Asked to take part in a conference on “the writer and religion,” I found the subject so wide and the implications of it so broad that the only way I could bring it into focus was to start by being both local and personal. I will begin here with a story which is both odd and true and which, for me, raises just a few of the questions that are at the heart of the subject.

The summer of 1985 was warm and fine in Ireland. The good weather meant that the evenings were often clear and sunny and, because Ireland is so far north, the light at midsummer lasts until an hour or so before midnight. I remember that clearly, because my children were not yet teenagers and they could ride their bicycles and stay out with their friends much later than usual. When the day was over, there were tell-tale streaks of orange and light pink in the sky—the rhyming sky of the shepherd’s delight. And so the pattern of warm evenings and changed habits continued. Therefore instead of staying in and watching August rain and lamenting a lost summer, or reading newspaper headlines about a spoiled harvest—all of which can be common summer experiences in Ireland—it was possible to go out and drive or visit friends or work in the garden.

All this has a bearing on the story. Because in West Cork, along the seaboard, the weather was also fine. In the town of Kinsale, which is a summer resort on that coast, there were more tourists than usual. This is one of the beautiful parts of Ireland and indeed, without being tribal, one of the beautiful parts of Europe. Surrounding it are small towns, villages, and farms. The terrain is fairly flat, without some of the Gulf Stream warmth which produces the dramatic palms and tropical branches of certain parts of Kerry further west.

This is what happened there. And this is how it stirred almost the whole of Ireland during that summer. Traveling back by car on one of those fine evenings, a woman stopped at a grotto which contained a statue of Our Lady. Ireland, which in the Republic at least has sustained a largely Catholic culture, had celebrated what was called a Marian year in 1950: a year, that is, in which Our Lady was honored as the Mother of Christ. The result of the celebrations was that hundreds of small grottoes and statues and shrines to Our Lady remained scattered around the countryside as continuing places of worship. This one was just outside the village of Ballinspittle, perhaps ten miles from Kinsale. It was eloquently set in the recess of a hillside, about thirty feet above the road. And on one of those sunny evenings, in late July, when travel in a car, or a visit to the places which contained such a grotto, must have seemed like a pleasant and appropriate summer diversion, a woman saw that statue of the Virgin Mary move.

Within not weeks, but days, someone reported a similar phenomenon. Then another. Then another. Then more and at different shrines. Sub-headlines of the Irish Times, second leaders on the evening news, whole radio programs, and finally television documentaries were devoted to the phenomenon. A woman had seen a statue move in a city church. Another had seen the Virgin reach out her hand. Another saw her move as if to step down from her shrine.

Then the headlines gave way, at least in the urban press, to analysis. Sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists began to be featured on television. They explained that this was not unusual, that in times of stress, of hardship and recession, this sort of thing had been observed widely. By this time the summer evenings were getting shorter but the clear, warm hours before dark, and just after it, were filled with literally hundreds of cars, visitors, couples, and whole families converging on any place along the seaboard, but especially near Kinsale, where this had been observed. In an outpouring of insistence and longing, men and women with accents which were not so often features of the urban Dublin news programs described what they had seen, and they could not be shaken from their stories.

Then the explanations grew less frequent. The outrage and suspicion of the Catholic clergy, disowning and warning against these visions, became less emphatic. The journalistic silly season passed. The evenings grew colder. The rain returned. Suddenly, as quickly as it had come, the phenomenon was over. No statues moved. No sociologists talked. Normality returned.

I remember that summer clearly. I remember driving down the Dublin roads, where the laburnum and lilac filled the verges with yellow and violet, and listening to my car radio. Something seemed to have happened that was not faith, and could not be called religion; that was short of hysteria and yet by no means rational. From the safety of a cosmopolitan city, which Dublin has finally become—with fast cars and fast food and a limited concentration span—I could hear, to use Joyce’s phrase, “the batsqueak” of another Ireland. Through the statistics of debt and unemployment, and Northern violence, I could hear the elegy and anger break out one last time, lamenting a simpler time and a surer one.


