Though I have made great strides in reorganizing my library after the seismic upheaval caused by having to leave a large, book-stuffed office of thirty years’ accumulation, I still face the occasional embarrassment of being unable to lay my hands on a book I am sure I own—or owned. There is paradox here. The more obscure the book, the better my chance of finding it immediately. It is the volumes I frequently handle, carry about, read on park benches, or loan to others that are likely to go missing. I have in such manner lost two successive copies of a certain treasured title to which I shall turn in a moment. It reappeared in my life this week through the cooperation of Grace and an eBay auction.
Its gracious reappearance demonstrated a principle that happily haunts my life: the principle of commodious concurrence. For I have been writing this week about Jansenism. You probably don’t want to know, and even if you should you have much better resources than a professorial blog. I could recommend at least two classic works of French literature. If you have a week to spare, you would do well to browse about in the Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal (1656). If you have a couple of months you might try Sainte-Beuve’s huge Port-Royal from the mid-nineteenth century. If you have five minutes you’ll have to take my word for it that Jansenism (a pejorative term used by its opponents) was a spiritual movement within the Roman Church in seventeenth-century France that, at the doctrinal level, was all about divine grace.
Grace means help, support, comfort, encouragement. Women sometimes carry the personal name Grace, just as others carry the names of the theological virtues—Faith, Hope, or Charity. According to legend, a bishop whose wife was named Grace used to have trouble with the Eucharistic prayer for the whole state of the Church on account of the paragraph beginning “Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and other Ministers…” The concept of grace informs some of the all-time greats of religious literature, such as Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and “Amazing Grace”—the hymn for people who don’t know any hymns.
To believe in divine grace does require a belief in a divinity. A surprising number of us still do entertain that belief, but even if you get your help, support, comfort, or encouragement from shrinks, sit-coms, or sauna baths, you can understand the concept of grace. Despite the view famously articulated by A. E. Houseman that “…malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man,” it is my aim this week to advocate poetry as a means of grace.
Poetry As a Means of Grace is the astonishing title of a yet more astonishing book published in 1941 by Charles Grosvenor Osgood (1871-1964), for many years the Holmes Professor of Belles Lettres at Princeton. He had been one of the original preceptors hired by Woodrow Wilson when he instituted his new system of undergraduate education in the first decade of the twentieth century. I never met him. He retired the year after my birth and died the year before I joined the faculty! He was a man of enormous and wide-ranging erudition—“the dean of Princeton humanists,” in President Dodds’s apt phrase. He made many lasting contributions to literary study. Especially famous is the Variorum edition of Spenser, in which he played a major role, and his extraordinarily erudite translation and edition of Boccaccio on Poetry.
When I called Poetry As a Means of Grace “astonishing,” I referred to its content; but the same adjective could be used of it as evidence of the rapidity of social change of the last half century. English professors don’t have titles like that any more. We have titles like Liminality and the Heideggerian Quest in the Fiction of Armand Bol. (This is an imaginary title, used for exemplary purposes. Armand Bol never existed, and some of us heretics have our doubts about liminality and the Heideggerian quest as well.) It is nearly inconceivable that an Ivy League professor would write such a book as Osgood’s today, and flatly impossible that it would be published by prestigious university presses (Princeton and Oxford). For the “humanism” displayed by Osgood is the humanism of Erasmus, Thomas More, Rabelais, or Cervantes, all of whom believed with him that the purpose of literary study was to support “the art of living a good life,” meaning one spiritually informed. He writes, he says, for “all young people who wish to keep themselves articulate and to insure the perennial flow of their springs of spiritual life against the drouth of routine in business or profession.” The path to this goal is the habitual and informed reading of good poets. Here is “job counseling” of a most precious kind, but scarcely to be found, alas, in our academic Offices of Career Services.
Osgood chooses by way of example four great literary figures: Dante, Spenser, Milton, and Samuel Johnson. To each he devotes one lecture (chapter), but he makes it clear that these are merely exemplary. Indeed choosing your “own” poet, one with whom you have a particular and perhaps idiosyncratic rapport, must be done with patience and care. It is the first step to “grace”.
Do not be astonished, incidentally, to find Johnson in the list. He was not primarily a poet, and Osgood hardly touches upon his poetry, justly believing that with a man like Johnson the life is the poem. In such a life malt and Milton were not exclusive. “A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity,” said the great doctor. Meanwhile if among my readership there be anyone who knows what became of either of my two earlier copies, please be in touch.