, and hence the Philosopher says (Phys. i, 1), that “what is manifest and certain is known to us at first confusedly; afterwards we know it by distinguishing its principles and elements.” Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly.

(source: Summa Theologica)

the Essence of God, the pure and perfect act, is simply and perfectly in itself intelligible; and hence God by His own Essence knows Himself, and all other things also. The angelic essence belongs, indeed, to the genus of intelligible things as “act,” but not as a “pure act,” nor as a “complete act,” and hence the angel’s act of intelligence is not completed by his essence. For although an angel understands himself by his own essence, still he cannot understand all other things by his own essence; for he knows things other than himself by their likenesses. Now the human intellect is only a potentiality in the genus of intelligible beings, just as primary matter is a potentiality as regards sensible beings; and hence it is called “possible.” Therefore in its essence the human mind is potentially understanding. Hence it has in itself the power to understand, but not to be understood, except as it is made actual. For even the Platonists asserted than an order of intelligible beings existed above the order of intellects, forasmuch as the intellect understands only by participation of the intelligible; for they said that the participator is below what it participates. If, therefore, the human intellect, as the Platonists held, became actual by participating separate intelligible forms, it would understand itself by such participation of incorporeal beings. But as in this life our intellect has material and sensible things for its proper natural object, as stated above (Question [84], Article [7]), it understands itself according as it is made actual by the species abstracted from sensible things, through the light of the active intellect, which not only actuates the intelligible things themselves, but also, by their instrumentality, actuates the passive intellect. Therefore the intellect knows itself not by its essence, but by its act.

(source: Summa Theologica)

Since the human intellect in the present state of life cannot understand even immaterial created substances (Article [1]), much less can it understand the essence of the uncreated substance. Hence it must be said simply that God is not the first object of our knowledge. Rather do we know God through creatures, according to the Apostle (Rm. 1:20), “the invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”: while the first object of our knowledge in this life is the “quiddity of a material thing,” which is the proper object of our intellect, as appears above in many passages (Question [84], Article [7]; Question [85], Article [8]; Question [87], Article [2], ad 2)

(source: Summa Theologica)

This doctrine is wisdom above all human wisdom; not merely in any one order, but absolutely. For since it is the part of a wise man to arrange and to judge, and since lesser matters should be judged in the light of some higher principle, he is said to be wise in any one order who considers the highest principle in that order: thus in the order of building, he who plans the form of the house is called wise and architect, in opposition to the inferior laborers who trim the wood and make ready the stones: “As a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). Again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is called wise, inasmuch as he directs his acts to a fitting end: “Wisdom is prudence to a man” (Prov. 10: 23). Therefore he who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise. Hence wisdom is said to be the knowledge of divine things, as Augustine says (De Trin. xii, 14). But sacred doctrine essentially treats of God viewed as the highest cause—not only so far as He can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew Him—”That which is known of God is manifest in them” (Rm. 1:19)—but also as far as He is known to Himself alone and revealed to others. Hence sacred doctrine is especially called wisdom.

(source: Summa Theologica)

A thing can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as “Man is an animal,” for animal is contained in the essence of man. If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all; as is clear with regard to the first principles of demonstration, the terms of which are common things that no one is ignorant of, such as being and non-being, whole and part, and such like. If, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition. Therefore, it happens, as Boethius says (Hebdom., the title of which is: “Whether all that is, is good”), “that there are some mental concepts self-evident only to the learned, as that incorporeal substances are not in space.” Therefore I say that this proposition, “God exists,” of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject, because God is His own existence as will be hereafter shown (Question [3], Article [4]). Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by effects.

(source: Summa Theologica)

It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power. For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything’s being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of the object is above the nature of the knower. Now the mode of being of things is manifold. For some things have being only in this one individual matter; as all bodies. But others are subsisting natures, not residing in matter at all, which, however, are not their own existence, but receive it; and these are the incorporeal beings, called angels. But to God alone does it belong to be His own subsistent being. Therefore what exists only in individual matter we know naturally, forasmuch as our soul, whereby we know, is the form of certain matter. Now our soul possesses two cognitive powers; one is the act of a corporeal organ, which naturally knows things existing in individual matter; hence sense knows only the singular. But there is another kind of cognitive power in the soul, called the intellect; and this is not the act of any corporeal organ. Wherefore the intellect naturally knows natures which exist only in individual matter; not as they are in such individual matter, but according as they are abstracted therefrom by the considering act of the intellect; hence it follows that through the intellect we can understand these objects as universal; and this is beyond the power of the sense. Now the angelic intellect naturally knows natures that are not in matter; but this is beyond the power of the intellect of our soul in the state of its present life, united as it is to the body. It follows therefore that to know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.

(source: Summa Theologica)


In names predicated of many in an analogical sense, all are predicated because they have reference to some one thing; and this one thing must be placed in the definition of them all. And since that expressed by the name is the definition, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. iv), such a name must be applied primarily to that which is put in the definition of such other things, and secondarily to these others according as they approach more or less to that first. Thus, for instance, “healthy” applied to animals comes into the definition of “healthy” applied to medicine, which is called healthy as being the cause of health in the animal; and also into the definition of “healthy” which is applied to urine, which is called healthy in so far as it is the sign of the animal’s health. Thus all names applied metaphorically to God, are applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures. For as “smiling” applied to a field means only that the field in the beauty of its flowering is like the beauty of the human smile by proportionate likeness, so the name of “lion” applied to God means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures. But to other names not applied to God in a metaphorical sense, the same rule would apply if they were spoken of God as the cause only, as some have supposed. For when it is said, “God is good,” it would then only mean “God is the cause of the creature’s goodness”; thus the term good applied to God would included in its meaning the creature’s goodness. Hence “good” would apply primarily to creatures rather than to God. But as was shown above (Article [2]), these names are applied to God not as the cause only, but also essentially. For the words, “God is good,” or “wise,” signify not only that He is the cause of wisdom or goodness, but that these exist in Him in a more excellent way. Hence as regards what the name signifies, these names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures; but as regards the imposition of the names, they are primarily applied by us to creatures which we know first. Hence they have a mode of signification which belongs to creatures, as said above (Article [3]).

(source: Summa Theologica)

God understands Himself through Himself. In proof whereof it must be known that although in operations which pass to an external effect, the object of the operation, which is taken as the term, exists outside the operator; nevertheless in operations that remain in the operator, the object signified as the term of operation, resides in the operator; and accordingly as it is in the operator, the operation is actual. Hence the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the sensible in act is sense in act, and the intelligible in act is intellect in act.” For the reason why we actually feel or know a thing is because our intellect or sense is actually informed by the sensible or intelligible species. And because of this only, it follows that sense or intellect is distinct from the sensible or intelligible object, since both are in potentiality.

Since therefore God has nothing in Him of potentiality, but is pure act, His intellect and its object are altogether the same; so that He neither is without the intelligible species, as is the case with our intellect when it understands potentially; nor does the intelligible species differ from the substance of the divine intellect, as it differs in our intellect when it understands actually; but the intelligible species itself is the divine intellect itself, and thus God understands Himself through Himself.

(source: Summa Theologica)

It is necessary to suppose ideas in the divine mind. For the Greek word {Idea} is in Latin “forma.” Hence by ideas are understood the forms of things, existing apart from the things themselves. Now the form of anything existing apart from the thing itself can be for one of two ends: either to be the type of that of which it is called the form, or to be the principle of the knowledge of that thing, inasmuch as the forms of things knowable are said to be in him who knows them. In either case we must suppose ideas, as is clear for the following reason:

In all things not generated by chance, the form must be the end of any generation whatsoever. But an agent does not act on account of the form, except in so far as the likeness of the form is in the agent, as may happen in two ways. For in some agents the form of the thing to be made pre-exists according to its natural being, as in those that act by their nature; as a man generates a man, or fire generates fire. Whereas in other agents (the form of the thing to be made pre-exists) according to intelligible being, as in those that act by the intellect; and thus the likeness of a house pre-exists in the mind of the builder. And this may be called the idea of the house, since the builder intends to build his house like to the form conceived in his mind. As then the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect, as will appear later (Question [46], Article [1]), there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And in this the notion of an idea consists.

(source: Summa Theologica)

For it is clear that whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the recipient. Now a thing is known in as far as its form is in the knower. But the intellectual soul knows a thing in its nature absolutely: for instance, it knows a stone absolutely as a stone; and therefore the form of a stone absolutely, as to its proper formal idea, is in the intellectual soul. Therefore the intellectual soul itself is an absolute form, and not something composed of matter and form. For if the intellectual soul were composed of matter and form, the forms of things would be received into it as individuals, and so it would only know the individual: just as it happens with the sensitive powers which receive forms in a corporeal organ; since matter is the principle by which forms are individualized. It follows, therefore, that the intellectual soul, and every intellectual substance which has knowledge of forms absolutely, is exempt from composition of matter and form.

(source: Summa Theologica)

We must assert that the intellect which is the principle of intellectual operation is the form of the human body. For that whereby primarily anything acts is a form of the thing to which the act is to be attributed: for instance, that whereby a body is primarily healed is health, and that whereby the soul knows primarily is knowledge; hence health is a form of the body, and knowledge is a form of the soul. The reason is because nothing acts except so far as it is in act; wherefore a thing acts by that whereby it is in act. Now it is clear that the first thing by which the body lives is the soul. And as life appears through various operations in different degrees of living things, that whereby we primarily perform each of all these vital actions is the soul. For the soul is the primary principle of our nourishment, sensation, and local movement; and likewise of our understanding. Therefore this principle by which we primarily understand, whether it be called the intellect or the intellectual soul, is the form of the body. This is the demonstration used by Aristotle (De Anima ii, 2).

But if anyone says that the intellectual soul is not the form of the body he must first explain how it is that this action of understanding is the action of this particular man; for each one is conscious that it is himself who understands. Now an action may be attributed to anyone in three ways, as is clear from the Philosopher (Phys. v, 1); for a thing is said to move or act, either by virtue of its whole self, for instance, as a physician heals; or by virtue of a part, as a man sees by his eye; or through an accidental quality, as when we say that something that is white builds, because it is accidental to the builder to be white. So when we say that Socrates or Plato understands, it is clear that this is not attributed to him accidentally; since it is ascribed to him as man, which is predicated of him essentially. We must therefore say either that Socrates understands by virtue of his whole self, as Plato maintained, holding that man is an intellectual soul; or that intelligence is a part of Socrates. The first cannot stand, as was shown above (Question [75], Article [4]), for this reason, that it is one and the same man who is conscious both that he understands, and that he senses. But one cannot sense without a body: therefore the body must be some part of man. It follows therefore that the intellect by which Socrates understands is a part of Socrates, so that in some way it is united to the body of Socrates.

The Commentator held that this union is through the intelligible species, as having a double subject, in the possible intellect, and in the phantasms which are in the corporeal organs. Thus through the intelligible species the possible intellect is linked to the body of this or that particular man. But this link or union does not sufficiently explain the fact, that the act of the intellect is the act of Socrates. This can be clearly seen from comparison with the sensitive faculty, from which Aristotle proceeds to consider things relating to the intellect. For the relation of phantasms to the intellect is like the relation of colors to the sense of sight, as he says De Anima iii, 5,7. Therefore, as the species of colors are in the sight, so are the species of phantasms in the possible intellect. Now it is clear that because the colors, the images of which are in the sight, are on a wall, the action of seeing is not attributed to the wall: for we do not say that the wall sees, but rather that it is seen. Therefore, from the fact that the species of phantasms are in the possible intellect, it does not follow that Socrates, in whom are the phantasms, understands, but that he or his phantasms are understood.

Some, however, tried to maintain that the intellect is united to the body as its motor; and hence that the intellect and body form one thing so that the act of the intellect could be attributed to the whole. This is, however, absurd for many reasons. First, because the intellect does not move the body except through the appetite, the movement of which presupposes the operation of the intellect. The reason therefore why Socrates understands is not because he is moved by his intellect, but rather, contrariwise, he is moved by his intellect because he understands. Secondly, because since Socrates is an individual in a nature of one essence composed of matter and form, if the intellect be not the form, it follows that it must be outside the essence, and then the intellect is the whole Socrates as a motor to the thing moved. Whereas the act of intellect remains in the agent, and does not pass into something else, as does the action of heating. Therefore the action of understanding cannot be attributed to Socrates for the reason that he is moved by his intellect. Thirdly, because the action of a motor is never attributed to the thing moved, except as to an instrument; as the action of a carpenter to a saw. Therefore if understanding is attributed to Socrates, as the action of what moves him, it follows that it is attributed to him as to an instrument. This is contrary to the teaching of the Philosopher, who holds that understanding is not possible through a corporeal instrument (De Anima iii, 4). Fourthly, because, although the action of a part be attributed to the whole, as the action of the eye is attributed to a man; yet it is never attributed to another part, except perhaps indirectly; for we do not say that the hand sees because the eye sees. Therefore if the intellect and Socrates are united in the above manner, the action of the intellect cannot be attributed to Socrates. If, however, Socrates be a whole composed of a union of the intellect with whatever else belongs to Socrates, and still the intellect be united to those other things only as a motor, it follows that Socrates is not one absolutely, and consequently neither a being absolutely, for a thing is a being according as it is one.

There remains, therefore, no other explanation than that given by Aristotle—namely, that this particular man understands, because the intellectual principle is his form. Thus from the very operation of the intellect it is made clear that the intellectual principle is united to the body as its form.

The same can be clearly shown from the nature of the human species. For the nature of each thing is shown by its operation. Now the proper operation of man as man is to understand; because he thereby surpasses all other animals. Whence Aristotle concludes (Ethic. x, 7) that the ultimate happiness of man must consist in this operation as properly belonging to him. Man must therefore derive his species from that which is the principle of this operation. But the species of anything is derived from its form. It follows therefore that the intellectual principle is the proper form of man.

But we must observe that the nobler a form is, the more it rises above corporeal matter, the less it is merged in matter, and the more it excels matter by its power and its operation; hence we find that the form of a mixed body has another operation not caused by its elemental qualities. And the higher we advance in the nobility of forms, the more we find that the power of the form excels the elementary matter; as the vegetative soul excels the form of the metal, and the sensitive soul excels the vegetative soul. Now the human soul is the highest and noblest of forms. Wherefore it excels corporeal matter in its power by the fact that it has an operation and a power in which corporeal matter has no share whatever. This power is called the intellect.

It is well to remark that if anyone holds that the soul is composed of matter and form, it would follow that in no way could the soul be the form of the body. For since the form is an act, and matter is only in potentiality, that which is composed of matter and form cannot be the form of another by virtue of itself as a whole. But if it is a form by virtue of some part of itself, then that part which is the form we call the soul, and that of which it is the form we call the “primary animate,” as was said above (Question [75], Article [5]).

(source: Summa Theologica)

Readings for Summer Seminar, Session Two

One of the points of interest in our Summer Seminar has been to get a basic understanding of the philosophical drift of Modern Western Philosophy.  Some of us are engaged with contemporary literary theory, and need to see how Foucault ended up where he did.  Others keep hearing “Enlightenment” and “nominalism” thrown around, and want to pin it down.

In any case, for a starter we’re going to just look at what Descartes did that launched the whole project.  I’ve prepared a list of philosophical primary texts and handy discussions & notes, themed on treatments of and responses to the basic Cartesian cogito that should help anyone (with some patience with jargon, and some resistance to intellectual intoxication) to build the “spine” for further exploration.

If you have to be selective, I’d say read the Descartes, then SEP articles, then Hegel on Descartes, and then as much Husserl as you can manage.  The rest of what you’re likely to want to know can be fitted around these.

A Last Fragment on Endo’s Silence, For Now

Well, this is one portion of a work caught “in the middle” between several projects I was attempting on Endo’s Silence between 2012 and 2014.  This is actually not the last-edited stage; I pulled up an edition that I labeled “overdeveloped three virtues” because a dimly possible thread I wanted to pull, at least in drafting, was threatening to take over the paper.  I’m putting it up here because–well, it’s a blog, so why not air my early-drafting laundry?

Here, then, the somewhat dramatically titled, unfinished work on Garrpe, in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence:

Christ’s Unknown Soldier: The Role of Garrpe in Endo’s Silence


Nobody would deny that Rodrigues is the protagonist of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Most criticism seems to consider only the choices Rodrigues makes as essential to the story’s final significance. Readers and students are then left to moot the question of whether Rodrigues is a tragically weak man destroyed by hubris or an unforgiving spirit, or whether he heroically proclaims a triumph of spirit over letter or pity over fidelity. Both genre conventions and Endo’s storytelling, however, tend to undermine the reader’s confidence in Rodrigues’s judgments. Characters such as Garrpe and Kichijiro also challenge any excessive reliance on the subjective experience of Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role has been explored in the literature, but Garrpe remains sadly neglected. Garrpe demonstrates even more definitely than Kichijiro that Rodrigues has ignored or foreclosed crucial possibilities of thought and action on his way to the famous fumie scene. Given the subsequent development of Endo’s fiction and his public statements about his views, it is especially interesting that Garrpe appears in this text to witness against the dilemma that the Japanese authorities, Rodrigues, and even Endo have in various ways constructed for the reader. Clearly emphasizing Garrpe’s conversion from initial wavering to final martyrdom makes better sense of the book’s enduring allure for Christian readers than a narrow focus on the protagonist Rodrigues.

Critical Commitments

Examining secondary characters and subplots can re-enliven readerly and critical interest in a work whose reading has become stereotyped. Literature teachers are familiar with the tendency of students to discard the text in their rush to discover “what’s it about?” and learn “will it be on the test?” Scholars at all levels, however, must avoid the trap of simple “debunking,” of displays of cleverness that entertain and impoverish, rather than enrich, readers and their habits. Critics reading “against the grain” by using lesser features of a work to solicit questions about that work’s well-known major features have some obligation, then, to declare what larger pattern of facts supports this seeming inversion.

