Western Worldviews, According to the Poets

An Essay By Hannah D. // 2/1/2017

The history of Western civilization has seen major shifts in its major worldviews - from Christianity and other theisms, to humanism and beyond. It can be said that "Every cultural expression communicates worldview ideas," (Prof. John Stonestreet) and as a cultural expression, poetry communicates the ideas of its poets and the times they lived in.

One such idea is that of religious faith, faith in theism. Among others, this faith may be approached with a sort of 'blind faith,' confident in its Divine Revelation alone.

“I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven,
Yet I am certain of the spot
As if the chart was given."
- Emily Dickinson, from I Never Saw a Moor

Others approach their faith from a more reasoned viewpoint. But their reasoning stems from a trust in the spiritual and religious above the rational and scientific. While human reasoning faculties may help us in some small find in our faith itself. In a poem that compares reason to starlight and the divine to sunlight (as in, when the sun comes up, the stars fade away), John Dryden makes the following conclusion:

"So pale grows Reason at Religions sight;
So dyes, and so dissolves in Supernatural light."
- John Dryden, from Religio Laici (A Layman's Faith)

Of course, there are Christians who find reason to be a better, even equal friend to their faith. Even in the face of objections raised by skeptics, some are able to rationally engage their objections in a debate. Confidence can stem from both faith and reason. way, some have seen them in no way comparable to the assurance we can

"Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on; 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again."
- William Blake, from Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau

Another worldview is naturalistic atheism. The results of this view have often been seen pessimistically from poets' viewpoints. If there is no God, and our lives are just the result of random interactions of matter and energy, what role do things like human dignity and ethics have in our lives? For many, a world without religion is a dark one.

" . . . for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
- Matthew Arnold, from Dover Beach

In a naturalistic worldview, not only are the ethics of life up in the air; the meaning of life is, too. Without God, without an afterlife, without consequences - How Should We Then Live? There are two major responses: a carpe diem approach to life (think YOLO!) and nihilism. Carpe diem is expressed in the poem below.

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying."
- Robert Herrick, from To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

There are plenty that do not see this as a logical outcome of their worldview. After all, consider the depressing descriptions in the following poem, in which the speaker wonders why Spring should bother with all her beauty and lovely little things.

"Not only underground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Spring

Without God, in a naturalistic universe, there is no real meaning in life. This is a hopeless worldview, one which can lead to despair once the fleeting appeal of carpe diem is gone. After all, we all end up dead anyway. And after death, nothing but maggots.

"With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

"By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade."
- A. E. Housman, With Rue My Heart is Laden

Although a Christian could argue in response to this:

“Life is real, life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal;
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest’
Was not spoken of the soul.”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from A Psalm of Life

What is the naturalist to respond? He can respond in sarcasm, as Ezra Pound did in response to Housman and his poetry.

"O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
dead already.

"The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
But he dies also, presently.
Some lads get hung, and some get shot.
Woeful is this human lot.
Woe! woe, et cetera . . . "
- Ezra Pound, from Song in the Manner of Housman

But this still skirts the issue. Much of Niesztche’s writing shows what happens to ethics, meaning, and human dignity once “God is dead;” we end up in a world Beyond Good and Evil, and a world void of any real purpose.

Now let’s turn to a more epistemological idea. After the rationalism of the Enlightenment, poets rebelled with a more romantic view on life. Instead of looking to books, scholarly debates, and academia for sources of truth, why not go by your feelings? And what better place to stir up those emotions than in the natural world around you?

"One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man;
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

"Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
- We murder to dissect.

"Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives."
- William Wordsworth, from The Tables Turned

Nature, it seems, has been a favorite subject for adherents to other worldviews as well. While romanticism in literature and education tended to look at nature in a positive light, there are nasty parts of nature as well. While William Paley’s watchmaker argument argued God from nature, one can argue an opposite position from nature as well. In a poem describing the remarkable work of a ghastly spider capturing a lovely little moth, Frost concludes:

"What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? -
If design govern in a thing so small."
- Robert Frost, from Design

But this is still up for debate. On the other side, we have theism inferred from the remarkable miracle of life:

"Ay, glancing at my own thin-veined wrist,
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamor of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Nothing Small

The debate continues, with Intelligent Design and various forms of creationism battling naturalism, New Atheism, and secular humanism.

But for now, let’s consider just one more worldview poets have considered, one in the secular family (naturalism, nihilism, etc.): postmodernism. Postmodernism, among other things, assumes that there is no such thing as good and evil. There is no moral right and wrong. While the relativist might say, "What's good for you isn't good for me," the postmodernist would say, "There is no good, there is no evil, because there is no truth." Good and evil are social constructs, not actual representations of reality.

"Good and bad, two ways
Of moving about your death
By the grinding sea,
King of your heart in the blind days,
Blow away like breath"

. . .

"And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love."
- Dylan Thomas, from This Side of the Truth

One can sense the hopelessness, the meaninglessness, connected to Thomas’ relativism. Then, the inexplicable last line: “Die in unjudging love.” Couldn't he have also said "Die in unjudging hate?" If good and bad are just, ultimately, "two ways/of moving about your death" then aren't hate and love on the same playing field?

We’ve covered a lot of different ideas here. Christianity. Intelligent Design. Naturalistic Atheism. Naturalism. Carpe diem. Romanticism. Nihilism. Postmodernism. Who is to say which worldview is correct? The struggle is real.

"Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that; whom shall my soul believe?"
- Robert Browning, from Rabbi Ben Ezra

It’s an important question. Which worldview is true? What if we’re wrong? How can we tell if our most dearly held beliefs are true – or not?

"What is truth?" (Jn. 18:38a)