I did not believe that the statues had moved. But I did not believe the sociologists either. I knew enough about the unreason of Irish history to respect and even be in some awe of what had taken place on those fierce and unaccountable evenings, in the long light hours, in small towns and farmlands where television cameras hardly ever reached, and where political scientists usually never went, except briefly at election time. And I was troubled.

As I listened to disc jockeys and radio broadcasters speaking jovially or contemptuously, whichever way you viewed it, of the faith and hallucination of those who saw those statues move, I turned back in my own mind to what I exactly thought of it all. On the one hand I could treat it—and I was tempted to—as simply a viral strain of Irish history breaking out again: a summer fever of doubt and need and image-making, all bound in with the old rituals and the once familiar certainties. On the other hand, long after that summer was over I continued to think about what had happened, turning it over in my mind. Since I lived in Dublin, I heard more of the skepticism and muted contempt which a place of purported sophistication has for a simpler region than anything which might indicate sympathy with what had happened.

And yet I was moved. I could not completely share in the cynicism of a capital city. During those weeks, I had driven, as I’ve said, with the car radio on, from leafy road to city center, from new shopping complex to concert hall. I had turned the car toward and away from all those amenities and derivations which a capital city prides itself on. I had passed tire signs, Coke signs, fast food restaurants, garages selling new imports—and all the time I had the car radio on. All the time I had been listening to those reports from the seaboard, taking in those messages of an older Ireland. While the summer gathered heat and intensity and then began to wane and cool, an old wound had broken open: some human longing for faith and need.

Long after it was all forgotten this remained with me. However remote I felt from the participants of those events, however removed by region and belief and history, I was still in some degree affected by what had happened. If nothing else, that outbreak of an old mode of perception made me begin to look more inquiringly at those things we thought of as new. And one of the things I began to measure, without even being conscious of it, was a distance between ways of seeing. After all, those people in the farms and at the crossroads had spoken, for a brief moment that summer, of vision. Maybe a vision of impossible things. But vision all the same. I had grown up as an Irish poet in a country where the distance between vision and imagination was not quite as wide as in some other countries. As late as the eighteenth century, when the English poets were in coffee houses, publishing stylish magazines, and making couplets into epigrams, the Irish poets were storming against history, lamenting the loss of their language, and writing of The Aisling, the vision of a maiden who was both Ireland and destiny: a muse-like figure found in a dark time.

But of course that was all far in the past. The twentieth century had produced a literature in Ireland which kept a tense distance from the sources of faith. And for good reason. Irish writing had suffered a terrible censorship in the twentieth century. Yet despite that, I began, in my own mind anyway, to look afresh at some of those changes and adjustments that had divided us from the culture of belief in Ireland. I had seen those changes increase as I grew older.

Now I began to look at the anomalies and contrasts around me much more closely. Just as the capital city had changed from the small, insular town I had found as a young poet, so the writer’s life had similarly changed. Then I had started writing in a closed, post-Revival world, where the shadows of the national upheaval and the intense effort to make a literary movement were still evident. Now we lived a life as writers which was more cosmopolitan, more open, which had more travel, and more exchange. And always, whenever an old life changes into a new one, or so it seemed to me, there was a belief on the part of those who lived that new life that they were more rational, less prone to the hysterias and superstition which marked the old one.


Certainly one of the ways we defined ourselves as Irish writers—although perhaps not openly or articulately—was in the distance we had made and kept from those dark forces which had collected at the crossroads, and which saw the images of an old faith move and shimmer and reach out toward affirmation in the dying light. The Irish censorship, which I just spoke of, had been a savage affair. It had lasted from 1929 right into the 1960s. I began writing at the very end of it, but many of the older writers I know—mostly novelists—had been injured and isolated by it. It had kept out of the reach of Irish readers not only the writings of their own countrymen and women, but also the good and experimental work of other countries. And the engines of that censorship were, in some sense, just those collective forces of unreason which collected at the seaboards, drove their cars through small towns and into open fields, and worshiped a moving statue. But in the case of the censorship they were those forces having found voices, laws, and power. Every writer’s nightmare.