Two such considerations warrant the present effort. First, some of the best criticism of Endo’s work already points out genre considerations that might mislead many readers, especially readers doubly distanced from Silence’s situation as a Japanese book published in 1963. Such examinations of Endo’s genre gain strength from Endo’s own responses to criticism of his book, even taking into account the possibility that some of these comments are post hoc rationalizations. Second, and at least equally important, there is a theological warrant for attending to Garrpe’s powerful death scene and the response to the novel’s essential dilemma that it suggests. I take it as a basic commitment for Religion and Literature scholarship that T. S. Eliot was correct when he argued that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological point of view” (343). “Completed,” not merely occasionally supplemented, because if there is any sense at all in calling a work of art “religious,” in that same sense we must acknowledge that religion not only has its own intrinsic order (theology and morality) but encompasses and defines subsidiary fields, each in turn possessed of its own intrinsic order. Garrpe’s role in Silence, which may typical criticism seems to take as simply another moment in the story of Rodrigues, turns out to be crucial in reconciling our aesthetic and theological appreciation of this truly problematic work.

Guided by these commitments, I begin below by summarizing Garrpe’s role in the plot of Silence, then sketch in a few typical readings of Silence and the genre and narrative structure questions that challenge those readings. After sketching in the ways that Garrpe’s actions help to supply what is lacking in typical readings, I proceed to the theological considerations that recommend greater emphasis on Garrpe’s role in the novel. I conclude that such an analysis helps to re-integrate elements of the story which tend to be ignored on account of their dissonance with a straightforward thematic reading of the overall plot and its climax.

Summary of Garrpe’s Role

Simple page-counting suggests Garrpe’s structural place in the novel (201 pages in this edition). Garrpe and Rodrigues come on stage together in the Prologue. Garrpe and Rodrigues are separated almost exactly one-third of the way through the book (on page 62), and Garrpe is brought back on stage by the Japanese authorities at almost exactly the two-thirds mark (pages 128-35). During the middle third of the novel, Garrpe is almost forgotten. Shortly before Rodrigues is captured, he “quite suddenly” remembers Garrpe (65); later, Rodrigues recalls their early conversations about torture shortly before being taken to see Garrpe’s death (125). In the meantime, Rodrigues is first literally and then figuratively transported through a strange land, unable to read the signs and lacking Garrpe or any similar aid to his conscience. After Garrpe’s death, Rodrigues is at last introduced to the apostate Ferreira. The first third of the novel in which Garrpe and Rodrigues are together is thus mirrored by the final third, in which Garrpe is replaced by Ferreira. Setting aside for the moment the more complex weave that introduces the interpreter and Inoue as manipulating events to bring Rodrigues to this end, and the way Kichijiro destabilizes this tidy sequence, Garrpe’s role is worth examining in its own right.

Garrpe is continually associated with Rodrigues throughout the Prologue and the first four chapters (each of these chapters is notionally a letter from Rodrigues). The novel’s focus on Rodrigues, together with the point-of-view shift after chapter four, makes it easy to assimilate Garrpe’s role to that of Rodrigues. Such an assimilation is probably not a misreading; as we shall see, the novel’s conventions encourage readers to treat Garrpe, Kichijiro, the interpreter, and other fictional characters introduced into the historic setting as entirely relative to the unfolding story of Rodrigues. Garrpe and Kichijiro especially seem to play out Rodrigues’ psychomachia, serving as doppelgangers or alternative author surrogates to give highly subjective fiction a richer social and historical situation (Gessel “Voice” 199-201).

In the first pages of his narrative, Rodrigues is more likely to report Garrpe’s direct interaction with other characters than his own. Rodrigues may offer his point of view to the reader, but it appears to be Garrpe whose words drive the plot and reveal the characters. When Rodrigues, Marta, and Garrpe are delayed in Macao, Valignano “was finally moved by our pleading—especially by that of Garrpe” to send them on their way (15). In the team’s early interaction with Kichijiro, it is Garrpe who repeatedly calls Kichijiro to testify plainly about his identity. “Are you a Christian?” he asks the evasive Kichijiro during their first meeting, and follows up later in that conversation with “Well, anyhow, you are a Christian, aren’t you? … You are. Aren’t you?” (17) Kichijiro’s evasiveness in the face of this questioning is partly explained by Japanese risk-aversion, somewhat more by an alcoholic’s avoidance of responsibility, and perhaps even more by a perfectly understandable fear of the intense persecution of Japanese Christians that he describes to Garrpe and Rodrigues.

Garrpe’s repeated questions about Kichijiro’s Christianity reveals his interest in essential characteristics (like the ineffaceable sacramental character imparted at baptism) that mere choices or momentary denials cannot wholly efface. In the face of Kichijiro’s panicky denial of his Christianity, Garrpe reasons with Kichijiro on the basis of Japanese identity: “Anyhow, you want to get back to Japan” (17). When Kichijiro’s behavior does not match the ideas Garrpe and Rodrigues have formed of Christian and Japanese behavior, Garrpe again presses him with, “Are you really a Japanese? Honestly, are you?” (20) A while later, when Kichijiro’s fear of a storm at sea drives him to ejaculate “Santa Maria” repeatedly, Garrpe once again tries to ascertain his character: “‘I am asking a question,’ said Garrpe raising his voice. ‘Give me a clear answer. Are you, or are you not, a Christian?’” (25) In these interactions, both Garrpe and Rodrigues are shown to lack understanding of Japanese culture and of the deforming effects of persecution and privation on virtue, and to have somewhat facile understandings of the effects of grace. Nonetheless, a clear distinction between Garrpe and Rodrigues emerges. Rodrigues tends to be driven by his aesthetic response to situations and characters; he is the source of the reader’s vision of sunsets, storms, horizons, birds, and seasons, as well as the “pitiful coward” Kichijiro (24). Garrpe, on the other hand, comes into his own when Rodrigues reports on his pleas and questions, questions which attempt to plumb down to the essential character of things.

Garrpe’s role in driving the plot and pressing the characters to define themselves seems to have a theological dimension, as well. Garrpe’s confidence in a stereotyped description of Japanese people hints at this: Rodrigues says that Garrpe had “too credulously taken at face value the talk of so many missionaries” (20). In the passage immediately following, Rodrigues is at pains to reconcile himself to the idea of trusting Kichijiro, using the word “entrusted” repeatedly; the problem, which Garrpe has confronted head-on despite some potential for error in his “face value” judgments, is one of good faith versus bad faith. Rodrigues, with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory, seems to find fidelity slippery; Garrpe readily extends good faith and just as readily demands it from others.

This theological dimension of Garrpe’s role is part of a larger theme that unfolds throughout the work, beginning with the introduction of Garrpe and Marta with Rodrigues as a three-person team. “Francisco Garrpe” and “Juan de Santa Marta,” as they are first introduced (9), both seem distinct in character from Rodrigues. Rodrigues is forenamed “Sebastian,” after the saint who survived his martyrdom by arrows only to be clubbed to death when he criticized the persecuting Emperor Diocletian to his face; the name appears to foreshadow both his future ordeal and his hope of outliving that ordeal (which he does, albeit hardly as a martyr). Garrpe’s forename “Francisco” at the time of this story could only have referred to St. Francis of Assisi, whose seemingly naïve pursuit of Christ led him to challenge sultans and popes, and who readily abandoned secular pursuits but ended up founding three great religious orders. Garrpe’s forename (shared with the great Jesuit missionary to the East, St. Francis Xavier, whose canonization would have taken place while Garrpe, Marta, and Rodrigues were children) also hints at the difference between Rodrigues and Garrpe, as the Franciscans had been generally excluded from the Jesuit mission areas in Japan. Rodrigues, named for a martyr from the Praetorian Guard, suggests the Jesuit “Soldiers of Christ” in much the way that Garrpe suggests their sometime rivals, the Franciscans.

The name “Juan de Santa Marta” in turn, suggests both St. John, the Beloved Disciple, and St. Martha, the hard-working sister of Mary of Bethany and Lazarus. The Apostle John is the author of the Gospel in which he is repeatedly characterized as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 et passim); not only does he receive the Revelations recorded in the book of that name, but he writes three letters notable for their emphasis on Christian and divine love. In his First Epistle, St. John offers perhaps the most sweeping and dense exhortation to charity in the Scriptures: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). St. Martha, in turn, is one of the only individuals in the Gospels picked out for similar mention: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Martha’s confession of faith in Christ and hope of the Resurrection is one of the most ringing in all of Biblical history: she was the first to go out to seek Jesus when her brother Lazarus died, and the words of promise Jesus entrusted her with are still cited in every Christian burial rite (John 11:20-27).

The shape of Marta’s name may also suggest the name of St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz). John, a contemporary of Xavier’s, had been marginalized and even imprisoned in the confusion of rival religious orders and secular powers in 16th Century Spain. John’s profound attachment to the love of Christ granted him the detachment from all other things described in such works as The Dark Night of the Soul, saying of the soul that has suffered patiently that “its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner” ( CITE ). The probable allusion to St. John of the Cross in Marta’s name, as well as his being named for St. John and St. Martha, associates Marta with the theological virtue of charity.

This association of Marta with charity completes the triad suggested by the characterizations of Garrpe and Rodrigues. Garrpe’s easy good faith and his confidence that characters and essences are real, not merely nominal, similarly associates him with faith; Rodrigues is linked to hope by his aesthetic orientation and relentless attempts to appropriate the future. As any standard account of the theological virtues will suggest, charity is inseparable from faith and hope, while faith and hope cannot subsist without charity; in St. Paul’s words, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12-13). As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Charity is the root of faith and hope, in so far as it gives them the perfection of virtue. But faith and hope as such are the precursors of charity … and so charity is impossible without them” (Summa I-II.65.5 ad. 2). It is precisely this language of “precursors” and possibility that echoes in the scenes where Garrpe, Rodrigues, and Marta plead with Valignano for permission to complete their mission, and where Garrpe and Rodrigues take their leave of Marta.

Marta’s speech to Valignano on behalf of their mission invokes all three theological virtues, alluding directly to the compassion of Christ and suggesting that their obligation in charity is to promote faith and prevent despair. He says,

And yet our secret mission could with God’s help turn out successful … In that stricken land the Christians have lost their priests and are like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Some one must go to give them courage and to ensure that the tiny flame of faith does not die out. (14-15).

Marta here alludes to Matthew 9:36-38, in which Jesus “saw the crowds” and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”; His immediate response is to instruct His followers to ask God for more workers, because “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Marta’s echo of this charitable impulse leads him to express faith in “God’s help” and hope that “our secret mission … could turn out successful”; at the same time, he indicates that their obligation in charity is to stave off despair and unbelief in their “harassed and helpless” flock, serving to “give them courage” and see to it that “faith does not die out.”

Garrpe’s speech to Marta when Garrpe and Rodrigues finally gain Valignano’s permission to continue on their way to Japan firms up this thematic framework. Garrpe specifically describes himself and Rodrigues as precursors to Marta, saying “We go first…. We’ll prepare the way so that you can come afterwards when you get better” (19). Garrpe and Rodrigues are ventured forward into a situation where charity has been wounded, where charity is infirm and seemingly cannot survive the Pacific crossing. Historically and in the novel, this is a situation of persecution and apostasy, to be sure; but the novel also suggests that this is a situation in which the politics of East and West have become almost impossible to distinguish from the proclamation of the Gospel. This suggestion gains considerable strength from Endo’s role as a leading postwar Japanese writer (Gessel “Endo” 71, Pinnington 102, Netland “Who” 77-78).

Garrpe’s promise that he and Rodrigues will serve as precursors is an effort to keep faith with their original intention; but Rodrigues, as soon as he reports it, begins to question the future. “But can anyone predict what will happen?” he asks, then imagines a “safe and happy life” for Marta, and a bad end for himself and Garrpe (19). Noting that “Marta remained silent,” Rodrigues attempts to fill the silence with speculation. He indicates his own orientation toward future glory, toward acknowledged results, when he responds to Marta’s illness by thinking, “There is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.” Rodrigues has already begun to construe a future in which Marta’s illness is a final obstacle to his participation in their mission; by comparison, Garrpe keeps faith by speaking of possible futures only insofar as they characterize current intentions.

This tendency to separate hope from faith—this infirmity of charity—has significant consequences throughout the story. When Garrpe and Rodrigues set sail, Rodrigues has to admit that “I feel no inclination to write about Santa Marta,” who has not recovered from his illness (22). Rodrigues writes as though Marta were already dead, making his repetition of Garrpe’s assertion at the end of the letter rings hollow: “No doubt,” he says, “God is secretly preparing” Marta’s task. The pages since their parting from Marta, however, have been filled with little but expressions of doubt and alienation. The only reassurance that comes from within Rodrigues is his aesthetic appropriation of the image of Christ.

Imagining the future, Rodrigues consistently finds doubts and temptations to despair; his reassurances are counterfactual and hypothetical, afterthoughts marked by the “perhaps” of magical thinking rather than the promise of faith (19). When he fixates on his own imagination of the face of Jesus, Rodrigues sees “a face filled with vigor and strength. I feel great love for that face” (22). Rodrigues is not wrong when he says that the Scriptures are reticent about the Incarnate Son’s exact physical description, of course (“This point the Bible passes over in silence”). Few people living before the age of mechanically reproduced art considered eidetic reproduction of individual features a major concern of art; it is probably anachronistic even for Rodrigues to be considering the question of likeness versus iconic value in sacred art. Rodrigues has already conceded, though, that this “face” is of his own choosing. He chooses an image from his memory (Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection) and invests it with reality, not only in preference to the Bible’s “silence” on Jesus’ literal lineaments but also setting aside the substantial Biblical basis for iconic representations of Christ.

In taking this reticence as license to conjure his own image of Christ and fixate on that, however, Rodrigues runs sharply counter to the plain drift of multiple Scriptures that treat the Biblical and Eucharistic witness to Christ as the true memorial of the Incarnate Son and true precursor of a final, face-to-face encounter in perfect charity at the Resurrection (1 John 3:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:5-7; Rev. 22:1-5; 1 Cor. 13:12-13). It is perhaps especially important that one of the most prominent of these is the key text relating faith and hope to their summation in charity, cited above. His own, personal Jesus does not have the face of a Suffering Servant, like Isaiah’s prophecy of a face marred beyond recognition by torture (Isaiah 52:13-15); nor does Rodrigues see far enough to connect that sufferer to St. John’s face-to-face encounter with Christ exalted beyond description in Resurrection (Rev. 1:12-16). The iconic adjuncts to the true memorial of Christ in Word and Sacrament have their place, but Rodrigues silences the true memorial and erects his fantasy in its place. Rodrigues, thinking of the future, does not seem able to imagine it faithfully without relying on Garrpe’s words.

Garrpe’s drive to ascertain essences and characters does not, by itself, mend the infirmity he and Rodrigues suffer. As he and Rodrigues, lacking Marta, proceed into Japan (with the second interrogation of Kichijiro’s Christianity happening en route), Garrpe is if anything the more timid of the pair. Garrpe is the “last of all” to go ashore through the “icy cold water” (26). While he and Rodrigues wait on shore for Kichijiro, who has gone to fetch some Christian villagers, Garrpe is the one who suddenly exclaims that “He won’t come back!” and exclaims “tearfully” about the “weak-minded coward” who seems to have abandoned him. Even in this, however, the basic contrast between the two priests can be seen, for Rodrigues immediately follows this with his own speculations about “a more terrible fate,” casting Kichijiro as the traitor “Judas” in his fantasy. Garrpe does not have any basis for resisting this fantasy, but responds immediately by “quoting the Scriptures” that describe the “band of soldiers” Judas brought to Gethsemane. When the Christian villagers find them, it is Garrpe who immediately asks about the particulars of Christian practice: “But what happened during these six years? What about baptism and the sacraments?” (28) When the villagers explain the ingenious and dangerous system by which they had maintained what observances they could, it is Rodrigues who immediately imagines such practices continuing everywhere (29).

Garrpe’s fallibility and his realist orientation are both reinforced when Rodrigues suggests that they slip out of their shelter—a remote hut with a priest-hole in the floor—and sunbathe (36). As when Rodrigues suggested that Kichijiro had not merely run away, but had sought out soldiers to betray them, Garrpe has no specific reason to disagree. Their conditions are unquestionably bad, and they have not actually seen any clear and present danger, though they have strong reason to believe that real danger surrounds them at some unknown distance. In this extreme isolation from all others (Rodrigues “gazed greedily at the world of men” outside), and this utterly inescapable togetherness, the boundaries between Garrpe and Rodrigues break down. Their dangerously limited and mistaken understanding of their situation, their confidence in the goods of nature and the goodness of God, and their expectation of good outcomes overlap more completely than at any other time in the novel. The language of faith and hope merge, here, as well; it is Garrpe who speaks of “the future,” albeit with many qualifiers: “In the future we must sometimes at least allow ourselves the pleasure of a sunbath.” True to his tendency to trust appearances, Garrpe also exclaims that there is “Nothing to be afraid of!” Garrpe even indulges in a certain amount of fantasy with Rodrigues, although it is a fantasy concerning their shared past which comments wryly on their situation, rather than wishful thinking about the future.

