Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Real Men Read Austen

A few months ago, I published this blog posting on the College & Career blog for my church, Pilgrim Baptist Fellowship. I felt it was worth publishing again on my personal blog.
When I was in University, I took a course on the "novel"--we looked at literature from Cervantes, Flaubert, Dostoevsky to Conrad and Angela Carter. Out of all the novels, my professor, who was a man, stated that his favourite author was Jane Austen. Another teacher of mine, Dr. Michael Haykin, Church Historian and Principal at Toronto Baptist Seminary is also a Jane Austen fan. What is it with men and Austen? Isn't Pride and Prejudice a romance novel? Yes, there is romance, but it is a real, tangible and profound sort of romance.

Peter Leithart, who wrote a number of excellent literary companions (Brightest Heaven of Invention about Shalespeare, Ascent to Love about Dante and Heroes of the City of Man about Greek and Roman epics) also worte a book about Austen, entitled, Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. In this excellent book, which I gave my wife (an Austen fan) on Dr. Haykin's suggestion, Leithart writes this about real men and reading Austen:

I insist that “real men read Austen” and can read her with interest and profit. Austen, after all, created some very striking male characters. Some of her heroes are more than a little effeminate; Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility is painfully silent in much of the book, though that is in part due to a depression caused by his secret engagement to the manipulative Lucy Steele, which is plenty to take the pluck out of a man… Austen’s other heroes, however, are strong and forceful personalities, and definitely not effeminate. All her great heroes—Darcy, Wentworth, Edmund Bertram, Knightley—are men who hold positions of authority and use those positions for good. Each of them is a Christlike lover who sacrifices, often at some cost to his reputation, to win his bride. They are servant heroes, not macho-heroes. For Austen, machismo is just Spanish for “bluster” and is the mark of villainy.Even without considering her strong male characters, Austen’s novels are highly instructive for men. The mere fact that her novels give men an opportunity to see romance through the eyes of an uncommonly perceptive woman should be enough to recommend them. Even if men do not want to see courtship through a woman’s eyes, who can say we do not need to? She has a strong sense of a man’s role in courtship and his responsibility for the course that courtship takes. More then one male character in her novels proves himself a scoundrel by playing with the affections of a woman. Austen’s first rule of courtship is one I have frequently repeated to my sons: Men are responsible not only for behaving honourably toward women but also for the woman’s response; if a man does not intend to enter a serious relationship, he has no business giving a woman special attention or encouraging her to attach herself to him. Austen sees clearly that men who play with women’s affections are fundamentally egotistical. They want the admiration and attention of women without promising anything or making a commitment...…Nothing happens in Austen… Yet precisely because of this limitation, because so little seems to happen, every nuance and contour of what does happen takes on considerable importance. We begin to realise that men can be cads without kidnapping women and confining them in dark towers, and women can be vicious without poisoning their rivals.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Taking Flight in Christ

George Herbert wrote a number of poems using a method called “concrete poetry” or “form poetry”, where the layout of the poem reflects meaning. Such a poem, called “Easter-Wings”, is shown below:

As you can see, the poem looks like “wings”. The poem is about the restored freedom we receive in Christ as a result of Easter. That freedom is symbolized by the wings. One cannot help but think of Isaiah 40:31, where we read “Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up {with} wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Take note how the form fits meaning:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

The opening line begins with God creating humanity in “wealth and store”—note that the line is long. As sin enters the picture, the lines decrease in length until humanity is reduced to two words: “most poore”. Then, the turning point of the poem begins with “With thee”—in other words, with God. Herbert is emphasizing that spiritual healing, spiritual restoration, begins with God. As the lines increase, so does the crescendo of hope, which began with God’s intervention. Herbert draws in the flight metaphor into the text with renewed spiritual flight: “O let me rise / As larks […] further the flight in me” He also extends the metaphor to harmony of birds in flight as well singing. The second stanza in the poem set goes as follows:

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

The length of the opening line here implies the extent and weight of sorrow as a result of sin. The result is a withering of the soul and, as form suggest, the poem. This withering continues until the poem is reduced to two words: “most thinne”. Both the poem and the soul of the speaker have become thin. But! But “With thee” the crescendo of hope and promises is restored. “For,” the speaker argues, “if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is an obscure term meaning to repair or graft feathers into a wing to increase flight. When we are grafted into Christ, we can fly to spiritual heights. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” John 15:5. Like Christ, who endured much sorrow and affliction on the cross, we too will suffer affliction and rejection in this world. However, if we cleave to Christ, our suffering will not be in vain, as His suffering was not in vain. Our sorrow will turn to joy. The promised Holy Spirit will come as our helper, and will draw us to Christ. The Spirit is often symbolized in Scripture as a dove, and so the metaphor takes further significance.

"Easter Wings" is a superb poem that exudes both poetic and spiritual beauty. "With Thee, let us rise, as larks, harmoniously, and sing this day thy victories!"