Measuring Doctrine by Poetry

One great thing about being a humanities major is that it helps you to despise all the money you’ll never make. Another great thing about it is that it prepares you for approaching religious literature in ways that, mysteriously enough, don’t seem to occur to so many people with a background in “biblical studies” or “systematic theology” or whatnot. Not that these disciplines are bad, mind you. It’s just that there are days when I wish people would let their hair down and not read every bit of Christian literature as though it is a term in a syllogism or a piece of evidence in a murder trial.

Take for, instance a man I know (we’ll call him “Bob”) who found a bunch of Marian prayers containing gobs of effusive language about her. Augustine, no slacker in the purple prose department, wrote:

O Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily repay thee thy just dues of praise and thanksgiving, thou who by the wondrous assent of thy will didst rescue a fallen world? What songs of praise can our weak human nature recite in thy honor, since it is by thy intervention alone that it has found the way to restoration? Accept, then, such poor thanks as we have here to offer, though they be unequal to thy merits; and, receiving our vows, obtain by thy prayers the remission of our offenses. Carry thou our prayers within the sanctuary of the heavenly audience, and bring forth from it the antidote of our reconciliation. May the sins we bring before Almighty God through thee, become pardonable through thee; may what we ask for with sure confidence, through thee be granted. Take our offering, grant us our requests, obtain pardon for what we fear, for thou art the sole hope of sinners. Through thee we hope for the remission of our sins, and in thee, O blessed Lady, is our hope of reward. Holy Mary, succor the miserable, help the fainthearted, comfort the sorrowful, pray for thy people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God; may all who keep thy holy commemoration feel now thy help and protection. Be thou ever ready to assist us when we pray, and bring back to us the answers to our prayers. Make it thy continual care to pray for the people of God, thou who, blessed by God, didst merit to bear the Redeemer of the world, who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.

Just the phrase “for thou art the sole hope of sinners” was enough to give Bob pause but, of course, there’s lots more where that comes from in Catholic devotional literature, such as

“Listen, all you who desire the kingdom of God: honor the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, and you will find life and eternal salvation.” (Psalt. B.V. ps.48)


“O Mary, we poor sinners know no other refuge than thee, for thou art our only hope, and on thee we rely for our salvation.” — St. Thomas of Villanova

Likewise, if you are into this sort of thing, St. Louis de Montfort and St. Alphonsus Liguori are great at it. This sort of florid language in prayer is rather common in Catholic (and especially Mediterranean) piety. And, of course, downloaded off the Internet without context or explanation, it makes a rich source of gasps for people looking for ways to be shocked by Catholic devotion to Mary. Indeed, a favorite practice by those terrified of Marian piety is to pore over a particularly gushy prayer or devotion to Mary and footnote it as evidence of the alleged “theological errors of Romanism”.

What this practice invariably fails to take into account, however, is that such language is poetic, not doctrinal and that it is a commonplace for poetic language, under the influence of love, to make extreme and (strictly speaking) inaccurate statements. Looking to a florid prayer to Mary or a saint is an excellent way to get a grasp of how Catholics with a strong Marian piety feel about Mary or the saint. It is an extraordinarily bad way of critiquing Catholic theology, however. And the surest proof of that is gained, not by poring over Catholic prayers and devotions, but by looking at any language by anybody when they are writing under the influence of love.

Here, for example, is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” from her Sonnets from the Portuguese. It was written privately to her husband, Robert Browning, and was not intended for publication till Mr. Browning, impressed with the work of his “Little Portugee” insisted that she publish her poetry. Any sane person, reading this passionate love poetry, recognizes that he is reading… well, passionate love poetry and does not demand that Mrs. Browning write with syllogistic and systematic accuracy acceptable to a panel of theologians. But let us, for the moment, subject poor Elizabeth’s work to the same kind of scrutiny that poor St. Augustine’s or Thomas of Villanova’s or Louis de Montfort’s equally passionate poetry receives from critics of the Catholic faith. Let us, with their gimlet eye for the heretical, highlight the damning passages which clearly prove the sinister theological errors informing…er… Browningism:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach
1, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace2.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely
3, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,–I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!–and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death4.

1 Here we see the shockingly idolatrous core of Browningism. Mrs. Browning’s real religion is nothing less the worship and adoration of a mere creature: Robert Browning. Clearly this constitutes a complete rejection of the Bible-believer’s doctrine of God.

2 Ascribes to a mere creature (Robert Browning) the ultimate Perfections reserved only to God himself: the “ends of Being and Ideal Grace”.

3 This passage is a clear expression of the Pelagian (or at least semi-Pelagian) underpinnings of Browningism. It constitutes a clear denial of the biblical doctrine of Original Sin since no fallen human being can love “purely” or “freely” without the aid of divine grace. Obviously, Mrs. Browning rejects the entire biblical doctrine of justification by grace.

4 Bible-based Christianity rejects the practice of necromancy. Mrs. Browning is advocating the practice of spiritism and witchcraft.

Worse still, Browning is not the only one. Here is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XVIII”, another damning piece of evidence showing that many poets seem to be riddled with gross theological errors:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven1 shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d2;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

1 Commits crude pagan error of identifying the sun with the eye of God.

2 Denies God’s sovereign and providential rule of nature and ascribes alterations in nature to either “chance” or nature itself.

3 The last six lines of the sonnet constitute the idolatrous, heretical and blasphemous claim that eternal life is given to the recipient of this sonnet, not through trust in Jesus Christ, but through Shakespeare’s own poetry.

And so on and so forth. We can continue forever in flat-footed incomprehension of poetic language and inquisitorial dullness. Examples from non-Christian or Protestant or just plain human poets in praise of the beloved can be multiplied till the cows come home. But the point is relatively simple: devotional poetry, whether the object of devotion is Mary or one’s spouse, tends to use this sort of all-consuming language.

We may wish very much that this were not so. If we are of a particular personality type that tends to prize absolute syllogistic precision over poetry, we may complain that this is not our cup of tea. And we are free to do so. But this is an aesthetic, not a theological judgment. And that’s the point: Don’t try to construct a critique of Catholic Marian theology (or of Browning’s or Shakespeare’s beautiful work) on some tin-eared platform of “Evidence for the Prosecution” which takes poetic language and tries to press it into a strict syllogistic argument. When a Catholic poet, meditating on Mary’s “fiat” in the Incarnation, praises her as our “only hope” he is not, strictly speaking, accurate just as Shakespeare is not, strictly speaking accurate in ascribing “eternal summer” to his poetry. On the other hand, it is on Mary’s freely given “yes” the fate of the world did hinge and a Catholic poet, aware that the larger reality of God sovereignty exists as well, remains in the bounds of poetic speech to describe her as our “only hope” just as we can describe a good surgeon as the “only hope” of my badly injured friend without rejecting the sovereignty of God. In so doing, we merely use human language in a human way. In common discourse we can understand that with relatively little effort.

The moral of this little Lit Crit lesson is simple: Read poetry as poetry and theology as theology. Devotional prayers and poetry are not the same things as nuanced conciliar, ecclesial and papal formulations of doctrine. So do not judge them by identical standards but use the common sense you employ when you are reading any sort of non-religious literature and

“let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing.”


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