Despite the dangerous errors in judgment both priests make, largely due to their extreme isolation and other distortions caused by persecution, it is during this initial period of ministry together that Garrpe and Rodrigues are most faithful to their calling and most reasonably hopeful of good results. Even so, it is consistently Garrpe who is most responsive to reality. Garrpe baptizes the infant brought to them from the village; Rodrigues, assisting, records his imaginations about the baby’s future, and his own subjective generalizations (38). When they are approached covertly by some Christians from another village, who had observed them while they were unwisely breaking cover for their walks and sunbathing, it is Garrpe who notices that “somebody is watching us” and who is most aware of their situation (37). When the strange villagers persist, it is Garrpe who is most realistic and most fearful, insisting that they stay under cover, even ordering Rodrigues to “Stop!” (39)

Rodrigues, by comparison, talks himself into opening the door to strangers by deciding which course of action best reflects his own self-image: “Grasping the wooden door with my hands I made as if to go out. Yes, I would go. Even if this were a trap, even if these men were the guards, it didn’t matter…. What a disgrace it would be to betray my vocation from cowardly fear.” Again, and especially at this phase of their ministry, there is relatively little question of which judgments are best; the priests are too isolated, and the data too thin, to reliably decide such matters. Garrpe’s fearfulness may well reflect a lack of confidence that their mission has any promise of success; but it certainly reflects reality rather than fantasy. The contrast between the two priests is underscored by the irony that Rodrigues has just been “awakened by the snoring of the optimistic Garrpe,” who he later describes as “good-natured in the face of the most terrible difficulties” (51).

Both realistic fear and fantasy-inspired courage suggest the infirmity of charity that characterizes the whole situation. Together, Garrpe and Rodrigues may balance each other’s infirmities; Rodrigues with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory may move Garrpe past his realistic fears, while Garrpe’s ready good faith and insistence on reality allow them to keep hold on the essential grounding that Rodrigues so readily abandons in his anxious fantasies. Thus it is important that Garrpe is the one who quickly grasps the essential dilemma the Japanese authorities have created for the priests and their people, realizing that the villagers will “all end up as hostages” as the systematic interrogation and persecution continue (51); and that Garrpe’s proposal involves keeping the priests together while safeguarding the people: “Rather than such a calamity it is better for the two of us to get away from this mountain altogether” (52). He suggests that they both go with Kichijiro to Goto Island.

What follows the next visit from the authorities, however, opens a breach between Garrpe and Rodrigues even before they are separated; in so doing, it foreshadows the path Rodrigues will travel when he no longer has Garrpe to lean on. The Christian villagers who have sheltered priests are trying to decide what to do, as they know that the systematic investigation will continue until they have all either trampled the fumie or been exposed as Christians (53-4). Sending Garrpe and Rodrigues away might protect them, but it would definitely remove the counsel and comfort the priests ought to be able to give, and the sacramental graces they have the authority to bestow. The faithful villagers are confronted with the seeming futility of their own faithfulness: “If we don’t trample, everyone in the village will be cross-examined.” Those less firm in their faith will be exposed to a trial they may not be able to bear; those who do not share their faith will be confirmed in their separation from Christ; all will suffer intensified fear, mutual suspicion, and mistreatment as the persecution continues.

The faithful villagers, confronted with such a powerful dilemma, specifically ask the priests, “What are we to do?” (54) They strive to be faithful, and have shown great resolve, but the best option on their horizon appears to lead to exactly what they seek to avoid; they need hope. They need reason to expect a good outcome, and an imaginative depiction of that outcome that will reassure them when appearances and speculation conjure fantasies of futility and despair. Rodrigues, with his orientation toward future glory and aesthetic judgments, is now being called on to do just what he should be most ready for. Garrpe has usually spoken up to now; and despite their fear and the infirmity of charity, both priests and villagers have been faithful. Here, however, where relying on Garrpe’s words will no longer do, Rodrigues falls critically short. Moved by “pity,” rather than more well-formed compassion or charity, Rodrigues abandons the ground of faith and speaks “without thinking.” His “pity” treats the faithful villagers as “unfortunate men” who cannot be expected to measure up to his fantasies about legendary martyrs; because their reality falls short of his fantasy, he feels he cannot even expect fidelity from them, let alone give them hope.

Rodrigues responds by saying, “Trample! Trample!” He tells his correspondent “I know you would never give” such advice, that it “should never have been on my lips.” Just as important, at that moment, “Garrpe looked at me reproachfully.” Garrpe’s silence seems to indicate that he, like Rodrigues, has reached the limit of his ability to articulate his faith in the horrible circumstances in which they find themselves; but Rodrigues does not stop at silence, but tries to bridge the gap to the future with speculation, rather than faith—and ends up offering counsel of despair. Garrpe’s silence and the bad counsel of Rodrigues open up the gap between the remaining priests which prefigures the unfolding of the rest of the plot. Marta’s infirmity leaves Garrpe and Rodrigues to serve as precursors, seeking to bring faith and hope where charity is so badly wounded. When Rodrigues abandons good faith to nourish his own fantasies, then what should be an aesthetic appropriation of the future promised by faith, true hope, becomes instead radically inauthentic and moribund.

This foreshadowing unfolds in the three major events which follow. First, Kichijiro asks a question familiar to all who have suffered injustice: “Why has Deus Sama given us this trial? We have done no wrong” (54). The question haunts Rodrigues (55), whose hope is too abstracted from observed reality and the specifics of Word and Sacrament to offset the weight of apparent wrong; he neither adverts to the blessings and promises given to those who suffer injustice (Matt. 5:11-12; 1 Peter 4:12-19) and martyrdom (Matt. 10:39-42; Rev. 2:10-11), nor considers that his own priestly acts are the very proclamation and memorial of Christ, as long as he faithfully carries out his vocation. It is in the wake of his own failure to remain silent when he could not speak in good faith, and in the middle of this noisy consideration of a question abstracted from all good-faith efforts to provide an answer, that Rodrigues first repeatedly notes what he calls “the silence of God,” complaining that “God has remained silent” as the villagers suffered (55).

Second, the leaders among the faithful villagers are in fact taken, interrogated, and eventually martyred (54-61). Kichijiro, whose questions express the doubts Rodrigues tries to suppress with his fantasies, readily apostatizes: “Following my advice, Kichijiro was the first to place his foot on the image” (55). The others also step on the fumie because the priest said to do so, but they are unable to blaspheme and spit on the Virgin’s image to prove that they have no mental reservation (55-6). Kichijiro completes his public apostasy, “overcome by the threats,” while the other leaders are similarly broken, but remain faithful and “at last confessed openly that they were Christians” (56-7). They are executed on crosses in the ocean, taking several days to die of exposure and dehydration, singing hymns all the while (57-60). Rodrigues, again, notes that their martyrdom does not measure up to his fantasies, the “splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams” (60); he complains that their martyrdom “was no such glorious thing.” His preference for visions of glory over the promises of faith turns the heroic fidelity of the martyrs, and the song that expresses their faith that “We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,” into “a melody filled with dark sadness” (61). His darkening of the song’s authentic expression of hope presages another passage in which Rodrigues obsessively considers “the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God.”

Third, after the martyrdom of the villagers, Garrpe and Rodrigues are parted, and Rodrigues at their parting wonders “why on earth do we remain in this country at all?” and “What had happened to our glorious dream?” The bad faith expressed in the answer Rodrigues gives, to apostatize in order to shield others from temporal suffering at the hands of secular authorities precedes his lack of an answer to Kichijiro’s question, his dark interpretation of the martyrdom of the faithful Japanese, and his own despairing speculations upon his separation from Rodrigues. These three events, in turn, are echoed in the scenes surrounding the martyrdom of Garrpe (128-35), the turning point from Rodrigues’s journey through the middle third of the novel toward his apostasy at its climax.

[…here kindly recall that this is an unfinished draft….]


Just Published: “Interpret Carefully” in Christ and Pop Culture

I suggest three fundamental approaches to finding the best possibilities in Silence. When I go to watch Scorsese’s movie, I’ll be hoping he chooses to emphasize elements such as these; I shall be elated if that happens and critical if it doesn’t. First, it is possible to read the very cryptic section that follows the end of the main plot as offering a definitive reinterpretation of the plot. When the story moves on past the self-justifications Rodrigues offers for his apostasy, and instead traces the bureaucratic records concerning the household where the new apostate has been set up, it is possible that we are meant to see that both Kichijiro and Rodrigues return to the faith. That is, though both of them break under pressure, they are subtly called back to the faith; their baptismal faith repeatedly subverts their apostasy, and triumphs over it when they are punished. To weigh this very heavily in our evaluation, though, we need some basis for disregarding pretty much every conclusion that Rodrigues draws from his experiences. Most importantly, we need a reason to believe that Rodrigues has returned, or returns periodically, to a faith that specifically repudiates his claim that Jesus personally called him to commit an act of apostasy.

(source: Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence – Christ and Pop Culture)

From the cutting-room floor: Why bother retrieving the nourishing from the toxic?

This is the second post that features portions deleted from “Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence,” just published in Christ and Pop Culture.

(Incidentally, here’s the first “cutting-room floor” post.)

This was an extra conclusion, not needed for the article’s internal logic, but connecting to an anecdote I included at the beginning (which, alas, didn’t make the cut, either).  You can see how these paragraphs, exciting though they were to compose, were good candidates for the “kill your darlings” treatment.


Here, then, the paragraphs attempting to vindicate the effort of sorting good from ill in Endo’s signature novel:

Why bother with such a reading?  Why bother to seek vindication for truth when it seems so futile, when the interpreter’s arguments begin to sound so plausible to us?  Here is where we consider Rogue One and the kakure kirishitan.  In Episode IV of Star Wars, the “new hope” spoken of in the title is the resumption of the Jedi line–of a discipline that guides its practitioners to right use of a talent invisibly implanted within them–after the destruction of all the Jedi by Darth Vader.  The genius of Rogue One, I argue, is in convincingly depicting the era when those who had heard of the Force, who were sensitive to it or were aligned with the benevolent goals of the Jedi, were scattered “like sheep without a shepherd.”  Rebel factions protested each other, fought and undermined each other; lone Force sensitives marched into dangerous situations full of devotion to what they remembered but untutored and without well-founded hope.  Goodness, hope, reverence do recur in such situations, and Rogue One bears compelling witness to the beauty and tragedy of those who achieve great things in such terrible times.

But finally, Rogue One describes a generation that lived and died without any well-founded hope that their desire to do good was anything but a futile refusal to acquiesce in evil.  Under those circumstances, we see people who want good things justify terrible acts; we see leaders of men fatalistically embrace death, families torn apart, whole lives lived in alienation from what is best in humanity.  It is beautiful, I suggest, when a voice tears through all that, determined to do at least one thing that is definitely good, and to reject futility; it is fitting that such a voice should become identified with the word “hope.”  But consider those Christian villagers, well portrayed in Silence, who were forced to find whatever ways they could to maintain a partially-taught Christian faith over not just a generation, but over centuries of official persecution and separation from the teaching office of the Church.  How could we not, like Jesus, be “moved to compassion” when we see them?  How can we not long for their descendants to know the fulness of the faith they lived and died desiring?  How can we not choose Garrpe’s way, and dive into the ocean, swimming as long as we can, to bolster their faith?


From the cutting-room floor: taking Endo’s theology seriously

I’ve been working on a popular article about Silence and, true to form, I wrote about twice as much as we could use.  I find I pretty much have to “write long, edit short” to get anything done (which is also why so few projects reach completion–that first step takes time, and half the material isn’t useful).  Anyway, if the final product ends up being useful (I have well-founded hopes that it will), I’ll be sure to announce it.

[Update:  Here it is!  “Interpret Carefully” at Christ and Pop Culture.]

Here, then, a couple “deleted scenes” paragraphs that I’m not sorry I wrote, and not sorry we cut, either:

I hope I don’t have to work very hard to convince readers…that it is patently ridiculous to take works like Silence or The Shack or The End of the Affair or Brideshead Revisited or Crime and Punishment or The Da Vinci Code as “mere fiction” that should not be evaluated on its theological content.  To take an obvious example, Dan Brown included a clear statement that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact in the front of his novel (it takes only reading both books to know those “facts” were ripped clumsily from the pages of Holy Blood, Holy Grail–so blatantly, in fact, that its authors, themselves no strangers to breathless hyping of easily-exposed hoaxes, unsuccessfully sued Brown for copyright infringement).  Graham Greene thought the struggles of malformed conscience and institutional fecklessness that he dramatized in stories like The End of the Affair were serious enough, in real life, to keep him out of communion with the Church he entered dramatically as an adult.  In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh specifically modelled elements of Sebastian Flyte’s life on the conversion story of Oscar Wilde.  It would be easy to multiply examples, but I trust the principle is clear.

More specifically, scholars and readers of Endo’s best-known novel have certainly not found that it is “mere fiction” without theological significance.  Scholars like Mark Williams, John Netland, Van Gessel, Darren Middleton, Mark Dennis, and many others have analyzed and evaluated Endo’s work not only for its compelling fictionalization of history but for the significance they see in Endo’s interaction with Christianity, traditional Japanese culture, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and a whole host of other issues.  Of course, some readers think that the theological significance of Silence lies in a repudiation of organized religion in favor of a wholly individualized practice of charity; others think it lies in a subtle depiction of fidelity under almost impossible conditions; still others see a substitution of a “motherly” Jesus for the traditional portrayal of the “Son of the Father.”  Some focus on the climactic scene of apparent apostasy, others on the epilogue, others on the “silence” invoked by Endo’s second choice of title.  Many regard it favorably as an important moment on Endo’s trek into radical pluralism, not least because it anticipates the views Endo would more ardently promote after he encountered the works of the man we might call his guru, John Hick; others deplore exactly this character of Endo’s work.  If we don’t choose to simply ignore the features of Silence that provoke all these comments, or to consider one characteristic (for example “pluralism” or a subjectivization of moral or religious judgment) as proper to “mere fiction” but unrelated to theology, then we will simply have to agree that our varying evaluations of the theological significance of the novel are essential to our grasp of its significance.

Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part Two)

Here’s the final part of that SWCCL paper from 2012:


What we may miss when reading Silence, and what may lead students astray when we teach it, is how sharply dependent certain elements of its portrayal of Christian truth are on Rodrigues’ own imaginings.  Of course, we must debate the “Trample!” instruction which, whether as command or permission, echoes Rodrigues’ own verbal or mental cries for those who are about to be martyred to apostasize instead (for the village martyrs, see 83; for Garrpe, see 204).  However, in more subtle ways the role of Kichijiro is colored by the fact that from the first Rodrigues has treated him with contempt and suspicion, and glosses over alternative possibilities for responding to him.  For example, Kichijiro offers Rodrigues some salted fish, and chews grass instead himself, when they are fleeing (113).  Rodrigues himself says that he “snatched greedily” and “ate ravenously,” yet when he begins to be thirsty, he accuses Kichijiro of giving him the salted fish to weaken him (116-7).  Kichijiro only comments that Rodrigues ate too much; Kichijiro also manages to secure Rodrigues some water, which Rodrigues also consumes “greedily and shamelessly” (118).  We have only Rodrigues’ literally fevered imaginings to help us decide whether Kichijiro used this as a stratagem, or whether Kichijiro offered Rodrigues all the food he had, and secured him water, while avoiding confrontation with Rodrigues over the latter’s poor manners.  Many similar examples are available, but for now let us move on to the Biblical portrait of Judas.

We can roughly find seven relevant elements in the portayals of Judas Iscariot in the Gospels and Acts; one of them will be especially worthy of exploration in this context.


1) all four Evangelists carefully identify Judas Iscariot well before the Passion narrative.

In lists of the Twelve, Matthew has “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him”; Mark has “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him”; and Luke has “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

In John 6:71, John explains one of Jesus’ predictions of His Passion as follows:  “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  And in John 12, we read that “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples” was “about to betray him.”


2) Judas manifests behaviors and attitudes indicative of unbelief well before the betrayal.

(see discussion of John 6 & 12; short version is just John 12)


3) Judas receives money in advance and begins plotting.

“Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver.  And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”  (Matthew 26:14-16)

see also Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-7; John 13:2


4) Judas is described as possessed by the devil (Luke 22 & John 13).


5) Judas definitely takes the initiative in arranging signals and revealing Jesus’ whereabouts.

(in addition to some of the texts above about Judas’ unbelief,) see Mark 14:43-52, which gives the most extensive account of Judas’s use of the kiss as a sign, his acting as a scout for the guards, etc.

also John 18:2-5; Luke 22:47-48


6) Judas is confronted with his treachery in advance, but continues.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:20-25)

also John 13:21-30.  Note that these texts make it quite impossible to take the “Jesus gave Judas permission to betray Him” theme seriously.


7) Judas is remorseful but impenitent.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.  They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.”  After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners.  For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”  (Matthew 27:1-10)


8) Judas is considered a deposed apostate by the Church and his office given to another.

The first act of the assembled Church after Christ’s Ascension is led by Peter, who speaks of “Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” as they seek a replacement twelfth Apostle, someone “chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  (Acts 1:12-26)


John’s remarks in chapters 6 and 12 of his Gospel are of special interest, as these two passages also typify the manner in which the reception or rejection of the Incarnate Word is portrayed throughout John’s writings.  Judas is characterized by what he does and does not receive of Jesus, and the nature of God’s self-revelation in Christ is characterized by the infamous treason that crowns the career of one whose acceptance of some of Jesus’ words masked a deeper rejection of the Person of the Son of God.

In John 6, there are actually two mentions of the betrayer embedded in a twofold interplay of belief and disbelief.  Speaking to the Jewish audience in a series of synagogue discussions following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus has just caused significant consternation by insisting that all and only those who are “taught by God” follow Jesus, and in fact insisting that following Jesus and having “heard and learned from the Father” are strictly identical for those faced with the presence of the Incarnate Word, the Christ “who is from God,” who is the only one who “has seen the Father” in the relevant sense.  When Jesus says “whoever believes has eternal life,” then, the saying is not received as a universal call to earnestness or sincerity or openness or wonder, but appears repugnant to the hearers.  Jesus warns them, “Do not complain among yourselves,” and John tells us that “The Jews then disputed among themselves.”  This first controversy takes place among the mostly Jewish audience comprising both followers of Jesus and His most passionate opponents, as well as many still unsure where they stand.

What Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors find so offensive, here, is the concrete historical form of truth that Jesus sets out for those who are “taught of God” and follow Him.  Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Eating the multiplied loaves and fishes, or debating the significance of Jesus’ teachings, or following a portion of divine revelation, is of limited value; those who “ate the manna in the wilderness” undoubtedly followed the Father’s teachings up to a point, but “they died.”  Only when the unique “bread of life” has been provided can the one “drawn by the Father” and “taught by God” come to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” so that Jesus can promise repeatedly, “I will raise that person up on the last day.”  The question “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” expresses the perplexity of those who have not yet come to terms with the fullness of the Incarnate Word, as well as the challenge of those who set themselves in opposition.

This perplexity, though, divides even those accepted among Jesus’ followers.  Even those identified as “disciples” up to this point are heard “complaining” that “This teaching is difficult” and asking “who can accept it?”  As He does frequently throughout His career, Jesus does not alleviate their perplexity, but exacerbates it, in order to expose unbelief and clarify belief.  Jesus’ words “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” work in at least three ways at once:  they argue a fortiori from the greater material difficulty of the Incarnation to the lesser difficulty of the Real Presence; they underscore the moral hazard of abstractly affirming the Incarnation while denying its concrete historical form; and they directly foreshadow Jesus’ later Ascension.  (In the unfolding of John’s Gospel, of course, this passage also closely echoes Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in chapter 3.)  Building on that multiplicity of sense, Jesus’ declaration that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” indicates that followers of Jesus must understand and order material realities according to their spiritual relations.  They must finally evaluate Jesus’ claims in the full light of revelation, rather than by the limited light of unaided natural reason.  This meaning is anchored when Jesus tells His followers that “among you there are some who do not believe” and John informs us that “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”

This portrait is rather different from the one in Silence; Jesus is quite clear on who will betray Him, and considers that person an unbeliever.  It is at precisely this point, when the betrayer has just been mentioned in association with the unbelievers still numbered among the disciples, that we hear that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” which leads Jesus to turn and directly ask the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  This question, of course, would be as close to the “permission” to apostasize as Judas would be likely to get.  What follows is one of Peter’s two famous confessions:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  However imperfectly, Peter and the faithful together recognized that the Incarnate Word had offered not just teaching but body and blood, and that this was their sole source of salvation.  Jesus’ reply, however, demands of them a further understanding than this temporal followership, though not less than that:  “Did I not choose you, the twelve?  Yet one of you is a devil.”  John specifically indicates that Jesus was speaking of Judas, “for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  Judas’s betrayal, then, was an indication of a deeper fault; an unbelief which persisted even under the guise of religious vocation, which must eventually betray itself by betraying Christ.  John’s arrangement of the account underscores the particularity of Judas’s unbelief:  Judas refused to accept the unity and unicity of Christ’s salvific message with His saving Person so concretely stated in Jesus’ teaching about His Body and Blood.

With this background in mind, the scene at Lazarus’ home in Bethany becomes much clearer.  In John 12, the account of Mary, sister of Martha, using expensive ointment to treat Jesus’ feet—an apparent waste to which Judas objected—is not left to stand alone.  In fact, the very next occurrence after this is Judas going to the Jewish leaders to conspire against Jesus.  This story is framed with pointed references to Lazarus as “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” and ends with the Jewish leaders expanding their plot to include Lazarus, because his resurrection led to a situation in which “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  In this environment, and against the backdrop of John 6, it is clear that whether Judas was actively interested in stealing money or wasn’t, his unbelief was the issue.  Judas treats Mary’s response to Jesus’ death and resurrection as indifferent, measuring it solely by secular measures.  He fails to consider that the ongoing responsibility of caring for the poor, as taught by Jesus, cannot eclipse the response to the Person of Jesus called for by the Incarnation itself, which is inseparable from the words by which the Incarnate Word teaches those who hear Him.

Mary’s act of devotion, by which she chooses to “cash out” her secular worth in terms explicitly responsive to the Person of Jesus, cannot be evaluated in merely secular terms without becoming the occasion of fresh unbelief.  John underscores this by introducing Judas, immediately before he speaks, as “the one who was about to betray [Jesus].”  And, indeed, it is as those who evaluate the resurrection of Lazarus in terms of its effects on their following begin to plot against Lazarus that Judas joins their plot against Jesus.

It is in precisely these respects that Rodrigues resembles Judas a great deal more than Kichijiro.  Kichijiro is a stumbling follower of Jesus, but like Peter or John Mark, he repents—and even, if we are to believe the appendix, becomes in his faltering way evangelically useful—after his many failures.  He seeks absolution and shows signs of real contrition, though his manifest weakness does make a struggle against sin, rather than freedom from sin, the reasonable pastoral goal.  Rodrigues, by comparison, comes not to understand Judas—and barely to understand Kichijiro—but to become Judas.  Rodrigues becomes a betrayer who, however remorseful, does not repent; indeed, he justifies himself over against the Church whose laws, like those of Peter in the days immediately following the Ascension, inform him clearly of his state.  Whatever of clarity or confusion we may find when we read Silence, we are at least well served if we see Rodrigues’ imaginations of Judas for the dangerous delusions they become to him.




Endo, Shusaku.  Silence.  Trans. William Johnston.  New York:  Taplinger, 1980.

Quotations from NRSV Bible.


Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part One)

As the Scorsese movie comes out, it’s interesting to see many fresh commentators return to ground I last started to work when a good friend opened a discussion that led us to planning a panel at the Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature together in 2012.  This is the paper I gave at that conference (I’m going to make more than one post of it).  I have notes for a larger article based on this, and plans for how this can fit into a book with my existing article, another I have planned on the character Garrpe, and some other points I think worth examining.

One result of the discussions I had with my friend and others after this conference was that I’m now quite a bit more open to the possibility that Silence depicts Rodrigues moving from bad faith to better faith; I still maintain that this requires our finding evidence that the narrative pushes Rodrigues away from the delusions and self-justifications that he wants to cling to all the way to the end of his last reported conversation with Inoue.  This is the territory I’d like to explore more once I’ve worked out these notes, assuming the discussion remains interesting that long.

Enjoy, critique, respond.  Please don’t hand-wave away the serious problems Endo makes his characters pose for living faith!  Whether you think Silence is ultimately a net benefit to faith or a net danger, you must decide having taken the full measure of those challenges.

Here, then, Part One of the article:

Summary Judgment:  Kichijiro’s Identification as Judas Tested Against Other Biblical Betrayers

Peter G. Epps, Oklahoma State University

From shockingly early in their acquaintance, Endo’s priestly protagonist Rodrigues reads Kichijiro as a potential and actual Judas.  Unlike the Judas described by the Evangelists, however, Kichijiro displays real penitence; he is therefore very far from the embodiment of despair that the suicidal Judas was to become.  It is, in fact, Rodrigues who appears to take counsel of despair, like his former mentor Ferreira; and it is Rodrigues whose accusations and inability to forgive most resemble the Judas role he attributes to Kichijiro.

In order to evaluate which of Rodrigues and Kichijiro most resembles Judas Iscariot, though, we need a clearer picture of Judas and the ways in which each character comes to be comparable to him.  Let us begin by assembling the portrait of Judas in the text of Silence, a portrait that resembles Rodrigues at least as much as Kichijiro

Several key scenes paint this portrait.  There is a hint, though not very explicit, in Rodrigues’ comments about Kichijiro when he and Garrpe are preparing to leave for Japan (33).  Rodrigues claims to be moved to laughter by the notion that “I have entrusted my future to a fellow like Kichijiro,” reflecting that “Our Lord himself entrusted his destiny to unworthy people.”  That Rodrigues can recognize Kichijiro as “unworthy” simply by noting Kichijiro’s alcoholism and lack of physical courage foreshadows the development of both characters, but it also suggests what will become a major theme of Silence:  the betrayer’s intrinsic weakness.

A much more significant mention of Judas comes right when Rodrigues and Garrpe reach Japan.  Kichijiro, whom they have engaged as their guide, immediately runs off to scout out the area, as they are not even sure they have landed in the right country (41).  Garrpe leaps to the conclusion that Kichijiro has just fled, but Rodrigues says, “I was thinking of a more terrible fate.  He had not fled. Like Judas he had gone to betray us.  Soon he would appear again, and with him would be the guards” (42).  Both of the priests are far gone in imagining themselves betrayed when Kichijiro returns with some Christians from a nearby village.  The portrait of Judas in Silence, then is not only of a weak betrayer, but of one who actively arranges the capture of a passive and trusting victim.

Of course, some of the difficulty in drawing any conclusions from Silence derives from its extremely subjective I-novel conventions.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Rodrigues’ description of his capture and the events leading up to it.  Rodrigues keeps trying to outpace Kichijiro, who begs him to slow down, telling him that “the magistrate says that the man who finds a father will get three hundred pieces of silver” (112).  Rodrigues then says his “first words to Kichijiro,” accompanied by a “bitter laugh”; he says, “So my price is three hundred pieces of silver” while inwardly noting the that “Judas had sold Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver; I was worth ten times as much.”  While the passage tells us more about Rodrigues’ spiritual exhaustion and fearfulness than about Judas, it does suggest that pecuniary advantage—or perhaps just a weakness for money, or for addictive consumables like alcohol—was the motive behind Judas’ betrayal.

These three elements—the intrinsic weakness of the betrayer, his active betrayal of a passive victim, and his specifically economic motives—are all overshadowed by the portrait that emerges from the two most central reflections on Judas in the plot of Silence.  In a reverie on Christ’s last words to Judas, Rodrigues admits that he has never been satisfied with the explanations offered for Christ’s instructions to “do quickly” what Judas was “going to do” (115).  Rodrigues struggles to imagine the tone of that instruction, and what that would tell him about Judas.  “If it was anger, then at this instant Christ excluded from salvation this man alone of all the men in the world,” he reflects, before rapidly drawing a series of unorthodox conclusions from his imaginary scenario:  “It could not be so.  Christ wanted to save even Judas.  If not, he would never have made him one of his disciples.”  From this conclusion that Judas was not the subject of Christ’s anger, and that Judas’ being among the disciples implied Christ’s belief that Judas could be salvaged, Rodrigues proceeds to wonder, “Why did Christ not stop him when he began to slip from the path of righteousness?”  Having gone thus far, Rodrigues proceeds to recapitulate a Gnostic interpretation of Judas’s relationship to Jesus:  “I have the feeling that Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ.”  This necessitarian view of Judas’ acts is not only incoherent with regard to Rodrigues’ prior speculation that “Christ wanted to save even Judas,” but introduces an element of fatalism which impugns Divine Providence, treating God as either impotent or callous.  In any case, the portrait of Judas now receives several touches:  in addition to being intrinsically weak, though active in betraying a passive victim, and motivated by money, Judas is now to be seen as someone Jesus thought he could save, but who was not rescued because his actions were fatalistically necessary.

The incoherence in Rodrigues’ speculations at this point is addressed by the gradual breaking of Rodrigues described in the rest of the novel (his capture takes place just past halfway through the book).  When confronted in the denouement by Kichijiro, who again begs to confess and receive absolution for his sins, Rodrigues revisists his last reverie on Jesus’ words to Judas (285).  This time, Rodrigues casts himself as Judas, while speaking to that imaginary inward voice of Jesus which has replaced the imaginary inward face of Jesus that Rodrigues idolizes.  Rodrigues, trying to decide how to respond to Kichijiro’s betrayal and apostasy now that Rodrigues has become an apostate and betrayed his coreligionists as well as the faith entrusted to him, says to his personal Jesus, “You told Judas to go away.”  The voice in his head then answers that he intended no such thing, but that “just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do.  For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”  Not only does this tend to suggest that Rodrigues has realized that he is a closer fit to Judas than to Jesus in the scenario, but it confirms the portrayal of Judas as fated to betray Jesus—so much so that Jesus is now represented as complicit in this betrayal.  (Those familiar with the Gospel of Judas described by Irenaeus and periodically rediscovered by Gnostic sympathizers will recognize elements of this depiction.)  It also curiously conflates the anguish Rodrigues feels after committing apostasy and sacrilege, giving scandal to the faithful, and becoming complicit in their persecution, with an anguish Judas felt before actually betraying Jesus; the suggestion is that Judas was torn between his desires and his fate, and in choosing his fated betrayal did so with Jesus’ permission.

The picture which we form of Judas from Silence, and it must be said principally from Rodrigues’ own reflections and imaginings, is thus one of an intrinsically weak person, who nonetheless actively betrays a passive victim, doing it for money; this betrayer is someone Jesus saw as salvageable, but whose betrayal was fatalistically necessary, so that he was torn between fate and desire, with Jesus resolving this by permitting the betrayal.  And as it is a major theme of Silence to portray Rodrigues’ own transformation into an apostate and betrayer of others, it is perhaps no great accomplishment to assert that Rodrigues fits this portrayal very well.  Before moving on, though, it is well to note that Kichijiro does not always fit this portrait so well as Rodrigues thinks.

[Continue to Part Two]

Outcomes or Objectives, or whatever you call them this week

When I hope I’m in a stable teaching situation where I can actually make things fairly clear to my students and expect support from my administration, I really do like to work things out fairly completely for them.  Here’s an example from a past phase of my Rhet/Comp instruction.  Specifically, this was developed out of my Belhaven College experience (especially during the time I was trying to revise the Rhet/Comp approach to integrate remediation before the first Comp course, so as to avoid the race-to-the-bottom problem in Comp, and interviewing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s College of the Liberal Arts and Houston’s College of Biblical Studies at the same time) and with an eye to establishing a uniform structure across my Belhaven and CBS teaching, with an eye to some Houston Baptist U work.

I’m increasingly uncertain those detailed rubrics work very well for grading, but they’re pretty decent for explaining the norms:















Beowulf Translation Notes

When I presented on the comparative translations project in our Old English class (the second one), these were my notes on the project:

Beowulf Translation Project
OE Literature—Denton

Beowulf 2152-89: Comparative Translations

Problem Spots

2156: initially wanted “certain words,” but it’s singular
“by a particular word”? seems awkward

  • Waterhouse: Gave me; and in particular he bade
  • Chickering: wise and generous; he asked especially
  • Lehmann: the keen commander then requested me
  • Garnett: The crafty chief, bade with some words
  • Heaney: he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account

2157: “that I tell you first about his gift”
“est” = the gift? or the process by which it comes to be given? (cf. Jack)

  • Waterhouse: That first I tell thee of its history.
  • Chickering: that I first tell you the history of his gift. (both ways)
  • Kennedy: Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
  • Lehmann: to tell you truly of his treasured gifts.
  • Garnett: That I of its origin first should thee tell,
  • Heaney: of why it signifies his special favour.

2164: “occupied” or “followed” + “track, way, path” = ?
“occupied the aisle” (i.e., the path down the center of hall?)
“followed closely” (idiomatic—“kept in the tracks”)

  • Waterhouse: I heard that four swift horses followed close
  • Chickering: exactly matching, followed that treasure,
  • Kennedy: As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
  • Lehmann: matched dabbled bays remained with the trappings.
  • Garnett: Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,

2168: “cræfte” cognate craft, skill; but at 2181 seems clearly “strength”
“secret craft” vs. “hidden strength”

  • Waterhouse: “secret guile”
  • Chickering: “of evil in secret” (merges with “inwit-net” from 2167)
  • Kennedy: “weaving in secret the wiles of malice” (merges 2167)
  • Lehmann: “secret skill”
  • Garnett: “secret craft”
  • Heaney: “planning in secret” (free association based on 2167-8)

Specific Points of Interest in Translation

2179: druncne—who’s drunken, and what’s the narratorial POV?

Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
[a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,


Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce


Thus did Ecgtheow’s son exemplify honor,
known for battles and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly, harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades. His was no cruel heart:


So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.

2174: Wealðeo or Hygd—who’s the prince’s daughter?

I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s daughter, along with three horses

Compare Chickering, who omits the detail altogether:

I also have heard that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace, that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring, and three sleek horses

or Lehmann, who attempts to maintain the OE verse ambiguity:

I heard he tendered the torque, the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd, given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter, with a present of steeds,

2158: Hiorogar cyning—untangling syntax

cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga, lange hwile.
No ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breost-gewædu. Bruc ealles well!

[he] says that king Heorogar had it,
chief of the Scyldings, a long time;
yet to his son [he] would not give–
to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
the chest-piece. Use it all well!

Compare Garnett, who reads “breost-gewædu” as an epithet:

Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!

2183: Hean wæs lange—syntax
(I can’t make good MnE syntax out of this without inverting 2185-6)

2183 Hean wæs lange
2184 swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
2185 ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
2186 drihten We[d]e[r]a gedon wolde;

2183 the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184 as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85) the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185 him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;

Evaluation of Other Translations

Chickering: “disappearing daughter” (2174) good example of gaps in translation with no real poetic gains from attempt to replicate verse structure. Why do half-lines if they have no clear relation to the original half-lines, and no real internal music?

Heaney—idiosyncratic vocabulary (e.g. “gorget” translating “heals-beah” at 2172), lineated prose. What is so poetic about his use of language? How would it be different if it was printed as below?

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. He had been poorly regarded for a long time, was taken by the Geats for less than he was worth: and their lord too had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.

Garnett—quite literal, seems to try to reproduce lines (as I have) and even, where possible, word-order. Metrically sound: balanced isochronic lines with even stress and much alliteration (though alliteration is not necessarily metrically significant). Does occasionally leave some very awkward syntax (e.g. 2175).

Lehmann—like Chickering, attempt to mimic verse shape leaves words scrambled. Generally closer to text than Chickering, though. Similar idiosyncratic vocabulary to Heaney (“claymore”), clumsy alliteration.

Kennedy—rollicking, rather loose, “alliterative” only loosely (not metrically).

Waterhouse—blank verse changes the poetic idiom, but reads well in MnE.

