Andrew Klavan. The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022.
William Blake famously wrote that, “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.” What is the code of art when faith (specifically the Christian faith in this instance) vanishes? Nothing. Art has long been the domain of Christianity—when we travel to Europe to see the grand cathedrals, their murals and paintings, the sculptures of Rome and other cities, and more, it was the Church that usually sponsored the art and artists. Many artists were themselves Christians. Until recently. In The Truth and Beauty, Andrew Klavan, offers a romanticist meditation on how the art and artistry of “England’s greatest poets” allows us to walk “that journey” that is “nothing less than the journey home.”
I have often described myself as a romantic to friends and students. Going back to my undergraduate days, even then I described myself as romantic. I’ve always had a partiality to the romantic disposition—perhaps influenced by my high school athletic background while also being an AP student who also enjoyed books and poetry when not training after hours for varsity competition. As Klavan begins his meditative tome on the role of literature as a pathway to faith, or a deepening understanding of faith, it was the brushing aside of trying to understand philosophy and the intimate yearning to know persons that altered our author’s outlook that brought him the fountain of baptism and new birth. I can sympathize immensely with this as someone who spent six years in a philosophical education. Philosophy is great, but the dry analysis in philosophy often stunts the imagination—especially if overwhelmed by “analytic philosophy.” Casting aside, then, the philosophy of romanticism and trying to simply understand the persons whom we call romantics is the road that Klavan traverses. In doing so, we join him on a journey that is the universal journey, through the broken yet remarkable lives of the romantics and how their stories shed light upon Christ and the gospels.
Out of the ashes, or up from the ruins, is the mantra of Romanticism. The romantics emerged in the maelstrom and ruins of the Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Theirs was a world in transformation if it hadn’t already been shattered. They were the generation that stood in the wake of those revolutions, maturing into the “new world” that it offered. All that was old, traditional, and familiar was being swept away by the new, innovative, and unknown. In this chaos the romantics embraced changed but also remained deeply unsettled by the materialism of the empty rainbow unleashed by the scientific power of modernity. This is made somewhat ironic since many romantics were themselves scientists or intimately educated in the various modern fields of science from medicine to botany (though they hardly shared that mechanical and reductionist view of science and held to more organic and enchanted views of science).
The Truth and Beauty is set in the backdrop of one of the most famous events in English cultural history. The failed artist Robert Haydon had arranged a dinner with England’s most celebrated poet at the time, William Wordsworth, and invited the young and exuberant John Keats to attend along with several other friends and literary notables. With wine and food flowing, the men laughed and chatted about Isaac Newton, John Milton, and the power and problems of poetry and science. It was as close to heaven as one could get on earth. Science and religion; young and old; laughter and seriousness; and grandeur and failure were all spirits of that night. It was the “immortal evening.”
Klavan reads a selected history of Romanticism from the eyes of faith with a soft psychoanalytic bent. I must confess, I am attached to Klavan’s method because it is something that I do. Every two or three weeks, I Skype with a friend of mine in England. We were both students of Roger Scruton when studying with him. We both have a penchant for art, culture, and literature. From film to books, including the many books and people sampled for us by Klavan, we discuss the unconscious, the subconscious, how these works and lives all relate to the problems of modernity, our own lives, and the monsters from the id. Only God, we conclude, can resolve the contradictions. So too does Klavan, “God’s reality, is reality, there is no way to escape it. Because it is goodness itself, there is no way to defy it with anything but evil.”
Some of the romantics, of course, were evil. They left a graveyard of broken bodies and souls in their wake. They turned infants to dust, buried mothers six feet under, abused and tormented the bodies of people whom they came across. Others repented of their evil and lost the praise of their former colleagues and friends. Others were always good, seeking the beauty of eros and thanatos just as Christianity had been doing for nearly two millennia in sanctifying the complexities and complications of human existence. They all had one thing in common, “The Romantics did not want to see Hamlet-like doubts about the nature of reality strip the internal human experience—the spiritual and imaginative life of mankind—of its wholeness, truth, and beauty.”
This slim but powerful meditative reflection by Klavan treats readers to the lives of the prominent poets of the English tradition, particular those English romantic poets who capture our imagination and attention even though they have long since left us. It also treats us to literary criticism, new windows—however brief—into some of those classic English poems and novels that we were forced to read in high school often rolling our eyes at in the classroom only to wish we had paid more attention to them later in life. We are also treated to how Christians, readers of faith, should approach works that seemingly have nothing to do with God, Christ, forgiveness, mercy, salvation. But since “God’s reality is reality,” we cannot escape the simple fact that all things in whatever truth they contain ultimately reveal God to us. This is what contemporary critics cannot abide by. This is something that Klavan tries to restore, as the best of Christian critics of the previous generations had done and the best of Christian critics working today do.
After setting the stage of the confrontation with the de-spiritualizing, disenchanting, force of mechanical science and the romantic impetus—even among atheist romantics like Percy Shelley—to salvage an enchanted view of the world (something that is de fide part of the Christian understanding of the world and human relations), Klavan turns to reading romantic pastoral poetry as the yellow brick road back to Eden.
