The Incarnation of the Poetic Word

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The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy. Michael Martin. Kettering OH: Angelico Press, 2017.


In these theological and philosophical essays on poetry and philosophy, as Martin describes them in his subtitle, we are presented with what amounts to a pioneering work in the burgeoning field of agapeic (literary) criticism. What is this “new” area, precisely? Martin explains:

“My appeal, then is to what I have called (inspired by William Desmond) an agapeic criticism. In agapeic criticism we approach the text in an attitude of respect and reverence, avoiding the temptation to colonize it with premeditated assumptions. Taking this approach, we participate in the text in a spirit of charity. Through the risk inherent to this participation, we expose ourselves to possibility.” (Martin, 2017, 98)

What has inspired Martin here is the metaphysical element of Desmond’s “new” Hegelianism (Desmond has provided a foreword for this book).  Desmond gives us the dynamic triad of univocalty, equivocity and dialectic and develops this in the light of the agapeic, as he understands it. For Desmond the agapeic is a very precise manifestation of astonishment. He describes it thus:

“I mean something like this. The advent of metaphysical thinking is in a primal astonishment. Astonishment itself is primal. It is elemental and irreducible. Plato speaks of thaumazein as the pathos of the philosopher. This is sometimes translated as wonder and this is not appropriate. Astonishment, however, captures the sense of being rocked back on one’s heels, as it were, by the otherness of being in its givenness. Plato says pathos: there is a pathology in metaphysics. There is a suffering, an undergoing; there is a patience of being; there is a receiving that is not the production of the metaphysician or mind. This pathology of metaphysics, this patience of astonishment suggests being as primarily given in its otherness. In astonishment one does not take possession of, or grasp anything. One finds oneself illuminated by a sudden surge of light: something – exactly what is hard to fix – is being revealed. One does not take hold of an object, one is taken hold of by this surge of light, taken out of oneself. One is impelled to self-transcendence by an initially unchosen illumination that is not objectified.” (Desmond, 1995, 8).

We may well ask, what would a literary criticism that fully took on board this approach actually look like? Martin will give us some examples. His modus operandi will be fully dynamic, appropriately enough, and he will see his essays as “a playful and serious engagement with their subjects, a metaxological space where the distinctions between philosophy, theology, and poetry are indistinguishable and the beautiful curtain of the world begins to shimmer, if only a little” (Martin, 2017, 3). Admirable enough, but do we see perhaps see a “risk” already in this “participatory” approach, do we “expose ourselves to the possibility” of a negative univocality if we render “distinctions” “indistinguishable”? Will the risk be worth it?

Martin focuses on poetry which he rightly sees as a “special” case in literature. A poem is neither fiction nor fact; rather it is a form which would transcend these “limitations” (especially in the metaphysical and Romantic poets that Martin focuses on here). The poet, as it were, especially “throws” him or herself into the middle space between writer and reader and invites a meeting where, as Wolfgang Iser observed many years ago, a kind of “third” being who is neither the author nor the reader, but somehow “more” than either emerges into being out of the “metaxological space”. The concept of the metaxu – the in-between – is of central importance to Both Desmond and Martin; it functions in the same way as in Voegelin, where, following Plato, he situates existence in the, as he terms it, metaxy, where it also designates the in-between. This in-between quality to existence is what imparts the unavoidable element of equivocity precisely that which finally renders univocity, or univocal reductions, an impossibility, and thus finally an illusion which, if we are honest with ourselves, means we are always situated in the dialectica-moving-beyond-itself process of being and being things.

Martin sees George Herbert as a poet whose work exemplifies a consciousness of this dynamic quality. He gives us the example of Simone Weil’s relationship with Herbert’s poem “Love”. He tells us “she lived with this poem, moving beyond analysis and dialectic and opening herself to the poem itself quite naturally but in the way one might cultivate a garden – in patient waiting, acceptance, abiding attention. What she did not do was bother herself with trying to ‘understand’ the poem or categorize it according to a pre-determined critical apparatus” (Ibid, 12). And yet, perhaps with a sense of paradox, we must try and analyze this non-analytical participatory perception in which a “third” being, neither Herbert nor Weil exactly, nor not them either, but a sameness in difference, and vice-versa, come into being. The agapeic sense, here, is Herbert’s, conveyed through his poetic art and received by his reader (in this instance, Weil), a reception which “changes” them (and her reading of this poem, as Martin tells us, certainly had a life-changing effect on Weil); yet, reciprocally, Herbert’s original participatory experience, which he has attempted to disclose in the poem, can never be entirely reproduced in any reading (it is obviously specific to the individual who lived at a certain time and place), but if the medium is a successful source of conveyance, and “Love” surely is a poem where “the beautiful curtain of the world begins to shimmer”, then as in Weil’s response to it demonstrates, it takes on a dialectical, dynamic quality that becomes a positive aspect of no less than the process of cosmos.

Martin also looks at the work of Herrick, in many ways a very different poet to Herbert, but one who can also be shown to have a sense of the “primal astonishment”, that reflective distance that goes forward, and yet also goes back in a way that would transcend mere directionality, as it would transcend mere time and place in its tension toward the divine Beyond. Martin draws our attention to the very “earthy” and sensuous elements in Herrick, his acute sense of the physical, even carnal, but always with a sense of how this physicality is too an aspect of the transcendent, and this is what tempers and balances the celebratory strain in Herrick’s work. Martin notes this in Herrick’s “otherwise celebratory ‘Corinna’s going a Maying’”:

And as a vapour, or a drop of raine

Once lost, can never be found againe:

So when you or I are made

A fable, song, or fleeting shade;

All love, all liking, all delight

Lies drowned with us in endless night.

Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;

Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying. (Ibid: 82)

Yes, this is melancholy, but, as Martin points out, drawing on Charles Taylor’s sense of Communitas, Herrick is still celebrating “an element of human flourishing seriously compromised by the various reform movements, by the Enlightenment, and by all that goes by the name of ‘modernity’”(ibid, 82, emphasis in original). And it is this sense of Communitas that Martin sees celebrated, “in the sacred (liturgy, preaching, communal prayer, pilgrimage), in the profane (carnival in all of its manifestations) and where both meet and coalesce in the life of the parish” (Ibid, 82)—a life, a “cosmological reality” (that) “the Protestant Reformation effectively destroyed” (Ibid, 83) however unintentionally. Martin provides another example of Communitas in Nicholas and Mary Ferrar’s experiment-in-community at Little Gidding, seeing it as an attempt from within Anglicanism at cultural preservation against further “being harmed by a rage for reformation,” appositely quoting Michael Walzer’s observation that “Calvinist saintliness, after all, has scarred us all”.

The sensuousness and the sensibility that empathises with it, that Martin is describing, whether his examples are a poem, or an actual community, are also examples of agapeic mindfulness of the human body in its aesthetic “thingness.” This exemplifies Desmond’s observation that “[a]gapeic mind is the origin of ontological appreciation and also the consummation of mindfulness that reaffirms its community with things, the aesthetic joy of this community” (Desmond, 1995, 311, emphasis added).

Which brings us to the catholicity of Martin’s work (and indeed Desmond’s). Martin describes his enterprise as a phenomenology, and it is, with overtones of Mariology; he sees the agapeic poets and poetry that he has been discussing (and there are many more than just the two I have referred to here) as “The Poetic of Sophia”, in which “The arrival of the Beautiful is facilitated by – indeed unimaginable apart from – a contemplative presence to phenomena. Reverie, the playful abiding in an imaginal realm between the noumenal and physical worlds, provides an opening to this presence. Reverie, in the disappearance of time that seems to take place in its dimensions, allows us to be present to the things of this world and additionally, as Gaston  Bachelard has observed ‘puts us in the state of a soul being born’” (Ibid, 97). Martin is rightly fearful that this reverential contemplation is being lost, or certainly denied, yet as he asks “Does anyone study the humanities seriously – certainly at what could be called a ‘professional level’ – without having had such an experience?” (Such as Weil’s with Herbert’s poem “Love”). He suggests that it is “difficult to imagine this not being the case” but laments that “all too often, that initial enthusiasm and astonishment becomes disfigured as sarcasm, suspicion, even contempt, perhaps especially in the case of the ‘professionals’” (Ibid, 6).

These are timely and valid points, and Martin’s literary choices[1] and his essays with their fusion of theology and philosophy, make a compelling case for this type of literary discussion (I will not say “analysis” and thus invoke its connotations of dissection), as they provide a kind of route-map (both essays and texts – remembering that a map is not the territory) with directions both forwards and backwards (as befits our metaxic situation – in the between) which would wish to allow us to find or, more accurately, recreate that sense of agapeic astonishment that is so sorely lacking, and so desperately needed, in these our post-modern times.

To return, finally, to the question I proposed earlier. Is there a “risk” of the univocal intruding even here? For Desmond, and for Voegelin, the temptation to succumb to the pseudo-certainties of the determinate (Voegelin’s “Second Realities”) is always present: so great is our need for “solid ground” even as the Ground must remain, for both of these thinkers, finally an equivocal Beyond. The Catholicism that informs Martin’s work (perhaps especially his view of the importance of the Eucharist) stays true to the catholicism, in the sense of the intimate universality (Desmond’s phrase) that the poets that he presents does; he has acknowledged that “The Catholicism I here invoke is not that of a doctrinaire confessionalism; nor does it exclude those not playing for the Team Rome. Rather, this Catholicism simply acknowledges the truth. Phenomena disclose their truths to us, and, at times, a greater Truth simultaneously shines through them. This greater Truth is an echo of Him Who is the Truth” (36).

Now the question of truth – especially the Truth – is, to understate it, a large one, and many readers who are not Roman Catholics may see this gendered notion of “Him Who is the Truth” as precisely that gap into which the univocal may intrude; and it may be a valid concern. However, Martin’s Roman Catholicism does strive to maintain the “playful and serious” (my emphasis) dynamism he has earlier promised us. It partakes of a notion of truth/Truth that looks beyond, indeed towards the Beyond, that would risk but avoid what Voegelin would call “doctrinal deformation” in his attempts to stay true to the originary participatory experiences that have moved both him and his chosen poets to shift that curtain that so persistently seems to preclude our consciousness of the shimmering truth – even “if only a little”.



Desmond, William (1995) Being and Between. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Martin, Michael (2017) The Incarnation of the Poetic Word. Theological Essays on Poetry & Philosophy. Philosophical Essay on Poetry & Theology. Kettering OH: Angelico Press.



[1] Martin’s focus on poets whose work is largely the presentation of personal, even autobiographic, experience. Besides Herbert and Herrick, Martin mentions the Vaughans, Traherne, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Keats. I wonder how the work of “impersonal” poets would fare under an agapeic scrutiny. By “impersonal” I mean those poets whose focus is not primarily their own actual  personal experience, for example the work of Shakespeare and Browning among whose favourite forms are the dramatic monologue, in which the artistically created individual (univocal?) perspective presented is nevertheless the consequence of the poet’s (imaginative) going towards the other and “meeting” that other in the middle.

Stephen H. Conlin

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Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.