Translating Metrics—Discussion

Iambic vs. Strong-Stress Meter in MnE (Halpern): Halpern argues, “of the four ‘syllable-stress’ meters in English—iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic—only the iambic has devloped in a direction radically different from the native accentual tradition [i.e., Anglo-Saxon verse]; that the other three, as characteristically used in English poetry, are simply variants of the strong-stress mode.” If this is so, then iambic poetry is essentially different in its relationship to the natural speech patterns of English from all other types of verse. This means that blank verse translations such as Waterhouse’s, and even the iambic elements of the verse William Morris invented for translating Germanic and Norse poetry, will have a very different character from other sorts of metrical translations.

Signifying Function of Speech-Sound Pattern (Wimsatt): Wimsatt argues, applying an idea from C. S. Pierce to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “[for Hopkins] the origin of the nascent poem is in a prepossession of feeling that becomes embodied as inscape of spoken sound, not spoken words. The phonetic pattern of the realized poem provides an objective correlative to the prepossession. Comparably to pitched music, then, its verbal music conveys an originary emotional significance that is over and above its grammatical, historical, and logical meaning.” In other words, the sound-patterns formed by speech are themselves signifiers in a manner independent of the discursive content of the speech.

It follows, then, that to the extent a poem’s speech-pattern is altered by translation, the poem’s meaning is changed. Faithful translations of OE poetry should adapt to MnE as faithfully as possible not only the semantic and, where, possible, syntactic relations of the words and phrases, but also the aural cues, phrasing, and ordering by which the poem signifies non-discursively.

Iambic translations, rhyming translations, and free-verse translations are less capable than strong-stress, non-syllable counting, metrically alliterative translations of re(as)sembling the full significance of the poem’s OE form; while any approach to the text will be limited by the irreducible differences between OE and MnE, reproducing more features of the original will result in a closer approach to meaning. This is, in large part, my reason for preferring the closest cognate that does not do violence to the semantic relations within the poem.

Repeated Words: In attempting to reproduce as faithfully as possible all features of the text, the translator will also wish, where possible, to recognize patterns existing within the text other than the dominant metric pattern. Within this passage, I identified a number of possibly significant repeated words; in most cases (for instance, “hold,” translated “loyal”) they were already translated with the same word. In cases where they weren’t I attempted to find a reading that preserved the repetition:

2168 dyrnum cræfte, deað ren[ian]
2181 ac he man-cynnes mæste cræfte,

2168 with hidden strength to prepare death
2181 but the greatest strength among mankind,

Compare, for instance, Lehmann:

of evil in secret, prepare the death
that God had given him, the greatest strength

or even Waterhouse:

With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength

Beowulf Translations

So, this is fun.  I took two semesters of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; the difference is whether it’s spoken in England or on the Continent, roughly), and in the second one we got to do a comparative translations project, analyzing multiple translations in light of our own.

Oh, maybe you’re reading this and wondering why we have to translate English?  Basically, the Modern English that you and Shakespeare speak is what happened to the Middle English that developed when the French-speaking Vikings (the Normans) eventually decided their children should learn the language of the people they had been ruling since 1066.  Yes, English had pretty much ceased to be a written language for a century and a half or so when French-speaking folk started to speak English with their English-speaking subjects, and the result by the time Chaucer wrote (middle 13th Century) was what we call Middle English:  English mechanical words, basic syntax, and verb forms, but about half the vocabulary straight from the French.

Anyway, to help you out, here’s the original at RPO with interlinear translation.

And here’s my direct translation, followed by my poetic translation and the same passage from several other translations.  At some point in the future, I’ll put up the notes I had comparing these, too.

2152            [He] commanded then that the boar’s-head-sigil be carried in,
2153            the helm towering in battle, the gray byrnie,
2154            the splendid war-sword, following the speech [he] uttered:
2155            “Hrothgar gave me this battle-suit,
2156            the wise king; by a particular word [he] commanded
2157            that I tell you first about his gift;
2158            [he] says that king Heorogar had it,
2159            man of the Scyldings, a long time;
2160            yet to his son [he] would not give–
2161            to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
2162            the chest-piece. Use it all well!”
2163            I have heard that with those adornments four horses,
2164            swift [and] similar, followed closely,
2165            apple-dark ones. He bestowed his gifts,
2166            horses and treasures–thus should a kinsman give,
2167            not at all weave a deceit-net for another,
2168            by hidden strength to prepare death
2169            for a close companion. To Hygelac was
2170            [his] nephew very loyal, [loyal] to the one hard in battle;
2171            and either [was] mindful of the other’s good.
2172            I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
2173            splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
2174            the prince’s daughter, along with three horses
2175            graceful and bright-saddled. Ever after [ ],
2176 (75)      following the ring-giving, [her] breast was adorned.
2177            Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
2178            a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
2179            [a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
2180            hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,
2181            but the greatest strength among mankind,
2182            the liberal gift that God gave him,
2183            the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184            as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85)      the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185            him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;
2187            Mostly, [they] thought that [Beowulf] was sluggish,
2188            a feeble prince. Change had come
2189            to the glorious man from each of [his] afflictions.

Epps (accentual verse)

He called then to bear in the boar-headed sigil
with the helm tall in battle, the mail-shirt of gray,
and the war-sword most splendid, as he said the word:
“It was Hrothgar who gave me this warfaring outfit;
the wise king gave orders that I say these words,
to tell you about what he gives you today:
He says that the king had it, Heorogar,
that man of the Scyldings, a very long while;
and despite all he would not give to his own son—
to bold Heoroward, be he never so true
—even the chest piece. Enjoy it all well!”
And then I have heard, with those beauties, four horses
All swift and well-matched, filled the floor of the hall,
four apple-dark roans. He gave all his gifts,
the horses and treasures—so all kinsmen should give,
not at all to weave snares of deceit for another
by practice in secret, devising the death
of a close-knit companion. To Hygelac was
his nephew most loyal, to the one hard in battle,
and either was mindful of each other’s good.
And then I have heard that he gave Hygd the neck-ring,
that grand gem of wonders Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s own daughter, along with three horses,
bright-saddled and graceful. And from that day forward,
Because of that ring-gift, her breast was adorned.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed that he was a brave one,
Familiar with battle and also good deeds,
one who worked for his glory, no drunkard who slew
the friends of his hearth; no, his heart was not savage [. . .]

Mary E. Waterhouse

He bade them bring the boar-wrought banner in,
The helm that towers in fight, the corselet gray
And splendid battle blade, then made this speech:
This battle-garment Hrothgar, the wise prince,
Gave me; and in particular he bade
That first I tell thee of its history.
He said Heorogar, the king and chief
Of the Scyldings, long possessed it; none the less
He did not wish to give the coat of mail
Unto his son, the valiant Heoroward,
Dear though he was to him. Enjoy it all well!”
I heard that four swift horses followed close
Upon the war equipment, dapple gray
And all alike; he did his liege lord honour
With steeds and gifts. So should a kinsman do,
Not spread a net of malice for his kindred
With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
For his companions. To Hygelac, the brave
In battle, was his nephew very dear
And each was mindful of the other’s good.
I heard that he bestowed on Hygd the necklace,
The rare, wrought ornament which Wealhtheow,
The prince’s daughter, gave him, with three steeds,
Graceful and gaily saddled; ever after
That jewel-giving was her breast adorned.
Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength
Of all mankind possessed, the generous gift
God granted him. He had been long despised,
For Wedermen did not account him brave,
Nor would the ruler of the Geats regard him
As worthy of much honour on the mead-bench;
They rather deemed the prince was indolent
And full of sloth. Compensation came
To the illustrious man for every trial.


He ordered brought in      the boar’s-head standard,
high-crowned helmet,      great iron shirt,
ornamented war-sword,      then said this speech:
“All this battle-gear      Hrothgar gave me,
wise and generous;      he asked especially
that I first tell you      the history of his gift.
He said King Heorogar,      the Scylding’s leader,
had owned it long.      No sooner for that
did he make it a gift      to brave Heoroward,
the iron chest-guard      for his own son,
loyal though he was.      Enjoy it all well!”
Then, as I’ve heard,      four swift horses,
exactly matching,      followed that treasure,
apple-dark steeds.      With good heart he gave
both treasure and horses.      So ought a kinsman
always act,      never weave nets
of evil in secret,      prepare the death
of close companions.      With war-bold Hygelac
his nephew kept faith,      his man ever loyal,
and each always worked      for the other’s welfare.
I also have heard      that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace,      that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring,      and three sleek horses
under golden saddles.      After that gift-giving
the shining necklace      adorned her breast.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son      had shown great courage,
famous in battles,      renowned for good deeds,
walked in glory;      by no means killed
comrades in drink;      had no savage mind:
brave and battle-ready,      he guarded the gift
that God had given him,      the greatest strength
that man ever had.      Yet his youth had been miserable,
when he long seemed sluggish      to the Geatish court;
they thought him no good;      he got little honor,
no gifts on the mead-bench      from the lord of the Weders.
They all were convinced      he was slow, or lazy,
a coward of a noble.      A change came to him,
shining in victory,      worth all those cares.

Charles W. Kennedy

Then he bade men bring the boar-crested headpiece,
The towering helmet, and steel-gray sark,
The splendid war-sword, and spoke this word:
‘The good king Hrothgar gave me this gift,
This battle-armor, and first to you
Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
He said King Heorogar, lord of the Scyldings,
Long had worn it, but had no wish
To leave the mail to his manful son,
The dauntless Heoroweard, dear though he was!
Well may you wear it! Have joy of it all.’
As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
With four bay horses, matched and swift,
Graciously granting possession of both,
The steeds and the wealth. ‘Tis the way of a kinsman,
Not weaving in secret the wiles of malice
Nor plotting the fall of a faithful friend.
To his kinsman Hygelac, hardy in war,
The heart of the nephew was trusty and true;
Dear to each was the other’s good!
To Hygd, as I’ve heard, he presented three horses
Gaily saddled, slender and sleek,
And the gleaming necklace Wealhtheow gave,
A peerless gift from a prince’s daughter.
With the gracious guerdon, the goodly jewel,
Her breast thereafter was well bedecked.
So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.
But the bountiful gifts which the Lord God gave him
He held with a power supreme among men.
He had long been scorned, when the sons of the Geats
Accounted him worthless; the Weder lord
Held him not high among heroes in hall.
Laggard they deemed him, slothful and slack.
But time brought solace for all ills!

Ruth P. M. Lehmann

Then he had brought inside      the boar’s head standard,
the high helmet for war,      hauberk of gray,
costly claymore,      and recounted his tale:
“This rich war-gear      Hrothgar gave me;
the keen commander      then requested me
to tell you truly      of his treasured gifts.
He said it had been carried      by King Heregar,
lord of Scyldings;      long he had owned it,
but he was loathe to leave      that linked corslet
to his own offspring,      able Hereward,
though a loyal son.      Luck attend it!”
I heard that four horses,      in fleetness alike,
matched dabbled bays      remained with the trappings.
Steeds and riches      he bestowed on the king.
So ought kin to do,      not kindle malice
by secret skill,      nor send to death
his close comrades.      He had kept the faith
with Hygelac his prince,      hardy in battle;
each with a careful regard      for his kin’s welfare:
So should a sister’s son      who sought his uncle.
I heard he tendered the torque,      the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd,      given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter,      with a present of steeds,
high-stepping horses      with handsome saddles.
Then was her breast adorned      the better with the necklace.
Thus did Ecgtheow’s son      exemplify honor,
known for battles      and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly,      harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades.      His was no cruel heart:
a fearless fighter,      he kept in full the gift
that God had granted,      the greatest vigor
man could be given.      Many despised him;
young Geats thought him      a youth unready
nor would the chief choose him      for choice bounty
in the feasting hall.      Him they firmly believed
a passive prince,      unpromising,
a slothful soldier.      But a sudden change
from former affliction      came to that famous man.

James M. Garnett

He bade then bring in the boar’s-head-sign,
The battle-high helmet, the hoary burnie,
The war sword ornate, his word then uttered:
“This cuirass to me Hrothgar then gave,
The crafty chief, bade with some words
That I of its origin first should thee tell,
Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!”
I heard that to the armor four horses too,
Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,
Yellow as apples: he to him gave possession
Of horses and jewels. So shall a friend do,
Not at all cunning snares weave for another,
With secret craft death for him prepare,
His hand-companion. To Hygelac was,
In battle brave, his nephew devoted.
And each to the other mindful of kindness.
I heard that the necklace he to Hygd gave,
The curious treasure which Wealhtheow gave him,
The prince’s daughter, three horses likewise,
Slender and saddle-bright: to her after was,
After the ring-giving, the breast adorned.
So bravely bore him Ecgtheow’s son,
The man famed in wars, by his good deeds,
He did after right, not at all slew the drunken
Hearth-companions: his mind was not cruel,
But he of mankind with greatest power,
The mighty gift, which God him gave,
The warlike one kept. Long he was despised,
As him the Geats’ children did not reckon good,
Nor him at the mead-bench as worthy of much
The lord of the people would then esteem;
They weened very strongly that he was slothful,
An unwarlike prince; a change after came
To the glory-blessed man of each of his sorrows.

Seamus Heaney

2152      Then he ordered the boar-framed standard to be brought,
the battle-topping helmet, the mail-shirt grey as hoar-frost
and the precious war-sword; and proceeded with his speech.
“When Hrothgar presented this war-gear to me
he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account
of why it signifies his special favour.
He said it had belonged to his older brother,
King Heorogar, who had long kept it,
2160      but that Heorogar had never bequeathed it
to his son Heoroweard, that worthy scion,
loyal as he was.
Enjoy it well.”
I heard four horses were handed over next.
Beowulf bestowed four bay steeds
to go with the armour, swift gallopers,
all alike. So ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades. The warrior king
2170      was uncle to Beowulf and honoured by his nephew:
each was concerned for the other’s good.

I heard he presented Hygd with a gorget,
the priceless torque that the prince’s daughter,
Wealtheow, had given him; and three horses,
supple creatures, brilliantly saddled.
The bright necklace would be luminous on Hygd’s breast.

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
2180      a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.


Even Close Reading is Vanity, Perhaps

Update:  I should point out that this piece, like my article on Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” is an example of an early version of my Religion & Literature specialization.  At this point, I consistently described my major research interest as “Biblical backgrounds to English literature,” and it’s still an important element in my approach to scholarship.

And here’s a brief close reading of a poem put together for the Metaphysical Poetry and Prose seminar I took with Dr. Robert Ray, who literally wrote the book on Donne and Herbert.  Not much preface required, except to warn you that the conclusion is a bit dull, to be honest:

All is “Vanitie,” Saith the Poet

Like most of The Temple, George Herbert’s “Vanitie” (1) contains a knife-edge balance of Biblical context, personal reflection and public statement, reinforced by careful word choice and using both thematic and aural shifts of tone. Whether by deliberate allusion or incidental similarity of thought, Herbert’s deeply Christian language sends the attuned reader scurrying through the pages of his Bible (or, in this age of marvels, a search engine) for the passage that just eludes the memory. In line 5, for instance, Herbert uses a commercial image to represent the thoughts of the “fleet Astronomer” about the “spheres” he “surveys” so that he “knoweth long before” others what they will do. This image of a planned commercial venture resonates with James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go . . . and make a profit’ . . . you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . you boast in your arrogance.” The similarity of image reinforces the argument against pride that will appear in the following stanzas, and occurs in the only clearly ironic phrase of the stanza.

Another important cluster of Biblical allusions occurs in the last stanza, where God is depicted as putting the law “in us” (cf. Romans 2:14-15 “Law written in their hearts”); “mellowing the ground / With showres and frosts” (cf. Matthew 5:44-45 “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”; Psalm 147 on “frost”; and passim, especially the Matthew 13 parable of the soils, on the human heart as “ground”). The weight of all these (and more) come to bear on the single word “death” (see Proverbs 14:12 “its end is . . . death”) followed by a pregnant caesura (one can almost hear a sob in the space after the comma) and the phrase “but missest life at hand.” The idea that the secret of life is immediately available, “at hand,” invokes a Biblical passage that ties together much of the poem: Deuteronomy 30:11-15 (which is quoted in Romans 10:9-10). In the passage, God speaks to the people through Moses, saying,

this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.

The passage lies closely parallel to the entire poem, particularly the last stanza, in its concepts and even in its images—the word is not “out of reach” (i.e., it is “at hand”) but “in your heart” (i.e., “embosome[d] in us”), it is not “in heaven” or “beyond the sea” (i.e., no “Astronomer” or “Diver” is required). It is a choice of “life . . . and death” in which “man [has] sought out and found” “death, but missest life at hand.”

The public statement in “Vanitie” is among the sharpest in The Temple, especially when it is understood that Herbert’s imagery represents a critique not only of those seekers of secrets the “fleet Astronomer,” “nimble Diver” and “subtil Chymick,” but also of the thoughtless pride of the rest of humanity. This broader critique is carried out in three stages, with a crux in the second stanza. The first stage is so simple as to be easily missed. In line 6, the “Astronomer” is said to know the “aspects, and . . . glances” of the spheres “long before.” “Before,” however, is a preposition demanding an object—and loudly demanding it, for it is left hanging at the end of a short line with a comma to emphasize the resounding silence that follows the word. The stanza is logically and grammatically incomplete, and leaves the reader with the question, “before what?”—a question never fully answered in the first stanza.[ The closest possibility to a first-stanza solution would be “dances,” treating the action content of this noun as if it were verbal (i.e., “knoweth long before [they dance]”). This, however, seems a bit of a stretch; and the reiteration of “before” in line 20, with a completion logically related to the content of lines 5-7, seems a much stronger thematic link.]