In Ireland then, writers considered themselves at some distance from such forces. Not always, but often, faith was cast as unreason. The faithless and skeptical world of the writer was cast as the force of rationality and light. In opposing the censorship I understood that shorthand. But I was troubled. I had been moved by the need, the raw expectation and hunger of those who saw the statues move. I believed, in common with many others, that these were the hallucinations of a bad summer: a summer of recession and political instability. But I did not like the superiority that the capital city, and in some senses the writing world, assumed about it. And I began to seriously think about whether writers were as innocent of that superstition as they claimed.

It is certainly true that writers take a stance at some variance from organized religion. This, of course, has not always been true. But since the Romantic movement, and of course I’m speaking now, and will from now on, really exclusively about poetry, the emphasis has been on an individual imagination defined against, rather than in terms of, any orthodoxy. The decline of faith is a backdrop to the poems of Shelley, Tennyson, Hopkins. Despite the fact that Yeats spoke with real bitterness about having been brought up in a secular household, where his father was a follower of Huxley and Darwin, the emphasis of the individual poet has been, in the last hundred years, more on decline than on faith. Therefore, inevitably, the act of the individual imagination, in poetry anyway, is seen as free from superstition and prejudice, and so committed to individual exploration that it escapes the hysteria of collective superstition. Of course there is substance in all this. Of course the individual imagination is a subversive force, and far less likely, for the very reason that it stands alone, to be the accomplice of a collective suppression. Nevertheless it seems to me that in the opposition between imagination and faith which we inherit from Romanticism—at least as poets—imagination has become an article of faith. And I want to challenge this.

Obviously one of the things which the conference I attended was considering is whether the relation between religion and literature is valuable or dangerous. Not surprisingly, the answer may well be that it is both. As an Irish poet, my view is neither clear nor straightforward. The Republic of Ireland has had a powerfully Catholic history. To the ritualistic emphasis of the Irish past, to the vitality of a speech which shadows faith, I owe something, as any Irish person would. But to the intervention of religion in civil expression I also, like all other Irish writers and citizens, owe one of the worst censorships in Europe. But the issue of religion and literature, in my own case, goes well beyond Ireland and Irish affairs and therefore I set it out here briefly, so as to summarize something of my doubts about what is lost and what is gained in that relation.

I inherited, as an Irish poet—and as all Irish writers do—a duality of cultural reference. It is one of the inevitabilities of a colonial past. Behind me, on the one hand, was the ruined language of my own country, the dispersal of the Bardic orders, and the loss of one kind of history which was a direct result of colonial oppression. To adapt Yeats’s phrase, Irish “was my native language but it was not my mother tongue.” Therefore when I was a young poet, when I lifted my pen to write a poem, that pen described an are of tensions and contradictions which reflected the ambiguity of the Irish experience. Among those tensions was the fact that I also, as an Irish poet, looked to the British nineteenth century.

The contradictions of that dual awareness were added to by other, far more subjective ones. When I left college I married, I had two young children, I went to live in the suburbs. I found that I now considered the past not as an abstract presence, but as an urgent reference point. And yet it was increasingly hard to have any kind of dialogue with a poetic past. I lived an ordinary life among down-to-earth routines. I lifted a child; I left a milk bottle out on the step. And yet I felt two things very strongly: I felt, however ordinary those routines, that I stood at the lyric center of my experience, and that I wished to make a visionary claim for that experience. Nevertheless, in some sense I felt obstructed from doing so. Some shadow fell between me and my sense that I could get from that historic-poetic past the sanction I needed, both for my subject matter and the claim I wished to make for it in formal terms.

