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Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

, 184 pages
August 2017



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Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period


Following the religious turn in other disciplines, literary critics have emphasized how modernists like Woolf and Joyce were haunted by Christianity’s cultural traces despite their own lack of belief. In Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, Anthony Domestico takes a different tack, arguing that modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and David Jones were interested not just in the aesthetic or social implications of religious experience but also in the philosophically rigorous, dogmatic vision put forward by contemporary theology.

These poets took seriously the truth claims of Christian theology: for them, religion involved intellectual and emotional assent, doctrinal articulation, and ritual practice. Domestico reveals how an important strand of modern poetry actually understood itself in and through the central theological questions of the modernist era: What is transcendence, and how can we think and write about it? What is the sacramental act, and how does its wedding of the immanent and the transcendent inform the poetic act? How can we relate kairos (holy time) to chronos (clock time)?

Seeking answers to these complex questions, Domestico examines both modernist institutions (the Criterion) and specific works of modern poetry (Eliot’s Four Quartets and Jones’s The Anathemata). The book also traces the contours of what it dubs "theological modernism": a body of poetry that is both theological and modernist. In doing so, this book offers a new literary history of the modernist period, one that attends both to the material circulation of texts and to the broader intellectual currents of the time.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and a books columnist for Commonweal.

"A significant addition to our understanding of the poetry and poetics of Eliot, Jones, and Auden, all three of whom look at the central importance of Christian theology as a way of understanding the unfolding history of humankind through the fractured and fracturing lens of modernism. Highly informative and enlightening."

"Why did modernist poets seek out theology as the fuel for their poetics? That they did so, and why and how, is the news Domestico tells. Through little-known intellectual histories and a well-known poetic corpus, he allows readers of this poetry to 'reclaim ideas' as the poets themselves did. Domestico's exceptionally graceful writing makes vivid both their thought and his own."

"Call it theology, or Christian doctrine, or religious thought: Anthony Domestico shows that it drew and held the attention of three distinctive poets—poets at once modern and neo-traditional—and that it shaped their poetry decisively. He does so with sufficient subtlety and delicacy that the question of whether those poets were representatives of their age or outriders from it lurks provocatively beneath his text the way the substratum of the Christian tradition lies beneath theirs."

"There is certainly no easy way to replicate the environment of the interwar period, but Anthony Domestico is to be commended for implanting such a desire in his readers. Perhaps some of these readers will be stirred to action. I for one would love to hold a contemporary equivalent to the Criterion in my hands, and I believe that Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period succeeds in that it will make others want this as well."

"This brief but substantial study details how contemporary theological debates were part and parcel of the wider intellectual climate of modernism, as well as a specific influence on poetry by T. S. Eliot, David Jones, and W. H. Auden. It is a welcome addition to recent work on the inescapable and continuing influence of Christianity at every stage of the modernist project."

"I also recently read Anthony Domestico’s wonderful and revelatory critical book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, which has much to say about whether poetry and theology can nourish each other (for many of the modern poets, Domestico argues quite convincingly, they certainly did)."

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