This gap is widened in the second stanza, where we find not only the “nimble Diver” and “God” but also an unnamed lady who “wears” the “dearly-earned pearl” which is “her own destruction and [the Diver’s] danger.” The appearance of this extra person begins to hint at a fulfillment of the “before” question of the stanza; there are more people in the poem than the seekers of secrets. The others are represented by the lady just as the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” are represented by the “Diver” in the second stanza’s complex conceit. The interpretive crux of the poem is thus reached in line 14, when it becomes clear that the lady is at least as much the object of criticism as the secret-seekers: for the secret wrested out by the “Diver” is not only “danger” to him but “destruction” to her, a “destruction” she “wears” “with excessive pride.”

It is unsurprising, then, to find the completion of the “before” of the first stanza in the end of the third stanza’s climactic trope. “The subtil Chymick” is to the microcosmic universe what “the fleet Astronomer” is to the macroscomic; both are represented by “the nimble “Diver” of the second stanza. The missing object in the first stanza, represented by the lady in the second, now appears in the form of the “ordinarie suitours at the doore.” The “before what?” becomes “before / They appeare . . . / To ordinarie suitours,” and the parallelism is perfected: the outwardness of “dances” meets the inwardness of “bed-chamber” in the form of the “suitours” who are neither at the dance nor in the bedchamber; who do not see the “secret glances” nor the “naked . . . principles” with which the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” dally.

The first three stanzas, in fact, are a self-contained whole: by the end of line 21 all the conceits have run their course and the characters of the secret-seekers as well as the mass of mankind who pride themselves on following them stand indicted of pride and presumption. It is in the fourth stanza, however, that Herbert moves from public to personal reflection, leaving the violent words (“bore,” “piercing,” “cuts,” “devest,” “strip”) for warmer words of entreaty (“deare,” “glorious,” “embosomes,” “mellowing,” “poore”). The stanza becomes aurally softer and metrically smoother (note the abundance of resonants and round vowels) than the clipped, hurried pace of the first three. The two questions maintain the tone, requiring no downward inflections at all until the end of the stanza; while the lengthy enjambed phrase “thou searchest round to finde out death” (with three repetitions of “ou” and to “d-t” combinations to further slow the pace) ensure a lengthy pause after the climactic word, “death.”

This careful, gentle control of the emotional setting through metrical and aural effects allows Herbert to poignantly express the frustration of watching those to whom every good has been given who still fall short, as well as the contrition of recognizing oneself in that portrait. The poem’s final utterly anti-climactic verb “missest,” as if failure to respond to all God has done were a mischance, creates a striking irony in light of the three stanzas of sharply-worded indictment with which the poem began. The ability to create and control such striking juxtapositions that marks Herbert as one of the prime exemplars of the metaphysical tradition in poetry.

Snakes and Ladies

Back to posting some bits of my past scholarship. Here’s a reading of the first portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene that sketches in the relationship of Error, false Una, and Duessa to the lamia as found in Burton and, later, in Keats. What is lacking, here, is the solid connections back to Keats that would “cash out” the parallel in really fruitful criticism. Also, I think Dr. Hunt thought that treating succubus and lamia as variants of the same thing was mistaken. Nonetheless, here you have my first extended exercise in reading in terms of proper allegory, rather than the coarser Bunyanesque labels-and-discourses sort. Thanks to Dr. Hunt for getting me started down that path!

Here, then, is “What Dreams May Come”:

Preliminary Paper
(Short Presentation)
Dr. Maurice Hunt
November 8, 2000

“What Dreams May Come”: Spenserian Succubi in Book I of The Faerie Queen

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.[. Milton, Aeropagitica.]


Beauty is truth, truth Beauty.[. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”]


Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But wander too and fro in wayes vnknowne.[. FQ, 1.1.10.]

When Spenserian heroes enter the magic woodland of Renaissance lore, they do so with considerably more baggage than their counterparts in Shakespeare’s bright comedies; coming in love or in service of quests, they find themselves in an allegorical dreamland where only by becoming masters of the story–by usurping the poet’s pen and the reader’s eyes–can they hope to survive with their virtue, the very essence of their allegorical being, intact. Keats longed for a life of allegory, and Milton refused his praise to “fugitive and cloister’d virtue,” but for Spenser’s characters, the exercise of virtue is survival. In Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight (RCK) and Una find themselves in a veritable wonderland of doppelgangers and doublings, in which what “seemde” wise and safe a moment ago may turn into deadly danger without warning–except those who, like the reader, hold the key to discernment, the text, in their hands. The order and characteristics of the RCK’s female adversaries reflect the classical myth of the lamia, using it as a recognizable structure by which the reader (and the Red Cross Knight) lay hold on the truth needed to “prefer that which is truly better.”

The lamia, generally held to be a Greek variant of an old Sumerian legend, arrived in English literary culture through two paths: the classical mythologies, with their incubi and succubi, and medieval Jewish thought, which features the legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and of the many liliths often held to be her spawn (among other demons). Both branches share the same essential elements, though with significant variants. The medieval Jewish variant explains the existence of liliths and glosses the Genesis account of Creation by postulating an original wife for Adam who was created from dust, as was Adam, and who, refusing to be subordinate to Adam, fled the garden and became the consort of Satan. She is most feared as a killer of infants, but also comes to men in their dreams in order to breed demons from their nocturnal emissions. As both infanticide and succubus, her effect on the victim is a vampiric wasting as a result of lost body fluids and the suffocating of the spirit. As consort of Satan, she also bears him demonic children, among whom are other liliths.[. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.] The classical variant includes the general idea of the succubus, as well as the more sustained illusion referred to by Burton:

Lycius, a young man . . . met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, “he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she being fair and lovely would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold.” The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius, who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia . . . when she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she . . . vanished.[. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,]

Burton’s recounting of this lamia encounter recorded by Philostratus provided the source material for Keats’ narrative poem Lamia; it also provides a suggestive context in which to examine Spenser’s use of serpent and dream imagery in portraying RCK’s female enemies. While it is difficult to verify the likelihood that Jewish myth directly affected Spenser’s writing, it is certain that both the Jewish and the classical milieus contribute to the lamia legendary, so that both should be remembered in readings of The Faerie Queene (FQ).

When RCK and Una enter the forest, they do so “with pleasure forward led” into what “seemes” a “faire harbour.”[. FQ, 1.1.7-8.] The experienced reader of Spenser knows that “seemes” is an immediate warning that the characters have misread the descriptive passages, that they do not understand their surroundings; but the characters themselves have not yet learned by experience the way to distinguish truth from appearances, and the naive reader projected by Spenser’s “fashioning” project will only discover the danger of what “seemes” in retrospect. A more direct warning comes when Una, or Truth, warns RCK that the place “breedes dreadfull doubts.” Having plunged in thus far, however, to their walk into allegorical dreamland, the forested dark which starlight cannot penetrate, RCK and Una do not turn back; instead, they press forward, and immediately encounter the first lamia figure in Book 1, the female serpent-fiend Error.

Given the analogic structure of allegory, Error is best seen as a representation of the outcome of RCK’s and Una’s choices: to ignore the textual (scenic) clues to their danger, to be led on by pleasure, and to press on even when the nature of their mistake becomes apparent. Etymologically, “error” derives from the Latin erro, “to wander”; RCK and Una err (exercise bad judgment) when they err (wander about). Given that RCK is a knight errant, as are all of the primary heroes in FQ, it is significant that the tendency to wander and to misjudge is the first adversary he must overcome.

Error’s lamia characteristics are obvious; she is a disgusting creature, “Halfe like a serpent” and half woman.[. FQ, 1.1.14.] While RCK is portrayed as awake, the shift to interior action as RCK, belatedly and ineffectually warned of his wanderings by Truth, confronts Error suggests that the darkened wood is also RCK’s darkened–whether by sleep or by moral confusion–consciousness. Error’s nakedness is so blatant as to be unattractive, and while there is definite sexual potential in her entwining of RCK, it is thoroughly diffused by her entirely beastly behavior, including her use of vomiting as a defense mechanism. Error is the lamia stripped of seduction, a naked but hideous creature (much like the syphilitic Lust portrayed in the House of Pride) whose assault is through venom and suffocation, and whose children glut cannibalistically on body fluids until they burst.[. FQ, 1.1.25-6.]

Una congratulates RCK on his victory, and the episode ends with their escape from the woods. Having defeated the obvious Error, however, the RCK has yet to learn how to distinguish truth from error–no great compliment to RCK, as he is travelling with the beautiful lady Truth herself, and has seen hideous Error face-to-face. Una, as Truth personified, is placed in an unenviable position; like truth presented to the human mind, her ability to act her role is completely dependent on the ability of the reader–and RCK as reader–to distinguish her from false appearances. Should RCK fail to recognize Truth when presented with a choice, Una herself is left helpless, subject to being used (or abused, which for a person is very much the same) by any who have the power to bend her to their will. This vulnerability, hinted at in the Error episode, becomes the major problem with which both RCK and Una must grapple throughout the rest of the book.

Upon leaving the forest of Error, RCK and Una encounter the hermit, known to the experienced reader as Archimago but appearing to the naive (hence to RCK) as a “holy father” who “seemed . . . sagely sad, / . . . as one that did repent”[. FQ, 1.1.29-30.] RCK and Una have not learned that what “seemed” right in the Error case and “seemes” right about the Hermit will inevitably turn out to be false appearance; their ability to “read the text aright” is impaired by their inexperience, and they are prevailed upon to sleep at the Hermitage. Una, Truth herself, is used by Archimago to persuade RCK to stop, despite his hesitancy;[. FQ, 1.1.32.] it is RCK’s duty to make the distinction, and his inability to do so leaves Truth free to be manipulated by the deceiver. Sleeping at the Hermitage, RCK encounters the second lamia figure, the false Una conjured by Archimago.

The false Una, because of her brief appearance and specifically sexual appeal, is the most obvious succubus to the reader, though not to RCK. In the middle of troubled dreams of error and temptation, which RCK does not awake to confront, the false Una is introduced. Posing as Una, and attempting (as Venus and Juno do for Dido) to give the ambience of marriage without the fact, the false Una directly attempts to seduce RCK, who is already morally compromised: in true lilith fashion, the lustful “sprite” so works in his dreams that “nigh his manly heart did melt away.”[. FQ, 1.1.47.] RCK has learned the true face of Error, though; confronted directly with the seduction, he “start[s] up” and avoids the deed itself; to him, the idea of “doing ought amis” is as shocking as Error’s vomit assault.[. FQ, 1.1.49.] The first lesson has been learned, it seems: RCK will not be “with pleasure forward led” even by Una herself. The second, and harder, lesson, however, has yet to be learned: RCK does not know Truth sufficiently well to distinguish her from an impostor, and not only cannot differentiate between the false Una who seduces him and the Una he knows but is deceived by Archimago’s shadow-play into believing that Una had left seducing him only to go on to another sexual encounter.[. FQ, 1.2.5.] The total effect of this lamia encounter, both in sleeping and in waking dreams (for Archimago’s sprites are but temporarily embodied dream-creatures), is once more consumptive: RCK “did his stout heart eat, / And wast his inward gall with deepe despight, / Yrksome of life, and too long lingring night.”[. FQ, 1.2.6.]

RCK’s failure to note the use of the word “seemed” with reference to the Hermit’s godliness and his concomitant failure to recognize a false appearance of truth lead to his abandonment of Truth altogether. Fleeing the scene of what he can only perceive (given his faulty perceptions) as a humiliating betrayal, RCK leaves Una “wandring in woods and forests”;[. FQ, 1.2.9.] without a discerning reader, Truth herself becomes lost in the maze of error. Una’s misadventures with the false RCK, Archimago in disguise, and her subsequent captures and rescues, demonstrate the vulnerability of Truth when unaccompanied by a reader able to recognize her.

RCK, having abandoned Truth, soon encounters Duessa, the third lamia of Book 1.[. FQ, 1.2.13.] Whereas Error was raw, with no seductive cover, and false Una was an imitation of Truth, Duessa’s appearance as Fidessa is a complete fiction. With Una as a basis for comparison, Fidessa’s duplicity would be readily visible; having abandoned Truth on the basis of appearances, however, RCK is now vulnerable to mere appearances with no resemblance to Truth; mearly calling “false Duessa” by the name “Fidessa” is sufficient to change her entire character in his eyes, and he is unable to correctly read the repeated clues in such lines as “Her seeming dead he found with feigned feare, / As all unweeting of that well she knew.”[. FQ, 1.2.44-5.] He continues acting on the basis of his quest, but his actions are now entirely inappropriate for the actual conditions masked by the waking dream cast by Duessa. The Fradubio and Fraelissa episode underscores Duessa’s lamia nature, as Duessa is shown in a typical succubus role (“false witch”), enchanting the lover’s vision so as to win him away from his true love, before revealing her true appearance as another, more hideous Error–loathsome woman above, misshapen monster beneath. Duessa’s final treatment of Fradubio–the dream-potion and poison–is one more variant on the classic lamia / vampire motif; Fradubio and Fraelissa both become undead creatures themselves, condemned to “waste” away while “Banisht from liuing wights.”[. 1.2.34-42.] Despite all that has gone before, however, at the very end of Canto 2 RCK has been rendered “all passed feare”;[. FQ, 1.2.45.] as it was the “wonted fear of doing ought amis” resulting from his encounter with Error which woke RCK from the dream of false Una, this sudden fearlessness is ominous.[. FQ, 1.1.49.]

Duessa’s treatment of RCK is reminiscent of the story from Philostratus recounted by Burton; the victim, a noble youth who is of good judgment except in affairs de coeur, is led to an enchanted home by the lamia, where he lives in careless pleasure (though RCK’s encounter with Error has inoculated against openly allying himself with Lucifera and Satan, he does not withdraw from Duessa when she does so).[. FQ, 1.4.2ff.] The entire House of Pride episode, like the confrontation with Error, is so structured that it must be viewed not only as a scenario in which RCK is one character, but also as a display of RCK’s internal conflicts upon his abandonment of Truth. He is humiliated and enraged at Una’s apparent betrayal, and abandoning Truth he is deceived by appearances which have no relation to truth–they are chimeras out of his psyche, realized by Duessa’s ability to enter sleeping dreams and create waking dreams. Duessa clearly reveals her close affiliation with Hell through her appeal to the gods of the underworld to save Sansjoy, and also adds another level to the allusion to Scylla that runs throughout the lamia characterizations in FQ.[. FQ, 1.5.19ff.] As in the lamia story from Philostratus, RCK is only alerted to the danger when another character (the Dwarf here serves for Apollonius) sees the grisly reality behind the charade and warns him to flee: as in the case of Error, the Dwarf correctly realizes that “this is no place for liuing men.”[. FQ, 1.1.13.] Stirred once more to fear, RCK escapes the final evil.

RCK, however, is still vulnerable to the lamia. Lying down to rest after the escape from the House of Pride (where he has done deadly battle with Sansjoy), he is once more overtaken by the illusion of Fidessa, and lulled by her enchanting conversation and the pleasures of nature, is won back to friendship with her in a startlingly short period–little more than a single stanza. Duessa’s lamia behavior now becomes even more clear; having come to him in sleep, she leads him to a pool which causes the familiar consumptive symptoms–chills like fever, frailty, and emasculation–suffered by victims of a succubus.[. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.] Duessa is finally successful with this treatment; exhausted, and having repeatedly escaped positive moral or physical destruction, RCK is unable to prevent his capture by the giant Orgoglio.

Arthur’s reuniting of RCK with Una and his stripping of Duessa–rendering Duessa the raw, naked Error that Fradubio perceived her to be too late–resolves the narrative plot; but one of the most important lessons of Book 1 lies in its education of RCK, and of the reader, to the importance of noticing the textual features–in the narrative, the scenery and characterization–for the protectors of Truth from false appearance that they are. Only if RCK–and the reader–learn to distrust all that is introduced with “seems” and to look instead for Truth; only if the reader–and RCK–truly espouses truth in a way which foils Archimago’s use of a false Una and prevents future rudderless encounters with the powerful Duessa can the reader, or the Knight–and in the end, Spenser considers them one and the same–hope to survive life or poetry with intact virtue.


  1. Milton, Aeropagitica.
  2. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  3. FQ, 1.1.10.
  4. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.
  5. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,
  6. FQ, 1.1.7-8.
  7. FQ, 1.1.14.
  8. FQ, 1.1.25-6.
  9. FQ, 1.1.29-30.
  10. FQ, 1.1.32.
  11. FQ, 1.1.47.
  12. FQ, 1.1.49.
  13. FQ, 1.2.5.
  14. FQ, 1.2.6.
  15. FQ, 1.2.9.
  16. FQ, 1.2.13.
  17. FQ, 1.2.44-5.
  18. 1.2.34-42.
  19. FQ, 1.2.45.
  20. FQ, 1.1.49.
  21. FQ, 1.4.2ff.
  22. FQ, 1.5.19ff.
  23. FQ, 1.1.13.
  24. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 1

I want to try to help folks escape some boxes of bad reasoning we keep getting locked into. The classic form of the trap I’m going to describe sounds much like a verbal typo I made when talking to the RCIA last Sunday: referring to the perfect charity in which all three Persons of the Trinity dwell, I said, “And that’s why we say God is three, not just one.”

Now, in my case, I specifically did not mean to deny God’s unity and simplicity, and I instantly mocked and corrected myself. Obviously what I meant was that “we say God is three and one; we do not merely say that He is one.”

But many, even some of the best and most important teachers I hear around me, seem prone to use this “not…but…” structure systematically and under the impression they are helping people to go “deeper” by wedging them from a lesser to a greater.

A typical version of this is an exhortation I grew up hearing often with regard to letting the love of Christ draw us into friendship with God: “It’s not enough to have a head knowledge, you have to have a heart knowledge.” Obviously it is possible to rescue the sense of this statement (“Comprehending language about God is not the same as being God’s friend”), but in practical terms its force is almost always turned in the wrong direction (“Reasoning about God is not as important as having strong feelings about Him”).

