The Poetic Imagination: Interview with David Lyle Jeffrey

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 3 Issue 1
Winter 2020

The Poetic Imagination: Interview with David Lyle Jeffrey
By David Mahan

David Lyle Jeffrey is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University where he has been teaching courses on medieval literature, the Bible as literature, medieval exegesis, biblical hermeneutics and literary theory, biblical tradition in the arts, art and biblical theology, and literature and philosophy and aesthetics. He is the author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books, including most recently In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (2017) and the just released Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (2019).

DM: Let me begin by thanking you, David, not only for doing this interview but for your dedication to the study of religion and literature, which offers such a rich legacy for those of us who share this passion. Thinking about such a long-standing commitment, I’m curious to learn what first sparked your conviction that religion and literature stand in vital relationship to each other.

DLJ: I first discovered the power of literary expression for matters of faith as an undergraduate student at Wheaton College, where among many excellent teachers, Beatrice Batson, Clyde Kilby and my Old Testament teacher, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. were formative. Batson opened my eyes to the natural connection between poetry and prayer—poetry and meditation—in a course on John Donne and George Herbert, Kilby opened my heart to the mythopoeic writing of the Inklings, and Kaiser fired my imagination with his magnificent exposition of biblical language, in which I found the most exquisite literary powers of all, the very foundation of our literary tradition. After their introduction, finding rich connections between the Scriptures and poetry throughout my doctoral studies at Princeton and beyond was unavoidable.

DM: We can get a sense of significant influences on your work from your publications, but could you share which authors or thinkers have most sustained this conviction over the course of your career, and what was it that you found so inspirational?

DLJ: I intended at Princeton to work with modern European authors both Christian and those sympathetic; Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene and Raymond Abellio were among my principal interests. However, my would-be dissertation director died suddenly just weeks before the beginning of the fall term, leading me to substitute a seminar in Chaucer with D.W. Robertson, Jr. While Robertson presented himself as an agnostic, his encyclopedic knowledge of the Christian theological tradition from the early fathers through the fourteenth century was transformative for me. Studying with him fueled my love of language learning, while my resistance to his preference of the medieval exegetes to the biblical texts—for them the matrix of all theology—sent me back to biblical languages in the ad fontes fashion Erasmus and later the Ressourcement theologians recommend.

As one raised in Canada within the faithful but relatively narrow religious affections of the Scottish Baptist tradition, these explorations opened my eyes to the bottomless riches of both Scripture itself and the literary artistry inspired by it. Studying not only the poetry of Chaucer and Dante, but that of their predecessors in British and European Christian verse, sharpened my appetite for a range of excellent poets over the centuries, among whom Hopkins and Herbert exemplify my appreciation of the power of poetry to articulate prayer in a fashion the Psalmist would recognize as continuous with his own. Thus, though as a first-generation college student I was attracted most to the easy accessibility of modern fiction, the blessings of my graduate education granted me an opportunity to spend more and more time with poetry, not only in English but in other languages.

DM: Are there modern or contemporary writers whom you admire, who we may say ‘carry the torch’ of those who wed deep religious conviction with exceptional literary artistry?

DLJ: There are some wonderful modern poets writing out of their personal Christian faith, and still others for whom Scripture and religious culture fuels their interests as well as their style and language. My list of favorites is too long for inclusion here, but among American poets I would place the magnificent Richard Wilbur in the first group, Anthony Hecht and Gjertrud Schnackenberg in the second. But there are so many more—and not just in English. Another is surely Micheal O’Siadhail, whose recent epic poem The Five Quintets is not only a response to T.S. Eliot, but also an homage to Dante, Auden, Seamus Heaney and others. O’Siadhail’s great poem, a tour de force of formal mastery, is a call to Christian readers to re-enter the deep world of Christian poetic tradition and its many languages, while Wilbur’s work invites us to see, in a thoroughly Christian way, how ‘love calls us to the things of this world’ as well as to the eternal felicity of heaven. Dana Gioia is a poet in Wilbur’s model, and his work holds similar promise and good purpose.

DM: What qualities of religious or Christian poets do you think we most need for our own cultural moment?

DLJ: We need poets of both types, that is, those influenced by religious culture and committed Christians: one to re-educate us in the magnificence of the literary tradition which long has enriched and bolstered our faith, the other to soften our hearts and move us to pray. 

DM: In a recent review of your latest book you are quoted saying what I take to be one of your deepest convictions, that “God is a poet” and very often “speaks like a poet.” With an eye to the broader field of literary studies, there are many who would applaud this view while others who may find it problematic, including those with religious faith. Why do you think this perspective still has currency today, and what would you say to those who may resist it, especially when we still find many critics and writers who feel that religion has only a marginal importance to literature?

