Poetic Faith: A Brief Prologue

The reading is underway, but while I’m still digesting the first few hundred pages, I thought I’d share a bit of background on the Poetic Faith “seminar.” To start with, the title comes from a man who has had a major role in my formation as a literary scholar (I wrote my senior thesis on him). When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his Biographia Literaria (1817), he reconstructed the genesis of the momentous Lyrical Ballads (1798) that he and William Wordsworth wrote together. Lyrical Ballads is generally seen as a watershed text—perhaps the watershed text—for British Romanticism. The book yielded a number of anthology warhorses, from “We Are Seven” to “The Thorn” to “Tintern Abbey.” These are all Wordsworth’s pieces, and the lengthy preface he wrote for the second edition became, in hindsight, a manifesto for the expansion of subject and poetic diction that became hallmarks (more or less justly) of the era’s poetry.

Coleridge was left in Wordsworth’s shadow, with only “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” achieving a lasting readership. In the Biographia, Coleridge wished to set the record straight, come to terms with his soured friendship with his fellow poet, and consolidate his already impressive reputation as a literary critic and man of letters. Indeed, Biographia Literaria is now frequently excerpted in collections of literary theory as one of the major statements on the theory of poetry in the nineteenth century, and among the many contributions Coleridge made to literary criticism in that book was the phrase “suspension of disbelief.” We now mainly use the term in reference to fiction, but Coleridge coined the term to describe the reaction he sought to invoke in his readers by “transfer[ing] from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient” so that his “shadows of imagination” could enjoy the indulgence of “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” For Coleridge, suspension of disbelief was a willed, conscious choice, and a provisional one; a person did not have to suddenly believe in ghosts or transoceanic spirits to be moved by his poem. And, in a throwaway comment, Coleridge concluded by saying that such a choice “constitutes poetic faith.” Nowhere else in his writings did Coleridge define the term poetic faith; as far as I am aware, he didn’t even use it anywhere else. But somehow the willingness to set one’s disbelief aside—he assumes we start with disbelief—amounts to a kind of faith, a kind specific to the experience of literature.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge—he and I go way back.

Coleridge was certainly not the first to describe literature with religious terminology, but he is the first major figure in a line dominated by Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot that would argue for literature as a successor to religion in a secularizing world. One of the ambitions of my seminar is to move toward my own definition for this provocative but vague term, poetic faith.

We often think of secularization as a decline of church membership or the result of the separation of church and state. In his massive A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor considers definitions similar to these before putting forward what he believes is the more fundamental reality of Western secularization: that of moving from a position of being able to assume faith in God, even in a particular religion, to one where even a strong believer must acknowledge that their faith is one choice out of many available, and that there are people around them who believe differently. At some point, Taylor argues, it became possible for people to imagine that it was possible not to believe in God. For Taylor, this not a narrative of progress, nor is it ultimately one of nostalgia, though he is concerned with what he sees as having been lost to human experience by this shift. Rather, his goal is to find a way of describing and contextualizing the reality of pluralism without leaping to celebration or hand-wringing. He certainly has his own opinions on the topic—several commentators have noted how much the closing section of the 800-page book reads like a sermon—but Taylor, a lifelong student of Hegel, invites readers to suspend their own disbelief, or at least their own judgment, and imagine how religion still works in a secular age.

Coleridge’s poetic faith is a concept born of Taylor’s form of secularization: both writer and reader can imagine not believing in the characters, the story, the poem. But the writer can speak enough truth to encourage the reader to choose to believe, and that exchange is, for Coleridge, what makes imaginative literature succeed. Wallace Stevens was likely thinking of something similar when he said in “Of Modern Poetry” that the poetry of the new era would have to “find what will suffice.”

As I read through this seminar, I find myself wondering what will suffice. What makes faith work? Does it really work differently in literature than it does in other areas of life? How does the faith I inherited relate to the faith I live, the faith of my profession (which is a population filled with faith, whether they consider themselves religious or not), the faith I seek to instill in my readers and students? Are all these faiths versions of the same thing? Four weeks is a very short time in which to gain clarity on any of this, but like the wedding guest stopped by the uncanny Ancient Mariner, I find myself compelled to sit and listen to the unfolding story.

2 thoughts on “Poetic Faith: A Brief Prologue

  1. RC Smith

    So I am reminded of something I read a number of years ago about the progression in meaning of the word “faith” in the New Testament writings. It has been pointed out that in Paul’s earliest letters faith is primarily an attitude or orientation of one’s being – to “have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In the later NT writings (i.e., the pseudo-Pauline letters) faith has become a body of beliefs – as in “defending the faith.”

    We in the contemporary church are not always very clear about the distinction between these two uses of the word. We say, “have faith in God” when we really mean, “accept these doctrines as truth.” In your last paragraph above it seems to me you hint at each meaning of “faith” – both attitude and content. Could it be that fleshing out the concept of “poetic faith” will help us to reclaim a true sense of trusting in God to lead us toward truth, without having to defend “the faith” or cram it down someone else’s throat?

  2. Christopher Phillips Post author

    Thanks so much for this, RC. Yes, I think getting at what we mean by faith is crucial here. I’m especially intrigued by the idea that faith is something we do (as in the original sense of “believe” in English as sticking with someone). The attitude of faith you point out is wrapped up in this concept, I think—it’s an inclination to action that lives itself out. As you might imagine, lovers of poetry (including a number of professors) can get just as dogmatic, even fundamentalist, about literature and its meaning and importance for the world. I, for one, am skeptical that simply reading great works (by whose definition?) makes one a better person. On the other hand, I’m also convinced that learning to read with certain attitudes, particularly of openness and gratitude, can give us great moral guidance, though it’s something of a “to he that has, more will be given” idea—I’m still wondering about initial steps in that process. It could be it’s all gift, after all!

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