Poetry of Play and Worship
My favourite poetry, as an undergraduate studying literature, was that of the "metaphysicals" -- a curious mixture of wit, word-play and religious devotion that is so characteristic of the seventeenth century. Whether it was George Herbert's "Easter-wings," an early example of concrete poetry wherein the lines, printed vertically, represent the shape of angels' wings; or the incorrigible Donne who can leaven with a punning playfulness the most serious thoughts on man's estate, these poets exercised a fascination to be found in few others. At the end of "A Hymne to God the Father," a plea to his Maker for forgiveness, Donne can write: I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; Sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou haste done, I feare no more.
If one is to impute irreverence to the dean of St. Paul's for the pun in the third line, it should be remembered that Christians were themselves first identified by a play on words; and that one of Christianity's essential characteristics, so often lost sight of by its adherents, is joy.
It is this joy, born of love, that casts out fear for Donne -- to the extent that the play on his own name in the fifth line comes across as a paean of praise and gladness, the joy of knowing oneself to be safe in the divine home. It is not "conceit" but humility, which by undercutting the seriousness of language undercuts also the materiality to which language necessarily refers.
We are trapped by language. Even the word "spirit," which might seem to connote something beyond materiality, comes from the Latin for "breath." Who can picture spiritual things? All we can do is to use the analogy of something like air which is seemingly less material (though not in fact so) to point awaym from our prison to the world beyond. Our language can only refer to or picture or reflect the materiality in which it is grounded, which bounds it -- farcical, incomplete world -- the world of "fact" which, because divorced from value, is not a world of fact at all. To take language totally seriously is to take seriously the materiality which mediates between man and his Maker, something which Milton, perhaps, comes perilously close to doing. It has often been noted that a sense of humor is one of the hallmarks of a spiritually-minded person: it is often, certainly, a reliable indicator of character.
Why, then, is there an element of play in the most successful religious poetry? For the same reason, I would contend, that the most successful religious music, that of Bach and Handel, is decorated with a baroque delight in the intricacies of form, a sparkling backdrop to the sombre jewelery of exalted thoughts. It is the humble admission of the inadequacy of language, any language, whether that of words or of music, to do justice to the glory which lies beyond words and music: together with a determination to do one's best, anyway.
And the anthropomorphic projection, the sullen and avenging hurler of thunderbolts which represents merely a displacement of our own deep fears and forebodings, is replaced with the understanding of that loving power which, in few things so much as in playful joy, whether as child, man or woman, we can claim as our own.