And so I wrote my poems, and increasingly was drawn into speculation about a past tradition, and where exactly the authority of the poet came from, and what it was within that historic tradition which seemed to me to have prescribed an inflationary spiral of subject matter in poetry, so that the ordinary day I lived was not easily included or made welcome there.

Everything I am saying now is telescoped, rushed, gathered into a shorthand, and I hope you will bear with me. These issues are so wide and important they should not be issued in telegrams as I am doing now. But I will say that gradually I came to the belief—and of course I am using the widest terms once again—that what had gone wrong was exactly what the conference I attended was to address: I felt that a relation between religion and literature had failed in a particular way. In that difficult time for me, when I tried to discover why my life was not named in a past tradition I loved, I had the illusion that I might find one moment which was instructive of all the exclusions and obstructions within that tradition. There never, of course, is such a moment. Nevertheless, I came to settle on the figure of Matthew Arnold, the British poet and critic who in the mid-nineteenth century in England restated the destiny of poetry in his criticism. Here is one of the things he said:

We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

In his Oxford lectures on poetry Matthew Arnold expanded this view in this way:

There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.

To me these statements summarize a danger in the relation between religion and literature—although once again let me emphasize I make these remarks from the viewpoint of a poet. Arnold lived in a time when the edifice of faith was cracking, when doubt was replacing it as a communal possession. He lived when the Church was being challenged and when its most rigid tenets were in the process of being set aside. In these words, as he sets out his views, a boundary has shimmered and dissolved. The line between religion and poetry has given way. And what comes forth, monstrous to my eyes anyway, is neither religion nor poetry, but the religion of poetry.

And this brings up the irony of the relation. Those men and women at the crossroads in Ireland were not sensible, were not logical. They may not have seen what they thought they saw. They may not have known why they needed to see it. But they were, as Eliot said, reverting to a psychological habit which may no longer be supported, but is still part of human history.

What I found poignant and memorable about the account of that summer, and the images and accents of those people, is that they stayed with me not as harbingers of unreason, but as voices of the disenfranchised. Their brief moment of hallucination and insistence only proved that they were cut off from a hinterland of faith which would once, centuries before, have been their entitlement. And which, in countries like Ireland, remained long after its occasion had passed in the rest of Europe. In their attempt to make sacred a time and a country that were resolutely being defined as secular, they were testifying to an enormous loss and a true deprivation.

I think it is right to ask whether literature has registered that loss exactly; whether it has written it down as a communal one. Or whether it has merely responded to it by denoting the imagination as a sacred place, and forgetting or dismissing the communal aspect of it all.

The events at the crossroads then were expressions of a communal will. But in its individual insistence, Matthew Arnold’s argument seems to me much more insidious. Even the most ardent secularists of this century and the last, even those who would lament what happened at the Irish crossroads, who would regard it as primitive, unwise, an omen of the dark ages, have not always been able to resist the temptation held out by Arnold which, for all its eloquence, is still a call to faith and unreason. His argument that the imagination is a sacramental force and that the poem can usurp some of the functions of religion has been profoundly influential on poetry in this century. In a time of lost power it makes a claim for increased privileges for the artist. The irony of this, to me anyway, is that it brings us back to something more primitive again. To invest, as Arnold does, the imagination with sacramental force restores to poetry not its religious force, but its magical function.

Even those who most widely dispute the connection between religion and literature do not always set aside this old connection. But it is a dangerous one. And I think it should be a subtext here of the discussion about religion and literature, because magic and expression are older even than that, and have profoundly influenced that later conjunction. Poetry, of course, has always had a connection with magic. In the oldest societies they were part and parcel of each other. But magic, in my view, is the most inferior of the past associations of poetry, and ironically remains as the most inferior of all present temptations for the poet. Magic, after all, is the search for control over an unruly environment: that control is achieved, so history tells us, by secret words known only to a few men. When these associations—which are so primitive and so recurring—are carried into the act of poetry, strange things can happen.

