Literature and Testimony


I would ask you to bear in mind, as you read, an image to which I shall refer at the end. Think of the difference between listening to a recording and listening in the concert hall to a live concert; and then think of the difference between the Law of Moses and the gospel.

The Hebrews we might expect to have been morally preoccupied because they were the chosen people; and they were indeed morally preoccupied in a way that no other race ever has been. But when it came to the arts, the Greeks and the Romans were also morally preoccupied. They were aware that the arts had moral influence, and they were careful about that moral influence. Maxima reverentia pueris debetur—“The greatest of deference is due to youth”—was the saying to stop a Roman dirty story. Plato forbade weakening arts in education. He thought, for example, that those disgraceful tales of the domestic habits of the Greek gods should not be revealed to young people who were being trained for leadership in the state. Music, too, he would not allow; except for the Dorian mode, which was martial.

What we look for in great art is a combination of strength and sincerity. Often, in modern literature, the sincerity precludes the strength; and often we get pseudo-strength precluding sincerity. When I speak of strength and sincerity together, I speak of something that is rarely achieved on the grand scale. It has been achieved by people like Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Who is strong is perhaps an easier question to answer than who is sincere.

Hebrew, Greek, and Latin

Who is sincere and what is sincerity? I would cite to you two mottoes that Ben Jonson used, and that are taken straight from the classics and so link back to our Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tradition. The first, “As a man speaks, so is he.” And the second, “Speak, that I may see thee.” The second follows from the first. “As a man speaks, so is he. Speak, therefore, that I may see thee.” I present to you a point of view about literature according to which the canons of literature are no different from the canons by which we judge our own friends’ and relatives’ talk. Conversation, literature—literature is a part of language from this point of view—come under the same rubric: whether they are deliberately artistic, whether they are conceitedly artistic or whether they seem not to be artistic at all and yet are (and this is very often the best sort), they still come under the same canons and judgments. When we judge our friends by how they talk, which we inevitably do, we are doing the same sort of thing as when we are judging literature. We do not think (do we?) primarily of how well our friends or relatives talk. We think of whether they are telling the truth or not; whether they are being loving or not—of moral qualities. And this is what we need to think of in literature; and this is what, thank God, Anglo-Saxon literature, both American and British, consistently has done from the beginning. It has not been led away by the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” that was so prevalent in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century—one of the most disgraceful pieces of self-indulgence ever, and highly heretical.

Morality, art, and religion have a special relationship: both morality and art spring from religion, but there is no direct connection between morality and art. When a direct connection is attempted, one gets allegory instead of symbol; and allegory is always inferior to symbol because it is always more superficial. Morality cannot exist independent of religion because it cannot be lived without religion. Art cannot be great without religion because unless you have a religion, you try and make a sort of substitute mishmash for yourself; and that is not so successful. Morality and art, therefore, are connected through religion. If they are connected directly, art etiolates; but if art gathers strength from religion and morality gathers strength from religion, there is that relationship between art and morality that we need in order that art shall be profitable.

Period of the Apostate Church

I pass at this point to the art of the period of the apostate church. We in America conform so well nowadays to the culture of this country, just as people conform in Britain and other countries, that we must remember that in the past, conformity was conformity with the apostate church and is still conformity with the apostate church and that conformity is now, increasingly, conformity with the great and abominable church.

It follows that it is the great nonconformists of the past with whom we may seek kinship, not with the conformists, for the conformists accepted the corruption around them, and the nonconformists did not. We must look in the past to those who dissented as being those who in some sense were our forebears: Wycliffe, Luther, George Fox, Bunyan, the Wesleys, Blake—these are people who looked forward. And though they did not have the right doctrine (and Bunyan was, after all, a predestinarian) nevertheless, when it comes to true religion, when it comes, for example, to describing how the pilgrims crossed the river of death, then there is no more magnificent or convincing piece of Christian prose anywhere. It is fruitful sometimes that the Christianity of the heart should overflow doctrine, but it is important that the right doctrinal banks be there, because we do not require floods all the time.

Heads of University English departments throughout the world during the last three generations have on the whole been either areligious or antireligious and certainly had a predilection for antireligious literature. The consequence has been that in most if not all English departments, the selections of texts for study has been governed by antireligious prejudice. There is a mass of great religious literature in the American and the British traditions; and by right it should have more place, because some of it is great literature and people merely turn against it because it is religious. We should turn to it for this very same reason, that it is religious; because when art is great, we must expect very often that it will anticipate our Church. If it is, after all, great art, it is true art and moral art; and we may therefore expect to find in it sustenance for ourselves.

