This book is beautiful. This book is brilliant.
Before I read this book, I did not know that I was stuck in a valley, able to see only my own little piece of time and space, thoroughly isolated by the ideas of my own time and unable to see how these ideas were a product of all the history of writing and thinking that have gone before me.
Malcolm Guite–priest, poet, scholar, and musician–beckoned me on a journey by explaining in the introduction the post-enlightenment split between rational and imaginative thought, which put the humanities at risk of seeming silly and obsolete. I’m one of many pilgrims to walk this planet who’ve found the humanities to be vital and life-giving, but I’ve never known how to defend my love for them against the rational rows of numbers and facts that are given so much credit today. And, of course, Guite uses poetry as the foundation of his thesis, focusing on a poem by Heaney which marvels at the rain stick and how a pipe of dried seeds can produce the sounds of lush water. This seeming paradox is referenced at every stage of the journey through Faith, Hope and Poetry.
Fortunately for me, Guite is an excellent tour guide out of my own shadowed valley and on to the mountain top where I can now see the lay of the land that surrounds me. Guite uses each chapter to heal the rift between reason and imagination by showing imaginative powers to be not just equal to but perhaps even superior to dead, inanimate, and shallow materialist explanations for the world. Each chapter catalogs the depths of beauty and meaning of poetry’s most popular and enduring symbols (such as light and water) as Guite ushers in historical poets to express his gently unfolding thesis. By the end, he has skillfully unwound centuries of poetry chronologically while simultaneously weaving together the many complex ways different poets have used the same symbols across time and space. All of this serves to prove his thesis that imaginative powers are indeed necessary to understand the world. By the time I reached the mountaintop, I could see exactly what he saw and I agreed with every word.
This book is thorough and self-contained, and yet its ideas reach out to every poem everywhere. I’m at a loss to express how deeply this book moved me and how completely it transformed the way I think. Guite has given me confidence in the absolute necessity of poetry to hold together the seemingly disparate and to reveal the seemingly unknowable.
It isn’t until the last page of the book that Guite finally comes out and says it: “A study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology.” I will read this book again. The question is how long I’ll be able to wait to do it.