DLJ: It is difficult to find a serious writer—inside or outside of faith—who does not think that part of the purpose of his/her writing is to touch on realities much deeper than meets the casual glance. In that sense, a great deal of literary writing is meditative, and the general subject of that meditation, broadly speaking, is ‘the meaning of life.’ If a writer thinks of the meaning of life in narrowly materialist or crudely Darwinian terms, then their work will offer insights into that world such as may stimulate our lower imagination and senses, but when a writer composes out of his or her keen search for spiritual understanding, then it will be our religious sensibilities that are aroused, and our own quest for spiritual meaning will be kindled. When we see how much of the Bible has the voice of God expressing his aspirations for his hearer’s understanding—whether in the magnificent divine speeches in Job, the powerful poetry of his Word to the prophets or in the careful fictional engagements of his likewise tone-deaf hearers in the parables of Jesus—we see that the purposes of divine poetry in Scripture are to rouse those who have ‘ears to hear’ to go much deeper than appearances to an enduring reality, namely that God calls us, through the things of this world (cf. Romans 1:20) to the invisible but far greater and all-pervasive Reality of his Presence.

DM: Can you say more about how Scripture informs our understanding of poetic language in particular? 

DLJ: The fact that Scripture speaks of the most important things, namely the purposes of God in Christ, by means of a language that employs metaphor and mythopoesis as well as categorical imperatives, can be unsettling to those who identify all poesis with fiction rather than with truth. I am sympathetic to the good intention of people who hold such a view; they seek to protect the authority of Scripture. What I endeavor to say to them is that they should by all means hold to their high view of Scripture, for it has never been more necessary to do so. Ours is an age of apostasy. But I would have them consider that, as we learn in Matthew 13, the purpose of poetic discourse in the Bible generally is to discern the heart’s intention, so that one who truly is seeking to hear, and thus to know God, will be set on track to that knowing through a recognition that, as Isaiah 55:8-9 suggests, God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and that some essential truths of his Word are receivable by us only in this figural way as a consequence. Thus, in the realm of the hardhearted, poetry speaks to those who, like little children, still have a heart soft enough to hear. The old children’s hymn, “Tell me the stories of Jesus,” gets at this point pretty well. As Matthew notes of Jesus, “Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables, and without a parable he did not speak to them” (Matt. 13:34). 

DM: What would you say to those for whom Scripture is not a point of reference, and who feel there are other legitimate sources that engender a high view of the imagination and works of the literary imagination?

DLJ: There are many sources of inspiration for the poetic imagination. Nature (as for the Romantics), pagan masterworks (as for Lewis and Tolkien), Eastern religions (as for Hesse and Rushdie), and occult magical lore for others, including writers as diverse as Yeats and Margaret Atwood. All such sources fire the literary imagination because they suggest that Reality is more than meets the normal eye, that there are powers in the universe to which the imagination may attune itself in ways that illuminate or empower the soul. Or seem to. This confirms our normal human intuition that there is something more out there. It is in this sense, I think, that we can look upon all imaginative literature as incipiently religious expression or spiritual inquiry. 

For writers for whom Scripture is the most fruitful means of access to the sacred, biblical texts and the poetry responding to it compose a rich and inexhaustible conversation into which the poetic imagination may enter. On the other side of the door we find ourselves, as if in a great Symposium, in an almost limitless banquet of affirmation—that yes, we do mean something, something lovely, and that there lies before us, if we choose to join the conversation, a future finer than dreams.

DM: We have had some interaction with each other about the Christian Poetics Initiative, which several of us launched a couple of years ago. I’m always interested to hear how it ‘plays’ among other Christian literary scholars, even as we remain very much in a process of discovery about its meaning and significance. What is your own sense about the relevance of this project for both religious and non-religious scholars? Where do you see its promise, and how would you caution those who are pursuing such an undertaking, or ‘a Christian poetics for the 21st century?’ as some of us have called it?

DLJ: In recent literary criticism, the so-called ‘turn to religion’ is a belated recognition from within a largely secularist literary guild that part of the atrophy of the discipline owes to exclusion of the very well-spring of our literary tradition, the view of spiritual realities which formed the poetic imaginations of poets from Caedmon to Auden and beyond. As a result of leaving Christianity out, vast tracts of the canon have become nearly unteachable; as a result of trying to replace religious meaning in the great writers with ideologically oriented interpretation and application largely obscuring of their literary achievements we have occasioned a massive loss of interest among undergraduate students. The Christian Poetics Initiative, in my opinion, is a very timely response. It has a great potential to inspire younger scholars and, indeed, poets themselves. I suspect that to achieve that potential, engagement with established groups of sympathetic scholars (e.g. Religion and Literature, Christianity and Literature, etc.), sponsoring sessions at their conferences perhaps, will be desirable. I suggest that such sessions focus on poetry, the genre(s) most neglected in postmodernism. We should endeavor to restore poetry to its pre-eminence in the study of literature generally. Secular scholars and students can only be enriched by a ‘turn to poetry’ as well as a ‘turn to religion.’ Both, of course, might more accurately be termed a ‘return,’ revertere; for some though not all, such a return will be a path home, possibly even convertere in Augustine’s sense (Conf. 8). 

David Lyle Jeffrey, FRSC
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Baylor Institute for Studies in Religion; Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities, Baylor University

David Mahan
Lecturer in Religion and Literature
Institute of Sacred Music, Yale Divinity School
Co-Director, Rivendell Centre for Theology and the Arts

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.