Middle Ages

In choosing from the Middle Ages, even the agnostics and the atheists cannot avoid religious literature, because most of the literature of the Middle Ages is religious. I want to emphasize to you that the greatest literature of the Middle Ages is religious literature. I think of Langland’s Piers Plowman, a religious assessment of the whole of society, or that series of devotional lyrical moments, The Pearl. I think of the women who composed mystical and devotional works that are not as well-known as they should be. I think that with all his so-called liberality Chaucer is nevertheless a great religious poet. And so I might go on. There is material from the Middle Ages that we could use in our Church. There were those great play cycles that were played from the wagons on Saint John’s Day every year, the story of the whole universe from start to finish. They fit in very well with our cosmogony.

Renaissance

I come in this rapid survey to the Renaissance. When dealing with the Renaissance, critics find what they have it in them to find; and so if an agnostic looks at Shakespeare, he finds him an agnostic, and if a Roman Catholic looks at Shakespeare, he finds him a Roman Catholic, and so on. I noticed Kenneth Clark the other day in the Civilization Series saying something about the agnosticism of Shakespeare. I tell you that Shakespeare is a profoundly Christian artist from start to finish, so much so that the Christian atmosphere invades even his plays of Rome and pagan times. Shakespeare’s plays are about the punishment of sin, the reward of virtue, repentance and reconciliation. There is no play that does not concern itself mainly with these themes. It is true of the history plays, which are under the dominance of the concept of God as historical providence. It is true in the tragedies, where great people fall to punishment—punished by universal law, not punished by whim. Shakespeare is aware of law in the universe, and at the same time he is a merciful man. He has sympathy for practically everybody, even for Iago. The only person he has absolutely no sympathy with is that abomination in Hamlet, Osric, because Osric grossly perverts language. I want you to think, too, of other great authors as religious men, for they were. I want you to think, for example, of Milton not as a person who preferred the Devil (as some critics have absurdly pointed out), but as a man whose style was at its best in his last works and who developed a theology remarkably similar to that which we hold to in our Church. Milton was a monist: he believed that spirit was a finer form of matter.

Eighteenth Century

With the eighteenth century, we come to a period in which even apostate faith is declining, and a major heresy arises that consists in saying “Well, I don’t know about the Christian religion, but the morality is good and it keeps people in order.” This was the kind of attitude that despairing man Jonathan Swift took. It was a typical Anglican view: the English church was the right church to keep the British Isles in order. Can we wonder that in the nineteenth century Marx said that “religion … is the opium of the people,” when the apostate churches laid themselves open to that charge by actually being so, and being cynically so? No person of intelligence could have thought that the morality of the Sermon on the Mount could possibly be lived or even remotely approached, except by those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and try to follow him.

The eighteenth century is the age of antienthusiasm, but it is also the age of enthusiastic protest, as in the Wesleys. The eighteenth century poets frequently have nervous breakdowns or melancholia or actually go mad because the atmosphere of propriety and decorum in their age was such, the attitude of pseudo-religion was such, the attitude of “humbug” was so deep, the determinations of predestination so rigid that genuine people took refuge in nervous breakdowns, just as some modern artists take refuge in drink or drugs. Hence the melancholy characterizing the milliner’s son Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; for if there is one thing that a true poet cannot abide, it is a fashion of manners in society that prevents him from expressing himself as fully as he can.

There is something else more profitable to look at in the eighteenth century: it is the age of emerging bourgeois morality, the age of the emergence of that great bourgeois form, the novel. I would wish Latter-day Saints to pay particular attention to this, for there is so much here to benefit us. I speak of our greatest English novelist, Samuel Richardson. Samuel Richardson was a deeply moral novelist. He writes what modern people find to be distressingly long novels, but their analytic genius requires length, and I cannot do other than repeat that I think Latter-day Saints will find a quarry in Samuel Richardson. He was a printer who learned early to understand the heart of woman, for from the age of thirteen onwards he used to write for servant girls, and others who could not write, letters to their sweethearts. After some years of this there was little that Richardson did not know about women. They survived in his esteem. (He did produce an ideal man, too.) I should like Latter-day Saints to become acquainted with the characters of Pamela, of Clarissa Harlowe, and of Sir Charles Grandison. They are almost unknown to us; yet they are Christian people endeavoring to lead Christian lives against difficulty. The influence of Richardson runs forward to the work of that Christian artist Jane Austen, who would not have been what she was but for him.