And a helpful indicator of the pernicious cultural force of such “not…but…” structures is their frequent coexistence with their exact negations in the same belief systems, or as the equal and opposite axioms of rival systems. When such tendentious structures dominate a dispute, both sides become impervious to reason (and often unable to notice that they may be united in their failure to accept the same truth). For example, it would be very easy to find revival preachers from my youth who would plead, “It’s not enough to have a head belief, you have to have a heart belief!” shortly after expressing contempt for “sentimental religion that has no truth” or sorrow for those who are “sincere, but sincerely wrong.” Such a preacher may well be right on the merits, when given the most charitable possible construal by a very careful reader (for example, when saying that one must believe with firm faith that Jesus Christ was the God-Man sent to save us all from sin, then criticizing those who want to believe Jesus and Mary were special but deny the Virgin Birth as history); but he cites as truisms an incoherent arrangement of sayings in which the privileged term can swap as needed.

This is a fairly trivial example, but the history of Christian doctrine is littered with the shipwrecks of those who started with someone’s “not…but…” and noticed only when grave harm had been done to lives and reputations and teachings and the unity of the Body of Christ that the “not…but…” was an imprudent rhetorical gesture, not a reliable saying.

We’ll talk eventually about illegitimately converting intensive & extensive claims (a helpful critique I encountered in Stephen Prickett’s Words and The Word and have not seen many others explain), but for now just take two examples of “not…but…” that have caused serious problems in the Body of Christ: “not works but faith” and “not a religion but a relationship” (I’m open to your thinking of more, but be sure you don’t just pick the negation of your preferred “not…but…” as an erroneous “not…but…”!)

But, for now, to get us heading in the right direction, here’s a paper I gave at the Southwest Conference on Christianity & Literature in 2014 that deals with several things–not least the concept we need to revive to cure quite a few of our discursive ills:

“Can Poetry Matter?”—Definitely, and With Many Voices
Peter G. Epps
Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature
November 14, 2014


Now in earnest he means to honour the gods who have blessed him,
Now in truth and in deed all must re-echo their praise.
Nothing must see the light but what to those high ones is pleasing,
Idle and bungled work never for Aether was fit.
So, to be worthy and stand unashamed in the heavenly presence,
Nations rise up and soon, gloriously ordered, compete
One with the other in building beautiful temples and cities,
Noble and firm they tower high above river and sea—
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring out
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowed?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
Else he would come himself, assuming a shape that was human,
And, consoling the guests, crowned and concluded the feast.
But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we life or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next.
Holderlin “Bread and Wine” 6-7

This conference poses the question “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” I suggest that this question is roughly the same as that asked in the title of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” If literature and literary study make any substantive contribution to the common good, it must be because both poetry and criticism are bound up with the active life in much the way teaching is, as a traditionary and culture-making work. The cultural moment that leads us to ask such questions as “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and “Can Poetry Matter?” is also the moment for which poems such as Holderlin’s “Bread and Wine” were written. As those who concern ourselves with poetry “in lean years”—also translated “the destitute time”—we will certainly want to take counsel in the matter. Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Martin Heidegger and Francis Schaeffer, and picking up some guidelines from St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope to identify some of the material conditions for a poetry that keeps faith and matters.

Heidegger famously wrestles with the nature of “the destitute time” in his essay “What Are Poets For?” and related works from late in his career. Heidegger expands on Holderlin’s image of the “lean years” during which the vatic stance of Romantic poets becomes anachronistic and poetry itself comes to be seen as a luxury product irrelevant to all but a narrow class of consumers. On Heidegger’s reading, “the destitute time” comes to characterize not just a seasonal dearth for poets, but an entire season of world history. Heidegger summarizes his view of the role art works play in the unfolding of history as follows in an earlier essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Art as poetry is founding, …instigation of the strife of truth: founding as beginning.…This foundation happened in the West for the first time in Greece….The realm of beings thus opened up was then transformed into a being in the sense of God’s creation. This happened in the Middle Ages. This kind of being was again transformed at the beginning and in the course of the modern age. Beings became objects that could be controlled and seen through by calculation. At each time a new and essential world arose. (74)

It would be easy to dispute Heidegger’s reading of the history of ideas, here, but his interpretation of the relation between the work of art and the world as a scene of human work is plain enough. When human working comes to be conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself as human working, it does so according to some available understanding of how the world comes to be as it is and of what materials and methods permit humans to work in a distinctively human manner. As a result, any work of art is most fully realized when it most wholly participates in the creation of the world in which humans can work creatively.

If Heidegger’s interpretation of the relationship between work and world is substantially accurate, then truly great art is most possible—and most recognizeable—when a great “beginning” is at hand. In “What Are Poets For?” Heidegger elaborates this understanding from Holderlin’s question about “the destitute time.” He begins by interpreting “Holderlin’s historical experience” in which “the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods” (89). If Christ’s Passion marks the demise of all other gods, then what Holderlin sees as Christ’s withdrawal from bodily presence within the world leaves humanity bereft of fresh material evidence of divine presence and action. Heidegger asserts that “the default of God which Holderlin experienced…means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.” This time “becomes ever more destitute” until “it can no longer discern the default of God as a default” (89). “At this night’s midnight,” he says, “the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). It follows that to “be truly a poet in such an age,” one must first have survived experiences and thoughts that “have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Such poets cannot readily rely on widely shared assumptions about the manner in which the world comes to be the scene of human work; rather, they “must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry” in order to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” It is to precisely such poets, Heidegger suggests, that “we others must learn to listen.”

This frequently repeated observation is the occasion of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Heidegger’s views on art. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer argues that

When [Heidegger] says, “listen to the poet,” he does not mean that we are to listen to the content of what the poet says. Content is immaterial—one might have six poets all contradicting each other. It does not matter because the content is in the area of rationality, the lower story. What matters is that such a thing as poetry exists—and poetry is placed in the upper story. (Trilogy 246)

To clear away the brush, we must not fail to note that Schaeffer’s remark ignores exactly what we just heard from Heidegger—that “We others must learn to listen to what these poets say.” That is, particular poets who write in particular ways about particular things, and not anybody who happens to pen verse, can be judged to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” Heidegger does at least hint a framework for discrimination, so it is not in this sense accurate to say “Content is immaterial.”

More critically, Schaeffer depends on a reductive understanding of “rationality” (Trilogy 124). Like most of the modern thinkers he surveys, Schaeffer presupposes that only univocal true propositions are rational. Although the “whole personality is involved” in the intercourse of revelation, univocal speech is its sine qua non: Schaeffer’s “rational” Christian takes “A is A and A is not non-A” as “the basis” and subsequently engages all other elements of “personality” as a “response” to “what God has said.” If he does otherwise, the Christian “loses his way.” Schaeffer acknowledges that “to add things to rational verbalization” can “enrich it” in the sense that “poetry undoubtedly adds something to prose form.” In just the way some non-rational “personality” is part of a “response,” so some non-rational “something” can “enrich” the “prose form” of “what God has said.”

Schaeffer’s confrontation with Heidegger thus leaves the Christian seeking to make poetry matter with no very satisfying result. Schaeffer’s comment that “Content is immaterial” for Heidegger suggests that the content should be material, should make a concrete difference to the reader; and indeed Heidegger’s criteria for discrimination do not seem very concrete. Despite this, we have seen that Heidegger does not in fact commend “bare poetic form”; and Schaeffer’s reduction of “personality” and “poetry” to a non-rational “something” that can “enrich” univocal speech but also threatens it with irrationality seems to be an example of the thinking that marks “the destitute time.”

We turn, then, to Thomas Aquinas. Although after his time Scotus will persuade most metaphysicians that “being” is a univocal term, Thomas has a fully developed understanding of analogy. As the protégé of Albertus Magnus, Thomas seeks a unified field of knowledge; as a Dominican, Thomas is the paragon of that order’s effort to finally rid the Church of dualist heresy. When Heidegger asserts that the Middle Ages converted the world “into a being in the sense of God’s creation,” he is referring to the Aristotelian synthesis that completed Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutical efforts, a synthesis effected by Thomas. And when Schaeffer attempts to trace the bifurcation of modern thought into “upper” and “lower” registers back to its pre-modern roots, he starts from the basic nature/grace distinction found in Thomas.

Dana Gioia, whose 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” helped pose the question for this paper, suggests a key reason why we might listen to Thomas in his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today.” He points out that while “theology…is important” as expressed in “formal analytical thought,” such dialectical instruction does not address “the fullness of [people’s] humanity” (40). He continues by saying that

A great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry.

Gioia goes on to point out the problems that the Church has faced in calibrating its response to “the destitute time,” noting especially that it has sometimes succumbed to “the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies” that tend to exacerbate rather than heal the division between a secularizing culture and a world-changing Christianity (41). This division has been internalized when “eager, well-intentioned reformers” acted without “respectful understanding of art itself” because they “saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.” As we have seen, this reduction of works of art to “functional entities” is what both Heidegger and Schaeffer object to—and what they both seem to do themselves.

Thomas Aquinas, then, points us toward a vision of poetry that matters in two ways: by his teaching about the intelligibility of creation, and by his own poetry. Aquinas asserts that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason,” and that therefore divine revelation must be given so that humans may “direct their thoughts and actions to the end” (ST I.1.1). Because the Creator must necessarily exceed what unaided human reason would devise, and what we could communicate widely and accurately by merely dialectical means, Thomas says that “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely” there must be “a sacred science learned through revelation.” This “sacred science” is indeed intelligible and communicable, but its proper principles are spiritual and “obtained by revelation,” so that “we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation is made” (I.1.8). Nonetheless, “human reason” in the form of both dialectical procedure and appeals to secular wisdom are necessary to the “sacred science,” as Thomas says, “not, indeed, to prove faith…but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” Notice the relationship between the realities of creation and revelation, here, and the means of reasoning about them: the real is intelligible, and revelation is credible, but dialectical method serves in elaboration and definition, rather than as the foundation or sine qua non of faithful reason.

This, then, is the setting for the observation of Aquinas that “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” so that “natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’” In such a setting we can begin to see how poetry might have a serious cognitive role. I think of the ending George Herbert’s famous poem “The Collar”:

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Like so many of Herbert’s works, the poem represents an adjustment of speculative thought to a reality in which willingness to accept the condition of a creature is generally a precondition to understanding as well as to happiness. Thomas is everywhere concerned with the necessity of adjusting our whole being to a reality we did not create and which we are alienated from by original sin as well as our own actual sins.

In such a world, the Platonic objection that “Holy Scripture should not use metaphors” because “similitudes and figures [are] proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences” is met with the solidly Thomistic assertion that “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (ST I.1.9). Thomas argues that “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects,” and that it is especially important to do so when we consider those who do not have the time or aptitude for extended theological reflection: it is fitting “that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.” This use of concretely intelligible figural language does not threaten reasonable faith with irrationality because its sensuality is chaste; its end and scope are both more definite and more total than the poetry envisioned by the Platonic critic, as Thomas says: “Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful.” For poetry to matter, it must function within the horizon of intelligible reality; it must be more totally intelligible and responsive to the creaturely condition than dialectic, not less; and it may decorate, but must not distract from, the essentially human work of participating in creation.

In order to act in this way, a poetry that matters will require skillful use of plurivocal, rather than univocal, signification. Rather than oscillating between a flawed dialectic that insists that only univocal propositions are really intelligible and a self-defeating dalliance with unlimited equivocation, poets especially must re-learn the philosophical meaning of analogy and the proper sense of allegory. This follows from two basic insights specific to monotheistic revealed religions, and most fully developed in Catholic Christianity: first, that God is incomprehensible yet reveals Himself intelligibly; second, in the words of Thomas, that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” The first insight tells us that we must understand analogical terms as an alternative to univocal and equivocal terms. Univocal terms always take their meaning from a comprehended prior experience of an object; even discounting the residue that escapes comprehension in such terms, the very idea of divine revelation means that some terms must use comprehended prior experience of one object to make intelligible to us what we cannot comprehend and have not yet experienced. Properly speaking, such terms are analogical: they trade on what we do know to sketch what we cannot yet know. As surely as all teaching involves dialectic, all learning begins with analogy.

The second insight tells us that history itself will already be laden with multiple significations when we come to formulate it in words, so that adjusting the whole person to reality will require language and art that can re-enact in the reader the simultaneous unfolding of multiple truths in one event or process. Thomas provides us a key reference point for the developed understanding of allegory, beginning with his Augustinian observation about “words” and “things themselves.” We may say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”; and in so doing, we recognize that the double sense of “charged” as both “vitally filled” and “formally accused” is not an ornament or distraction, but a more completely true statement about world history than could be achieved in univocal terms. When the speaker of “God’s Grandeur” asks “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” we see “then” taking on both the sense of historical reference (“then [and] now”) and the sense of implication (“if…then”). On the one hand, ignoring the Creator’s authority is a perennial act of human culture; on the other, after “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” it seems especially contrary to reasonable expectation that people would not see the harm that follows from a refusal to adjust to their creaturely status. Far from involving a flight from the scandalously sensual into the safely abstract, then, proper allegorical reasoning develops the insight that the historical unfolding of creation is laden with significance even before human reason and divine revelation explicitly account for that significance. If dialectic serves to find the most definite and unmistakable expression currently available of certain truths about that unfolding, then poetry may well serve to protect dialectic from devolving into reductionism.

Poets armed with this understanding of human language’s role in an intelligible creation should find no lack of interesting and controversial subject matter, but should be able to set it in perspective. As Gioia says, “Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil…. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God” (35). Yet this pervasive “invisible presence” is by its very invisibility prone to become the “default of God” in the experience of a poet such as Holderlin or a philosopher such as Heidegger; we cannot finally distinguish on the basis of words between the verbal mysticism Schaeffer deplores and the complex participation in creation that poets seek. Reduction to univocal discourse only makes the problem worse, as dialectic replaces poetry. For poetry to matter in this way, then, divine revelation must occur “visibly and unequivocally” in the material world. Poets are powerless to conjure this, but they should attend to any proclamation of such an occurrence.

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

It is this reality which leads St. Thomas, as Gioia says, to put down the pen of scholarship and take up the pen of poetry, giving us the Corpus Christi liturgy which is still used for some of the most solemn celebrations in the Catholic faith: Pange Lingua; Adoro te Devote; Sacris Solemniis; Verbum Supernum; Lauda Sion. (sing a bit of Tantum Ergo if possible) In a culture experiencing “the destitute time,” poetry can matter when poets called into close contact with the definite and plurivocal nature of the sacraments wrestle with the implications of that understanding for every part of life. Our culture’s rapid political and epistemic pendulum swings merely perpetuate the “divided field” of human reason that Schaeffer correctly diagnoses, but cannot cure with univocal propositions. It ought to be possible, however, to engage in a poetics of adjustment to the status of creature that richly explores analogical language and the allegorical understanding of history and lived experience; this should be most possible for those richly engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. One model I might propose is Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the dying man grapples with the existential sense of impending oblivion, aided by angels, ministers, and friends cooperating in prayer. For poets “in lean years,” and I suggest for poetry in general, the alternative to this obedient and unfolding vision is to live as Gerontius fears to die:

As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
And turn no whither, but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss

Works Cited
[paper written for oral delivery. Resource links follow.]
http://books.google.com/books?id=nskr-wgx_1kC [Schaeffer]
http://web.duke.edu/secmod/primarytexts/Holderlin-Poems.pdf [Holderlin]
http://www.ccel.org/print/aquinas/summa/FP.i.FP_Q1.FP_Q1_A9 [Summa]
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today [Gioia 2013]
http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html [Newman]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173625 [Herbert]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173660 [Hopkins]
http://www.theatlantic.com/past/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm [Gioia 1991]

Samson and Dido, and some reflections on the distance travelled

Well, if you ever doubt that I was very sincere about being a Protestant when I was one—which was, after all, the first 37 years of my life—there are a few short cuts to putting those doubts to rest.  One of the most straightforward is to look for anything I wrote in my middle twenties that mentions Milton (as we’ve already seen once or twice).  This paper is no exception—written in Fall 2001, as I began my doctoral coursework in my third year of graduate school (I had worked out about half of my M.A. thesis by midsummer 2001, and would finish and defend it in 2002), it has some pretty characteristic errors about English religious history and still uses the general organizing principle I had inherited from generations of Protestant and Baptist forebears:  one in which “toward Rome” is the direction of corruption, while outside truth and error are free to contend until we are enlightened. 

This dramatization of church history is an understandable polemical response to the way England’s religious history unfolded, with the erratic political and religious manipulations of Henry VIII spawning both a schismatic but traditional Anglicanism and the more radical Reformed impulse that flourished especially in the brief reign of Edward VI, before Mary Tudor’s brief (and defensive, and vindictive) restoration of the Church—impulses which last throughout Elizabeth I and the whole of the Stuart monarchy, including Interregnum and Restoration.  Viewed wholly from within the assumption that truth lay somewhere within the English tradition of Protestantism, then, the Established Church and the Dissenters seemed to be contending for the right to claim the mantle of the true Reformation (the true rescue of New Testament Christianity from “Romish” corruptions).  All the while, of course, subtle political forces, mostly foreign and always sinister, plot to take advantage of this conflict and make England Catholic again (and here insert the absurd Catholic terrorist-hero wannabe Guy Fawkes, and also the Titus Oates perjuries that make up “the Popish Plot,” and later the Know-Nothings, the Kluckers, Lorraine Boettner, Jack Chick, and other hacks).

Anyway, if the more lurid speculations at the fringes of the tradition I was reared in (and we were never intentionally “fringy” in my family or congregation) had begun to lose their grip, the basic narrative was still firmly in my head in 2001.  What was also in my head were all those Church Fathers I had read back in 1998-99, though, and conversations I had been having with Catholics and Presbyterians about the history of our understanding of various doctrines.  I was definitely in reaction, at this point, having felt that I was unable to answer clearly some persuasive arguments on the subject of Baptism (though for years to come it would be my visceral mistrust of infant baptism that kept me at arm’s length from the Presbyterian congregation I spent most of my Sundays with); I was trying to shore up what I felt were deficiencies in my arguments for what I remained convinced was the right understanding of the history of my faith, and thus of that faith itself (for “what have you that you have not received?”).