Part of the romantic impetus in pastoral and naturalistic poetry was the attempt to revivify flesh and spirit, body and soul, in that original unity that language itself—per Owen Barfield—once exemplified. To reunite the physical and spiritual was the task that so much of English romantic pastoral poetry set out to achieve, and achieve it did through the genius of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and others. “They had written a new mass,” Klavan suggests, “which made of all nature the bread and wine, the melding of material and meaning.” It is no surprise, then, that some of these poets became more ardently Christian in their spirit and mentality as time went on (Coleridge and Wordsworth especially). It is also no surprise that we, readers long after their death, detect the traces of the Spirit and the gateway to Transcendence in the language and imagery in the grand poetry of these immortal men.
Take Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and what Klavan says:
Aside from the beauty of its language and the nightmare brilliance of its imagery, the genius of the poem lies in the way it locates the Christian mythos in the imagination of man. The senseless killing of the ‘Christian soul’ of the albatross with the crossbow; the fickle passions of the crew like the mob outside Jesus’ trial; the interior change of mind that reveals nature through love; the love that frees the mariner to pray so that the body of the bird that hangs around his neck like a cross falls off; the redemption of the dead…The gospel is the underlying reality of reality and would be murkily apparent in the interplay of nature and our imaginations even if it had not been revealed clearly in history and Scripture.
Perhaps part of the tragedy of Romanticism was that some, but not all, of the romantics couldn’t piece it all together but their brilliant flashes of ecstasy and truth point us to the Beauty and Love that moves the beauty and love of the cosmos. Perhaps part of the joy of Romanticism was that some, but not all, of the romantics did manage to see again, be restored to life, and became apostles and disciples of the Beauty and Love that the human soul seeks and that their souls in their impetuous youth blindly sought. We should never forget, as Klavan early in his narrative notes of himself, “By this method [the method and life of art and poetry], about a dozen years before, at nearly fifty, I had become a Christian.” That wandering pilgrimage on the waves of beauty and love often do lead people down the road to Damascus.
As a Christian I also find my life deeply enriched by the art and artistry of poetry and literature. I often speak to students and friends of mine about the importance of art—the aesthetic life—in the spiritual life. Listen to songs. Read poetry. See the story of sacrificial and suffering saviors in literature and film, even video games. Contemplate the humility learned of heroes past and present or learn of their shortcomings and the pride that led to their fall.
In The Truth and Beauty, Klavan writes majestically, interweaving the great poets whom he covers and their lives, their works, alongside more contemporary writers and films, meditated through the biblical literature and story, showing how their stories were miniature manifestations of The Story. In an age when the hot take of some ephemeral news story or TikTok expose takes the headlines and even the space and time of formerly respectable publications, Klavan brushes aside the empty noise and returns us to the song of songs which sound forth in their immortality and captivate souls with the eyes to see and ears to hear. Having captured our eyes and ears, Klavan then directs us to Jesus of Nazareth and how the lives and writings of poets—flawed and sinful men as they were—point to a deeper understanding of the incarnate Son of God.
Our world needs enriching cultural criticism instead of the scornful and destructive criticism that is currently in vogue. Our world, like that of the romantics, is suffering through the embers of destruction and the dreams of false utopianism that has taken hold so many souls and will chew them up and spit them out in their impossible pursuit of the phantasmagoria of diabolic ideology. We must remember, here, that diabolic in Greek meant to tear asunder. The romantics were living in a world turn asunder and sought to patch it back together, to help us recover that which was split: matter and spirit. We must never forget that the unity of matter and spirit that was once lost but now restored came through the life of a Carpenter from Nazareth. That, at least, is what Klavan is telling us through every page of this timely work. The human life truly is, then, “a continual work of art,” a continual molding and refashioning to the Beauty of the Supreme Artist. “Our lives are meant to express the truth and beauty which is woven into the fabric of God’s creation.”
From Klavan’s mighty pen, he reminds us what our ancestors long knew: life is a story. Even in the age of scientific materialism, the narrative of the empty rainbow and the clockwork universe and the “nothing but” chemicals reductionism has been swapped by the “epic of evolution” and the scientific “story of progress” which seeks to monopolize the legitimacy of story—all other stories are false but this sole scientific story is true. When the mechanical mode of understanding becomes untenable, make it a story. Turn science into poetry without saying so while still deriding poetry. Humans live on stories, not chemical facts.
By contrast, Klavan defends the poetic existence and also safeguards poetic existence from those insidious forces that would do away with it. “In the end, everything becomes literature. Whatever is not forgotten must be told. Whatever is told unfolds itself in time. Whatever unfolds in time becomes a story.” The power of Christianity, or at least one variation of it, has been how it is The Story to which all other stories are subsumed, not destroyed, and find greater meaning by becoming one with the story of the Logos become flesh. The stories, contradictory, dark, and brilliant as they are, of England’s greatest poets do precisely that. And in showing us so, Klavan achieves the sanctifying telling of their stories through the Sanctifying Story that makes it possible.
This review first appeared in VoegelinView, 8 May, 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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