Romantic Period

I come to the Romantic Period and to the second great heresy. The first great heresy was to think that Christian morality was possible without Christian religion. The second great heresy I have to speak of is the most dangerous to the arts. It is the heresy of the artist as hero. It makes the artist a replacement for God and his art a replacement for the scriptures. This heresy arose in the Renaissance, but it came to its extreme in Anglo-Saxon literature with the Romantic movement. I invite you to consider the difference between on the one hand the partial success of poets like Wordsworth, Blake, and Keats who struggled towards a morality, who struggled towards a religion, and who are honest striving men; and on the other egoists like Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley with their self-obsession, their self-pity, their vagueness, their attitudinizing, and even their drugs. The heresy of the artist as hero is a dangerous one, and I sometimes see a faint reflex of it in the idea of the Mormon artist. Mormon artists should be people who believe in the Mormon religion, who have a testimony, and who write from it; but they need not write especially for Mormons, and they need not write especially on Mormon subjects, though the treatment will be inescapably Mormon if they are true Mormons. The task of the Mormon artist of the future is to be an artist to the world and to represent Mormon values to the world by his art, and not to be turned within on himself or on his group.

Nineteenth Century

The third great heresy that I come to is the heresy that you find in the critic and poet Matthew Arnold. Let me quote the famous statement that in Cambridge in my time we hugged like a teddy bear: “Religion has attached itself to the fact, and now the fact is failing it; but for poetry the idea is everything.” Matthew Arnold was not aware that there was a contemporary church that was not a pastiche church, not a church of the past but a church of his time, as of ours. Our church is the only church of its and our time. Our church is the only church that does not seek refuge in an image of itself in the Middle Ages, or in the counter-reformation like the Roman Catholic Church, or in the seventeenth or nineteenth century like the Anglican Church whether high or low (high, seventeenth century; low, nineteenth century). If a church seeks refuge in another time, it is obviously not for our own time. This is relevant to art because art must always be of its own time; if it is not, it is just pastiche. And religion must also be of its own time; because otherwise, the strength goes out of it, and it simply becomes pastiche of an earlier time. You will find that all the apostate churches are of this kind: they hang on to earlier periods of their history. They cannot bring themselves up-to-date, and they disintegrate: they begin to deny their own doctrines, and merely pretend they are true.

I come to that tradition of the nineteenth century that is common to both Britain and America, and it is a highly moral tradition. I think in America of work like that of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Henry James, who are all deeply moral writers. (Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is one of the most moral books ever written. It has a religious depth; and one sees that Twain must have been struggling against that religious depth in himself all his life, and therefore producing so much superficiality. He is so much greater than Bernard Shaw, yet he keeps reminding one of Bernard Shaw when he tries to be amusingly rational. But he has greater depths than that, though he did not fulfill them.) These are moral writers like their equivalents in Britain at the time, like George Eliot, for example, or Browning.

Our Own Time

In our own time we are confronted with two major issues about literary art: its difficulty and its despair. For the most part the difficulties are not worth solving; the usual solution is a despairing solution of sincerity but weakness. Popular, less difficult art is found to be a combination of pseudo-strength with insincerity. There is a connection in Faulkner between sincerity and weakness. There is a connection in Hemingway between pseudo-strength and insincerity, between his way of writing, his way of life, and his death. There always is this connection; there always is a reason in an artist’s life why his style is not as good as it ought to be. There are clear examples like Oscar Wilde, whose insincerity is almost as obvious as that of a travel-bureau brochure. Self-pity, preciosity, self-regard—we must always remember that there is a correlative to bad style in some form of bad life in the person concerned. That is all I really want to say about the literature of our modern time, because so much of it is so indifferent. Let us not be ashamed of communing with the great and refusing to be fashionable by following artists into squalor when squalor is not significant but becomes a depraved taste of its own. Children and foals who have not been taught otherwise enjoy eating filth.

