Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite: Book Review
Does poetry matter? Yes indeed, very much so, and Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry goes a long way toward showing why and how. Today we live in a culture that habitually sees Reason and Imagination as separate and in conflict. Poetry can help us see that Truth is far richer and deeper than we usually think, and that reality must be both comprehended and apprehended.
Guite sets out the frame of his argument in the first chapter, and does a brilliant, careful reading of two poems to demonstrate the approach that he will take. This section, with its reading of George Herbert’s “Prayer” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick,” is worth the price of the book by itself (and yes, I’m aware that it’s an expensive book!). Guite goes on in the rest of the book to apply the same kind of thoughtful analysis to a selection of key poets from the medieval period to the modern day.
The book’s importance for literary apologetics is twofold. First, Guite helps us see clearly and deeply how poetry allows us to know truth in a different but complementary way to propositional, rational argument. It is a compelling argument for the importance of Imagination in the pursuit of Truth, which is a great achievement in itself. The specific close readings of the works provide a model for apologists of how to interact with poetry on poetry’s terms, and thus enter into an imaginative experience of great power.
Second, the overall arc of the book, including poetry that may be overlooked in the modern day, helps us see the shift in thinking that occurred at the Enlightenment and realize that we need not (and indeed must not) buy in to the Reason-Imagination / Knowledge -Faith split that is simply assumed in most modern culture (including within the church). Guite takes us through The Dream of the Rood, that marvelous Anglo-Saxon dream-vision poem of the Crucifixion, to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, and on through Coleridge, and modern poets like Geoffrey Hill (showing that a non-believing poet who is faithful to his work can also show us a powerful glimpse of truth).
Guite is a perfect guide here because he truly understands (experientially) the power of poetry to shape, convert, and baptize the imagination. Poetry has changed his life (as it has mine!). He is a faithful Christian and a brilliant academic; a priest and a poet himself (and an extraordinary one). In other words, Faith, Hope and Poetry (and Guite’s work in general) is valuable not just for its specific insights, but also for its model of how to think, feel, and respond with both heart and mind as a Christian in the modern world.
Malcolm Guite is a poet, priest, singer-songwriter, and scholar who lives in Cambridge, England. His web site is www.malcolmguite.com.