To begin with, the man or woman writing ceases to be human and becomes “a poet.” Words cease to be what they mean and become what they do: Do they rhyme, do they elide, does this vowel go with that consonant? The momentum of the poem is guided and obstructed by the demand that it be “poetic.” Experience itself is sifted so that the “poetic” bits are winnowed out in case they contaminate the final product. And the best you achieve is a decorative simplification of life based on a dread of it.

In this tension, this debate between literature and religion, I am reminded of a beautiful phrase which William Yeats used when he looked out on the Clare-Galway border from his own tower in the west of Ireland. He spoke there about “a community bound together by imaginative possessions.” It is an eloquent phrase and he used it in the context of a National Theatre. He intended it to be a phrase of celebration and regret, and a way of noting those things which are gained and lost in the small communities which exist in rural parts.

His phrase could serve on both sides of the argument about what distance, or closeness, should exist between literature and religion. The old argument which writers have justifiably made against organized religion is that it did not bind together the communal possessions of a people; that in fact it distorted them with false and automatic meanings. But in the great drive which has existed since the nineteenth century, which is there in the rhetoric of Matthew Arnold—a move to insist on the sacramental qualities of the creative imagination—I believe the writer is in fact turning away from the priestly superstitions only to take on the mantle of the priest. It is a maneuver which has narrowed the scope of poetry and confined the debate about its importance. In an age like our own, when poets are turning in on themselves more and more, when they are engaged in a painful debate about the nature of their audience, this old tendency to consider the poetic imagination as an abstract of the privileges of faith has not been helpful.

It seems to me right, then, that in our age and our time, the relation between religion and literature should be looked at with vigilance and fear and inquiry. The ominous injustice to Salman Rushdie, the events in Turkey two years ago, the prescriptions laid on subject matter by non-artistic agendas, all of these are true threats to imaginative freedom. They argue for a distance between the established tenets of religion and the working freedoms of the artist. And I support that.

Nevertheless I think we have to confront the fact that any such distance is not unambiguous. When I listened on those evenings to those stories of faith and image-making, those hallucinations of the supernatural, I also envied a world which once existed for the writer, and now was gone: of faith and grace and surrender.

It does not seem to me to be enough to propose cold, clear distances between literature and religion without looking at the fact that over the last century, while the relation between literature and religion has failed, the rise of the religion of literature, the hubris of the imagination and its sanctity has been an undercurrent of a great deal of the analysis and discussion of art. If a writer, whether man or woman, has a doubt and a dread about the relation of literature and religion then I support that. But not if, at the same time, they are constructing an image of the writer which accrues to the imagination the old privileges of magic and control; the old status of arbiter of reality.

There is a hysteria in religion; I come from a country which has seen it in many aspects over the last century. It is there in the censorship Irish writers endured. It is there in the fact that the Irish attorney general would not allow a teen-age girl, who had been raped and was pregnant, to leave the country two years ago to have an abortion. It is there in the killings that happened, in the various names of faith, for twenty-five years in Ireland. And it was there nine years ago on those summer nights, under painted statues, at the end of summer, when a whole nation held its breath and observed a return—of the raw hunger for certainty and grace and escape.

But there is a hysteria that is latent in a certain view of the imagination as well. And yet the irony of the summer of 1985 was that the roads and distances were filled with men and women who were not merely caught in the grip of a religious excess, but of an imaginative one as well. The sources of their imaginative fervor are mysterious and may well be corrupt. But they have a source in the communal imagination, in that community of possession and re-statement which Yeats wrote about. The separation between religion and imagination needs to be discriminating and exact. And it comes, as all such separations do, when the individual imagination breaks with an orthodoxy. When it is able to say, to use Joyce’s phrase, “non serviam.” In Ireland that has been a painful choice. For those who wish to keep a vigil for expression and freedom, it is also a necessary one. But I see no point at all in taking from religion its old powers of suppression and authority, and transferring them to the imagination of the artist.

This Issue

January 12, 1995