"Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy," wrote Matthew Arnold in 1880, "will be replaced by poetry." His forecast has, so far at least, proved incorrect, if nothing else because poetry has failed to consistently meet the "high order of excellence" Arnold believed was required of it for it to fulfil the "high destinies" of being religion's substitute.
"The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can," Arnold continued. Most poetry written today is what no one but a small coterie surrounding its authors want. To form and sustain, poetry must first delight. But contemporary poetry’s neglect of portraying, and elevating, quotidian experience leads the lay reader to think that, as Morrissey once bemoaned of the music played by the disco DJ, "it says nothing to me about my life".
It is rare for a poet's work to transcend the poetry world and gain a 'general readership'. The poetry of Philip Larkin, for example, has done so because it consecrates ordinary life. To an extent, Seamus Heaney's too. Now Geoffrey Hill is being awarded the title of Britain's Greatest Living Poet by the BBC and the national newspapers. But while his body of intellectual, difficult work is significant to literature, it is unlikely to help provide what Roger Scruton in his book Our Church calls the "Eucharistic moments in the life of our nation". Scruton writes of "spiritually burdened sages" who with the best of intentions update the simplicity of the traditional Prayer Book with their own cerebral, learned efforts...
...but rarely can these prayers be uttered by ordinary people who seek to put themselves right with their Maker...They will never be kept in the ordinary heart.
The result of a poet's wish to maintain his or her kudos within their particular coterie, and protect an elevated sense of their own profundity and importance, is poems that shun the universal: they can never be "kept in the ordinary heart" of the general reader, who has been dismissed as undesirably 'middle-brow'.
In the following description of prayer by Scuton, by substituting 'poem' for 'prayer' and 'read' for 'say' and 'utter', one can see why Arnold believed poetry and prayer so closely related:
A prayer, composed from the words of this world, must nevertheless aim beyond this world. Rooted in the most intense personal feeling it must nevertheless achieve the kind of impersonal objectivity that permits anyone to say it with conviction. Prayers are the most universal of literary forms, since they enter common usage only if all people can utter them, knowing what they mean, and knowing that their own lives are touched and comprehended by them.
Contemporary poems fail to enter 'common usage' when they fail to show comprehension of ordinary life. Scruton argues that the best in literature, as in liturgy, is that made up of words of a "simple and incontrovertible nature":
The most solemn passages in DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot and the lesser figures that emulated them are, as it were, suspended on the frame made by the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Scruton does not argue that the work itself should evince the liturgical. Rather, by composing poetry from a position of an understanding of, and sympathy with, the tradition one is writing from, that poetry will inherently bear some continuity with what has gone before. In England, that means with the 'Anglican frame'. An awareness of being only the latest in a long line, that one is only passing through, is likely to ensure one resists faddishness and thus helps to conserve the literary inheritance for the next generation. To write a poem and for it to be read is a communal celebration that includes not only the living but also the unborn and the dead. John Ruskin wrote:
When we build, let us think that we build forever.
Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone.
Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for...
Like religion, a poem can be a recognition that "our being here is mysterious, that we will always fail to explain it," but that we can, in its words, like in those of liturgy, find a "durable and consoling home":
You cannot read very far in English literature, listen very long to serious English music, or walk with your eyes open about our towns and countryside without noticing that an enormous cultural effort has been expended on endowing England with an aura of home and redemption, and that the art devoted to this cause has leaned at every point upon a church that was doing the same.
In elegising this church, Larkin does not just describe its faith but expresses it:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies,
And that much can never be obsolete...
People in their day-to-day existence generally do not stop to meditate deeply on the condition or meaning of their lives. So for a poem to hold up a mirror to a reader's life, and express it back to them, can make that poem a source of revelation. And it can give consolation akin to what one may feel when - for example - sitting in a church. Because what it portrays is recognisable, Larkin's poetry preaches, as faith does, 'you are not alone'. Reading 'Church Going' is a communal experience. One is in communion with a voice speaking from a tradition of voices, a tradition influenced by a two-thousand-year-old faith, one of the blazons of which is the building the poem is set inside. When Larkin writes about the world "None of this cares for us", he is not conveying something pessimistic but miraculous. He is saying, 'None of this world cares for us, so you caring about me is an even more important miracle'. It is the miracle, against life's chaos, of love's redoubt, just as Anglicanism has been a quiet and pragmatic trustee of England's architectural and artistic inheritance against the headwinds of fashion.
Scruton, Roger, Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (London: Atlantic Books, 2013), £8.99