The First Metaphysical Poet

Nearly a century ago, T.S. Eliot gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University on The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry. He always intended to revise and publish them, but other responsibilities intervened for the busy poet, critic, and editor, and the lectures did not appear until decades after his death. Lectures by a famously difficult poet on an obscure and arcane subject are not likely to matter much to the great majority of mankind, and yet Eliot’s contain some of the most revealing and insightful observations about the nature of religion we may find.

Half a century earlier, the first auditors of St. John Henry Newman’s sermons had felt themselves laid bare by his insights on the complacent religion of the nineteenth century. From his pulpit, Newman argued that the modern Englishman had reduced religion’s essence to kind sentiments and warm feelings, and its outward substance to common-sense moral duties. It was his great cause to reassert the dogmatic principle: the Christian religion is a conviction of the mind not just the heart, although these two naturally function together; the Christian religion is a creed, a declaration of belief about the way things are, before it is a practical ethic, although these things function together.

Eliot, still more than a year away from his own conversion to such a dogmatic faith, was already arguing for it in the lectures. As if taking up Newman’s cudgel, he hammers away at the sentimentality of nineteenth-century religious poetry and of modern Christian spirituality more generally, before he takes an unexpected turn. Eliot observes that St. Theresa of Avila, the great mystic, and Christina Rossetti, the pious Victorian poet, have one thing in common: When they write of their religious devotion, their love of God, they simply “substitute” the name of God for that of a romantic beloved. They “substitute divine love for human love” so that the former takes on “characteristics of the latter.”

He then concludes,

It has been, I think – it is for me, at all events – one of the reasons for the general inferiority, or let us say less positively, of the general un-satisfactoriness, of the devotional verse of the last three hundred years, this substitution of the divine passion by the human.  Instead of being presented with a new passion, we find only the old one with a new, and slightly unreal object.  The emotion is the same emotion watered down.  I used to think that my inability to feel devotional verse – such as that of Christina Rossetti, who is a diluted Theresa – was due to the weakness of my own flesh and spirit; but that was before I had read [Dante’s] Paradiso, or any of the Latin hymns from Prudentius to Aquinas.

The contrast is just. Rossetti speaks of her passions such that they become the very subject of her poetry. When Dante ascends to heaven, in the Paradiso, we see what Dante sees; we know the substance of his feeling and understand its meaning. He doesn’t have to tell us his feelings (even though indeed he does), because we directly encounter their basis. This capacity Eliot praises as one also belonging to the great metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century – the ability “to make the Word Flesh.”

I thought of this recently, while helping direct a retreat at St. Louis Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Missouri. So much of monastic life consists of submitting oneself to the substance of things hoped for. The Liturgy of the Hours, in particular, with its extensive chanting of the Psalms, does not attempt to find fresh words for religious feeling, but, to the contrary, leads us to set our feelings aside and to lose ourselves in the ancient language of the Church and of God’s self-revelation.


That a sensation of peace and complacency almost immediately supervenes is a mere effect, a secondary inevitability; what is primary is the union of voices in the universal prayer of the Church rising constantly upward to God. What is primary, in other words, is the way the monastic discipline “makes the Word Flesh,” by ordering the whole self, body and spirit, to the praise of the Lord.

The subject of the retreat was Saint Thomas Aquinas, or rather the five Latin hymns of Aquinas, four of which were composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Our procedure was simple. We read the hymns aloud and tried to see the way in which Aquinas’s verse-craft draws one deeper into the substance of the mystery of the Body of Christ.

It did not take the retreatants long to begin doing so. When we read the great “Pange, Lingua, Gloriosi,” for instance, not just the explicit meaning but the arrangement of words came to appear like a deep mystery.

In the English translation that we read, the hymn begins,

Acclaim, my tongue, this mystery
Of glorious Body and precious Blood
Which the King of nations shed for us
A noble womb’s sole fruitful bud.

The Incarnation declares itself in these words: the mystery that Christ, our King, should give body and blood for our sake, and that God should be born of a woman’s womb. But Aquinas’s Latin contains depths beyond this prose summary. The Latin stanza runs:

Pange, lingua, gloriosi
Corporis mysterium
Sanguinisque pretiosi
Quen in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit gentium.

Consider just the first three lines. After “Pange,” or “Acclaim,” they consist of only six words: “tongue,” “body,” and “blood” paired with “glorious,” “mysterious” and “precious.” In each line, a word of humble flesh is paired with a word expressive of transcendent divinity. We see in each individual line the union of humanity and divinity.

The hymn is not just about the Incarnation, it shows us the Incarnation in the flesh of words. Aquinas did not merely anticipate the great metaphysical poets; he was the first among them, and the substantial brilliance of his hymns helped lead that modern metaphysical poet, Eliot, toward the Body of Christ.


*Image: St. Thomas Aquinas (artist and date unknown) [Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro de Álava, Spain]

You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s Beginning St. Thomas Aquinas

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s St. Thomas Aquinas

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.