The Odd Blog

And when our cubs grow / We'll show you what war is good for

Poetry Blogging and Religious Iconography

Posted by That Other Mike on 05/10/2008

In fictional terms, I’ve always been attracted by the elements of religion. If there’s one thing that can fairly be said about lots of religions in their favour, it’s that they often have a terrific sense of grandeur, at least to a point. Who couldn’t hear about the idea of a chariot pulling the sun across the sky and not be at least a little awed by the greatness of it?

I should rephrase the point about grandeur; they exhibit the kind of grandeur that one might feel if science and reliable sources of knowledge had never happened, the greatness of ideas that comes as a consequence of feeling alone, scared and naked in the face of an incomprehensible universe. In light of that, who wouldn’t be impressed by Thor and his hammer?

There is a kind of rough and ready sense to be made of things by use of religions, if you don’t have a reliable external source of comprehension; they make sense of things because they seem to apply a kind of order to the world which cannot necessarily be found without them.

While religions themselves have outlived their usefulness and been shown to be wrong in every sphere, from morality to the very structure of the world to the origins of life, their iconography still has a powerful hold.

Guido Reni's conception of the Archangel MichaelI have a particular fascination with angels, no doubt partly inspired by finding out about the existence of the eponymous Archangel from whom my name derives, but also because I find the idea of the personification of abstractions to be, well, fascinating.

The Archangels and their attendant hosts are truly a marvellous invention in terms of religious iconography; they represent a true extension of the idea of a hidden and mysterious god. Paradoxically, they affirm the mystery and distance of the godhead by creating a buffer between the deity and its worshippers onto which the supposed minutiae of the daily running of the universe can be projected and onto which they can focus.

In this, they affirm that God is mysterious and unknowable, but also that he has a finger in every pie, so to speak.

Anyway, this post was inspired, at least partially, by Johnny Cash; I was listening to American IV: The Man Comes Around again, the eponymous first song of which features Cash quoting the Book of Revelation:

[..] and I heard, as it were
the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying,
Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse…

[…]

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts…
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him

This is what prompted me to start thinking about religious iconography in the first place. It’s a barnstormer of a song, even allowing for the fact that it’s religious in nature; it’s full of religious imagery and references, most of it relating to the end of the world and the second coming.

And this triggered the portion of my brain which jumps to the nearest related topic, otherwise known as the bunnytrail node, and then I recalled the following poem, by Yeats, which is called The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The poem was written in this form following the First World War, and also references the various revolutions which had preceded it, and apparently also refers to Yeats’s ideas about the end of the world and the collapse of civilisation, an event which he seems to greet with no small amount of satisfaction, I might add. A sentiment I kind of share; there’s something fulfilling about a neat and tidy apocalypse.

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3 Responses to “Poetry Blogging and Religious Iconography”

  1. davisoftheapes1 said

    I wrote this awhile back. Hope you like it.

    Mike says:

    OK, I’ve cut this. This guy posted a 62 stanza(!) poem about how great Jesus is and how nice he was to some kid or something… Basically, it was an extended version of “Look how great Jesus is, come join my religion!”, and I don’t want to give that kind of stuff a platform.

    Plus, I also checked out the guy’s blog, and it’s racist, misogynistic and just plain hateful. I don’t mind if someone’s an honourable right-winger; it’s Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter and their followers, like this guy, that I refuse to have any truck with.

  2. I’ve always liked that Yeats poem. “That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle […]” Wonderful.

    I must admit, I also find religious iconography oddly attractive. Possibly something to do with the horror fiction I grew up reading — Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby etc. The eternal battle between good and evil almost demands it.

  3. Mike said

    It has a certain terrible foreboding quality, doesn’t it?

    Good versus evil, light versus dark, order versus chaos. It’s an attempt to make sense of the world by imposing human values on it.

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