I come back to what I said at the beginning about the Law of Moses and the gospel: I save till the last what I think to be the most important thing about literature and the way it supports the scriptures. Plato found it impossible to define the good, and therefore, he symbolized it in his Republic by the sun. We symbolize it in a real Son—Jesus Christ. We do not have to work out philosophical complexities of ethics. We have to study and feel the gospel, see what Christ did and try to identify ourselves with what he did. This is where I want to remind you about the recording and the live concert. It is as if the children of Israel, not having lived up to the live concert, had recordings to play for hundreds of years until the coming of Christ. What do I mean by that? Consider the woman taken in adultery. The condemnation of an adulterous woman accorded in the Law of Moses is death by stoning, but Christ’s statement was: “Go, and sin no more.” Does the episode mean he would always have said that? Of course not. Every time a piece is played in a live concert, it is played differently, and yet it is the same piece. Christ could say that to the woman taken in adultery because of his insight—he had seen that she was genuinely repentant. She had been taken in the act and dragged through a hot, dusty street. She had feared death by stoning, and she was the kind of person who could perhaps, since she had loved much, also repent greatly; we believe that she did.

I will finally illustrate what I have to say by means of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The parable of the Prodigal Son is like a musical composition. It is something that plays live again and again to each of us if we have our ears open. People who deal with ethics, people who deal with the social sciences, people who deal with philosophy define in the abstract certain qualities. But though they may be imagining that by so doing they are being more scientific, they are being less scientific than the arts because the poet can give in careful, distinct nuances what the philosopher cannot give in his formula. We pull out of the parable of the Prodigal Son a principle of repentance or a principle of forgiveness or even, bearing in mind the elder brother, a principle of envy. We do wrong to do it. For who ever was persuaded to repent by studying an abstract idea of repentance? Who ever was persuaded to forgive by studying an abstract concept of forgiveness? Christ made that parable to touch our hearts, and it touches mine so much that I cannot possibly read the story through aloud; I always break down at the same spot, and I think you know what that spot is. That is what that parable is for. By feeling forgiveness, we may forgive; by feeling repentance, we may repent; and that is what literature is there to help us do. That is how it supports the gospel, because it helps us to remember that if we hold to the Law of Moses, what we do is to take the record out and play it every time, and it sounds the same every time. It may be an important piece of music, but it sounds the same every time. If you hear a Beethoven symphony, for example, played here and there, in this country and in that country, in this concert hall and that concert hall, you have a repertoire of different interpretations in different circumstances of the same piece. In terms of our Church, when you are in the concert hall, it is not just the players, it is not just the composer, it is not just the audience, but it is all three brought together; and sometimes brought together in such a supreme way that I am convinced that the Holy Ghost is there. I cannot believe in a doctrine of communication that does not end in a reference to the Holy Ghost. Nobody can understand how speech arises; nobody can really understand how we can communicate with one another; no linguist is prepared to provide an alternative to the Holy Ghost. Why should we in our Church want an alternative?

I have in front of me the greatest love story of the Middle Ages. It is known as Troilus and Criseyde and it is a very tender, sad, and sometimes apparently lubricious work. But it ends as a medieval opus must end—with a prayer. Here is a summary of that prayer: “All fresh young folks, he or she, in whom love grows as you yourselves grow, repair home from worldly vanity and turn your faces up to that God who made you after his own image. Think then that this world is but a fair, and love the man who for absolute love of us upon a cross in order to buy back our souls first died, then rose, and sits in heaven above. For he will mislead no man, no man who will rely upon him with all his heart; and since this man is the best one to love and the most meek of all, what need to seek pretended loves elsewhere?” Here it is in the original:

O youngë, freshë folkës, he or she,
In which that love up groweth with your agë,
Repaireth home fro worldly vanité,
And of your heart up casteth the visagë
To thilkë God that after his imagë
You made, and thinketh all nis but a fairë,
This world that passeth soon as flowrës fairë.
And loveth him, the which that right for lovë
Upon a cross, our soulës for to buyë,
First starve, and rose, and sit in heaven abovë;
For he will falsen no wight, dare I sayë,
That with his heart all wholly on him layë.
And syn he best to love is and most meekë,
What needeth fainëd lovës for to seekë?

[photo] Photo by Camilla Marrone, USAF, Europe (contest winner)

[photo] Photo by Steven Myers, Provo, Utah (contest winner)

[photo] Photo by Robert Seamons, Rexburg, Idaho (contest winner)

Arthur Henry King, respected scholar and teacher of English as a second and foreign language, was educated at Cambridge and raised a Quaker. As a convert to the Church of a little more than five years, Dr. King is qualified to speak on the subject of “Literature and Testimony.” This article is adapted from a talk Dr. King delivered as part of the Commissioner’s Lectures Series. He has served as assistant director-general of the Education Division of the British Council, and is presently professor of English at Brigham Young University.