Also, this was the Fall after I had taken my Latin class and translated the portions of Aeneid here discussed for myself.  Returning to Milton while using my fresh Latin was too good an opportunity to pass up, and this seminar gave me the perfect opening.  The paper itself is only middling, but I like the basic reading:  Samson and Dalila are, in the structure of their poem, role-reversed to Aeneas and Dido; comparing the mapping of characters to situation with the mapping of traits to characters (some are transferred to the “wrong” character) helps to underscore some of Milton’s specific innovations and emphases.

Here, then, a seminar paper from Fall 2001, revisiting what I still consider to be a far undervalued poem, Samson Agonistes:

Peter G. Epps
Conference Paper
Foundations of Medieval Literature
Dr. Jill Havens

Samson and Dido

Arma virumque cano. (Aeneid 1)

A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on.  (SA 1-2)

From the very first, Virgil’s great epic speaks of “arms and the man,” or, as Fitzgerald translates it, “warfare and a man at war.”  Aeneid is, after all, public poetry–written with a civic purpose and a particular political aim which both undergird and limit its more broadly humane agenda.  In this respect, perhaps above all others, Milton’s works can well bear comparison to Virgil’s.  As an accomplished Latinist, Milton’s imagination is utterly permeated with Virgilian imagery, and his rhetorical stance both echoes the vatic stance in Virgil and foreshadows the more pronounced vatic stance of the Romantics.  The Virgilian contexts of Paradise Lost have been thoroughly, though still far from exhaustively, explored.  In Samson Agonistes, however, Milton presents another sort of man, disarmed but very much at war, and in doing so invokes once more his great poetic ancestor.

I find, to my surprise, that few critics have examined the presence of Aeneid in the text of Samson Agonistes, particularly in Samson’s encounter with Dalila.  The meeting is immensely redolent of Dido’s encounter with Aeneas in the underworld, and Milton’s revision of this classic confrontation provides fruitful suggestions about Milton’s poetic progress beyond Paradise Lost.  I propose to examine the Samson/Dalila dialogue in light of the Aeneas/Dido meeting in Book VI of Aeneid, and in so doing to suggest that Milton’s increasing alienation from Restoration culture accelerates the growth of proto-Romantic tendencies already present in his writing.

The parallels are fairly numerous, but let me suggest a few which lend weight to the comparison.  Both Dido and Samson, having been betrayed in marriage, eventually die by their own hands.  In both cases, the marriages transgress cultural boundaries; in both cases, the marriages fail because national loyalties supersede marital fidelity.  Perhaps most significantly, Samson and Dalila provide as clear an instance of the historic enmity of Israelite and Philistine as Aeneas and Dido of the blood feud between Rome and Carthage.  The material of the Samson and Dalila story, of course, is not original to Milton; yet he alters it significantly in ways which parallel both his own biography and the Aeneid more closely than the Biblical account.

More specific parallels to Virgil’s work in the Samson/Dalila scene include Dalila’s speech about Fame:

Fame if not double-fac’t is double-mouth’d,
And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds,
On both his wings, one black, th’ other white,
Bears greatest names in his wild aerie flight.  (971-4)

Milton here puts in Dalila’s mouth a clear echo of Virgil’s Rumor, the “smut-goddess” (dea foeda), who flies over the city, listening and spreading rumors and scandals (4.173-88).  The parallel is made clearer when we recall that Milton would have read Aeneid exclusively in the Latin; thus his “Fame” is an aural, as well as a literal, translation of Virgil’s Fama.  Dalila, of course, is seeking to defend herself against Samson’s accusations; she argues that what is infamy to the Israelites will be glory to the Philistines.  Appealling, however, to the duplicitous nature of Fame, she may only reinforce our impression of her own duplicity.

Another significant element binding Samson Agonistes to Aeneid is the pervasive nautical imagery which forms the backdrop for the dialogue of Samson and Dalila.  Upon her initial approach, Dalila is figured by the Chorus as a “thing of sea or land” which

Comes this way sailing
Like a stately Ship
Of Tarsus, bound for th’ Isles
Of Javan or Gadier
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails fill’d, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play.  (710-9)

Similarly, Dalila invokes marine metaphors in her final tirade against Samson, saying,

I see thou art implacable, more deaf
To prayers, then winds and seas, yet winds to seas
Are reconcil’d at length, and Sea to Shore:
Thy anger, unappeasable, still rages,
Eternal tempest never to be calm’d.  (961-5)

Finally, Samson, in his riddling debate with the Chorus upon Dalila’s departure, asks, “What Pilot so expert but needs must wreck / Embarqu’d with such a Stears-mate at the Helm?” (1044-5)  These nautical usages resonate readily with the original meeting of Dido and Aeneas in Books III and IV of Aeneid, in which every major turn is conditioned by the sea.  Aeneas is driven by a storm to the Punic shores, and is convinced by fear of rough winter seas to stay in Carthage; he provisions his ships secretly to depart; and Dido attempts to send the Carthaginian fleet to stop Aeneas before she resolves on her own death.  The narrative of Aeneid is, as in Homer’s Odyssey, moved along primarily by the stages of a sea-journey.  Samson Agonistes, having only one major location, maintains its scene progression by the changing nature of the dialogue as each new interlocutor comes to challenge, tempt, or encourage Samson.  That Samson and Dalila are connected, first and last, by their participation in the marine imagery which frames Dido and Aeneas helps tie the two accounts together as surely as an explicit allusion.

Indeed, the absence of the explicit classical allusions so common in Milton’s other writings is a major feature of interest in Samson Agonistes.  As Flanagan notes,

Milton is remarkably restrained for what he leaves out or what he rejects from previous poetic devices or banks of allusion. [. . .] Milton’s topical or timely allusions–to decadent aristocrats or priests, for instance–would have had to be kept under veil, considering that Milton in 1671 was labeled a regicide and might have been imprisoned or even executed for such “treason.”  His imagery is not Christian; his dramatic poem is parallel to a number of Greek tragedies, but not slavishly imitative of any other play; and he is too proud to imitate any contemporary tragedy, not even Hamlet or King Lear.  His “Dramatic Poem” is an affront and a rebuttal to the entire world of the Restoration stage.  (793)

This “affront,” of course, is entirely in keeping with Milton’s personal and political relationship to the Restoration.  As Cromwell’s Latin Secretary and an active anti-prelatical writer, well-known for his public defense of the execution of Charles I, Milton can hardly be expected to have welcomed the Restoration in any sphere.  The movement of the neoclassical writers, as instanced in Dryden, away from Parliamentarian leanings into ardent Royalism; the growing suppression of Puritan and Nonconformist thought under an established church heavily leaning to Roman Catholicism (witness Dryden’s own journey from Puritan roots through Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism); and the increasingly popular, secular, and even obscene entertainments of the Restoration stage could not but have enraged Milton.  In this environment, we find the ever-combative Milton quite prepared to dispense with his own densely allusive classicism in order to depart sharply from the neoclassical trend.

Milton’s rebellion against neoclassicism prefigures the Romantic rebellion of a century later.  Unlike the Romantics, however, Milton was so thoroughly steeped in the classical and Christian traditions that shaped his poetics that he effectively grafts himself onto the classical tradition despite the absence of obvious allusion.  As Flanagan says, “It is to Milton’s credit that [. . .] the audience or reader does not notice [the Greek tragic form] at all, just as one does not notice similar classical rhetorical divisions in Aeropagitica” (794).  By absorbing the Greek dramatic form (as Virgil before him) and Latin classical material, particularly Virgil, Milton writes himself into the main tradition itself, choosing to join the classical tradition directly rather than alluding to it as his Restoration contemporaries did.  Far from rejecting the classical, Milton rejects the neoclassical movement precisely by a seamless integration of classical form with Hebrew matter, subverting his political, religious, and cultural rivals by engaging them on his own highly original (though robustly traditional) terms.

As with his Romantic descendants, Milton’s choice of subject matter has deep personal resonances.  In choosing to represent the blinded Samson, of course, Milton reminds us of his own blindness; we will feel, even if we are not willing to defend it critically, that many of Samson’s lines ring a little too true, carry a little too much emotional charge, to be entirely separated from Milton’s own life.  Samson is not only blind, though; like Milton in 1671, he is politically isolated, the frustrated defender of a people who are not only conquered but content to be so.  Like Milton, whose divorce tracts indicate the vehemence of his feelings about his first wife, Mary Powell, Samson feels betrayed by the women in his life.  The woman of Timna has gone to another husband after Samson learned of her betrayal, and Dalila has betrayed him to his current captivity.  In another, more subtle way, though, Samson accuses Dalila of attempting to betray him again–to seduce him with thoughts of domestic ease and comfortable age, thoughts which to the born warrior Samson are worse than prison.  Milton, of course, was himself living the life Samson refuses–though with a third wife of his choice, and in the company of his daughters, under the protection of Andrew Marvell, whose intercession prevented his execution as a regicide.  Milton being ever the martial spirit, I find it hard to believe that he did not, in dark moments, wonder if he should be locked in a losing battle rather than taking his ease among his decadent Restoration contemporaries.  I am tempted to suggest that, in representing Samson’s father Manoa as seeking to ransom Samson, but coming too late with word of his success, Milton draws upon his own protection by Marvell; if so, then Samson Agonistes becomes a tribute to a lost chance at martyrdom.

At any rate, Milton’s changes to his Biblical source material do tend to make it resonate more clearly with Aeneid and his own experience.  The key change in the Samson and Dalila encounter is that Dalila is portrayed as Samson’s wife.  While the original story does not preclude a marriage, the account in Judges 16 and 17 seems to set up a dramatic progression from the woman of Timna, who Samson marries, to the harlot in Gaza, and from the harlot to Dalila.  By marrying Samson to Dalila, Milton underscores the betrayal and alludes to his own writings on divorce; the allusion becomes starkly visible when Samson tells Dalila, “Thou and I are long since twain” (929).  Having already been separated from another wife, Samson announces that, to his thinking at least, his marriage to Dalila is also ended.

In addition to the parallels in Milton’s own writing, though, the Dido and Aeneas conversation in Aeneid strikingly parallel Samson’s marriage to Dalila.  Virgil’s narrator clearly establishes the ambiguity of the solemnized but never publicized marriage of Dido and Aeneas.  As Fitzgerald translates it,

Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno
Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top.
That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow.  Dido had no further qualms
As to impressions given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage.  Thus, under that name,
She hid her fault. (4.229-238)

The presence of the gods appears to give warrant to the marriage, but Dido herself is portrayed as self-deluded, believing that a secret marriage could truly cover the fault of a secret love.  The narrator clearly regards the situation as ambiguous–the gods are “witness to the marriage,” but no one else is; and Dido, who has engaged in a secret love, “called it marriage” to conceal “her fault.”  We are left to wonder what Aeneas thought until his argument with Dido upon his departure, when he says, “I never held the torches of a bridegroom, / Never entered upon the pact of marriage” (467-8).  For Aeneas, a secret marriage is no marriage at all.  In much the same way, for Samson a marriage betrayed is no marriage at all; as he says to the Chorus, “Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end, / Not wedlock-trechery endangering life” (1008-9).

This equivocal understanding of marriage is reflected in Milton’s problematization of the roles of Dido and Aeneas as recast in Samson and Dalila.  The main pattern clearly identifies Samson, the self-slaying betrayed spouse, with Dido; this leaves Dalila in the role of Aeneas, the visitor to the underworld who vainly begs forgiveness.  At the same time, Milton cannot allow himself to cast Dalila as heroic; she receives the weaknesses of Aeneas, while Samson is allowed to gain a number of his strengths, including the fortitude to take his enemies with him in his suicide.  Dalila, in turn, receives some of Dido’s strengths, particularly her vehemence and bitter reflection upon the warrior’s preference for combat and public duty over private security and harmony.  By rearranging the traditional roles in this way, Milton carves out a space for his own particular version of the hero, combining a proto-Romantic sense of conflicted, solitary introspection with the civic motivations of the Virgilian hero.

The account of Dido’s meeting with Aeneas in the underworld and Samson’s meeting with Dalila in prison follow roughly the same pattern.  In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas approaches Dido and addresses him.  He weeps, expresses his regret at her suicide, claims the harm was greater than he expected, and attempts to justify himself by an appeal to religion.  His appeal to religion, of course, also invokes the arguments from civic duty which he had previously made in Book IV; the will of the gods, for Aeneas, was the founding of a city.  Dido, however, is implacable:

Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate
The burning soul, savagely glaring back,
And tears came to his eyes.  But she had turned
With gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke on,
Her face no more affected than if she were
Immobile granite or Marpesian stone.
At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove. (628-635)

Interestingly, Dido returns in the underworld to Sychaeus; like Samson, she has been married before.  In returning to her dead husband, Dido emphatically announces the breach of the marriage.  She seems, like Samson, to find that “wedlock-trechery endangering life” ends the relationship; like Samson, she only resolves the equivocal nature of her marriage with her own death.

Samson’s encounter with Dalila is much longer than Dido’s with Aeneas, but this difference can largely be accounted for by the greater scope of Virgil’s work.  If the material from Book IV which the meeting in Book VI draws upon is included, the two have roughly similar bulk and complexity.  The pattern of the two meetings, however, is much the same:  Dalila approaches Samson, weeps, expresses her regret for the outcome of her actions, claims the harm was greater than she expected, and attempts to justify her actions based on civic and religious duties.  Samson, like Dido, is implacable:

No, no, of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I are long since twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accurst
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught; [. . .]
If in the flower of youth and strength, when all men
Lov’d, honour’d, fear’d me, thou alone could hate me
Thy Husband, slight me, sell me, and forgo me;
How wouldst thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceiveable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemn’d, and scorn’d,
And last neglected?  (928-44)

More aggressive than Virgil’s Dido in the underworld, but reminiscent of her rage in Book IV, to which her “savagely glaring” countenance bears witness, Samson harshly excoriates Dalila for her unfaithfulness, refusing all her offers of comfort as more maneuvers to use him as a tool for her own lusts, be they physical, political, or financial (and they are, by turns, all of these).

The key distinction, of course, between Samson Agonistes and Aeneid is that Samson is in the “underworld” of prison; unlike Dido in Book VI, his suicide is still future.  Unlike Dido, Samson’s suicide will partake of the heroic ethos, using his death (which he counts inevitable) to further the defense of his people against their oppressors.  Unlike Aeneas, Dalila’s great act of civic duty is already in the past, and in the poem’s religious context is a false duty.  Still, Milton gives considerable play to Dalila’s perspective, allowing her to argue at length that her betrayal of Samson will give her glory among her people as surely as Samson’s feats give him glory among his.  Only the Chorus, and the decisive results of Samson’s final act, reveal clearly that Dalila is “a manifest Serpent by her sting / Discover’d in the end, till now conceal’d” (1098-9).  With one cleverly punning line (not only is her sting found out at last, but it resides in her “end” in a sexual sense, and also in her “end” in the sense of intention), the Chorus sums up the character of Dalila.  Acting the role of an Aeneas, a betrayer of hearth in favor of civic duty, she may call into question the legitimacy of his great betrayal; but she certainly reveals herself to be less than heroic.

In the end, the Miltonic hero is revealed to be a problematic one; as Flanagan asks, “Could Milton have been celebrating the glory of an isolated terrorist?” (795)  In one sense, I would answer, “Yes.”  Certainly, Milton does view Samson’s repudiation of Dalila, his rejection of a life of dotage with an unfaithful woman in favor of his public duty as defender of an ungrateful people, as heroic.  In so doing, he actually casts Samson back in the role of Aeneas, the warrior who must reject domestic happiness in favor of civic achievement.

By reversing the heroic roles in the encounter with Dalila, however, Milton brings this simple equation into question.  If Samson is Dido, betrayed to death by an enemy motivated by civic duty, then he is also–on his own account, and with reference to Dido’s–betrayed by his own weakness.  Samson crosses the boundaries of his civic duty, as does Dido, by a “secret love” which has dire consequences for his role as protector.  If Dalila, like Aeneas, betrays her spouse in answer to the call of the gods and lust for glory, then surely Samson’s own resemblance to the heroic Aeneas raises questions about both characters.

Milton’s hero, like the much-celebrated “Byronic hero” of the nineteenth century which he strongly anticipates, is not a hero because of intrinsic strength.  Inwardly, he is weak and conflicted, drawn by contradictory impulses toward voluptuousness and self-destruction.  Unlike the Byronic hero, however, Milton’s Samson does not die vainly; and he is not converted to a life of peaceful dotage.  That his death, like Dido’s, is the tragic consequence of weakness exploited by betrayal is certain; that his death fulfills, in the only way left to him, the calling for which his strength was given, indicates the possibility of hope even in tragedy.  Here Milton’s Christian vision fulfills the promise of the Hebrew original, while superseding both its classical antecedents and Romantic successors:  the power that matters to Milton is extrinsic, divinely granted, and while its abuse has dire consequences, it remains always ready to transform life and culture.  Milton’s solitary hero may be, by his own weakness and lack of vision–figuratively and literally–a tragic waste of a much greater potential; but he is made adequate to the task at hand, and in his death accomplishes what Milton in 1671 could only dream of–and write about.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans.  The Aeneid.  Virgil.  New York:  Random House, 1990.

Flanagan, Roy.  Introduction.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.  784-798.

Milton, John.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  799-844.

Virgil.  The Aeneid bks 4, 6.  Latin Poetry.  Wilber Lester Carr and Harry E. Wedeck, eds.  Boston:  D. C. Heath and Company, 1940.