Poetry Survey Series Post Eight: from The Marshes of Glynn by Sydney Lanier

Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach-lines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows
the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light.
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.

Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space ‘twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
Farewell, my lord Sun!
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run’
Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.

How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
And it is night.


There are two basic mental requirements for being a thinking person. One is, to have a mind trained in methods of reasoning. And the second is, to have an imagination that has been cultivated.

The first requirement allows one to proceed from the known to new conclusions. One proceeds, through logic, mentally, in an orderly fashion from what one knows – to arrive, unruffled, at further conclusions which one then feels confident about – just as confident, in fact, as one did about the previously known premises.

More, a mind trained in methods of reasoning allows one to do things with reason or for a reason – as opposed to doing them under compulsion, or automatically, or reactively.

The second requirement, though, is just as necessary- perhaps more so. We have said, though it bears repeating, that the function of the imagination is not making things up. The function of the imagaination is to form an image of things in the mind.

What is the point of this? we may ask. After all, why should we need to have a picture of something in our mind if we can just look at it right in front of us?

To beging with, what happens when you have just looked at something, and then you turn away? Suppose, for instance, that you have just looked at a map and seen a complicated system of roadways that you must follow to reach your destination. Now supposed that you are caught in heavy traffic and you can’t afford the risk of looking at the map again. Being able to hold that image in your mind is pretty important then.

Proceeding from there, suppose that you are looking at the map, as you should rightly do, before you set out on your journey. Now suppose that you must drive from the place represented at the bottom of the map to the place represented at the top of the map. You can’t see your whole trip at once – you have to move your eyes from the bottome to the top. If your mind could not form a responsive image of, a mental correlation to, what you see at the bottom of the page, then you would have forgotten it by the time you reached the top of the page – and you would not have formed any real idea of the trip you are about to take. You would not be able to connect the two images and form them into a whole image.

Now let’s take it a step further. Suppose that you are looking at the map before a different trip, and this time it’s a very short trip over roads you are mostly familiar with. In fact, you only have to figure out a single turn between just two roads on your trip – right or left? Now suppose that you have an inability to form images in your mind. Are you sure you could actually see the map at all – at least, the way people see maps when they understand them?

Unless you form a corresponding image in your mind, you will not be able to make sense of the colorful lines and squiggles on the map. You will not say, “Ah, it’s a left turn there!” You will not “grasp” the map because there is no image-forming place in your mind to receive the information in front of you. The map remains wholely “outside” your mind, and doesn’t enter “inside” your mind until you are forming an image of what you are looking at.

From here, let’s abstract this idea a bit.

What is an image, essentially? I think most of us probably think of paintings and photographs when we think of images. But the first images, surely, were reflections in water. Can you think of any other way in which primitive people would have, could have encountered an image? I can’t.

So let’s concede that images are, first of all, reflections. They are things whose existence depends on the existence of something else. They are things which represent that something else. They are things which are, to all appearance, are formed by a receptive substance (the surface of water when altered by the presence of sunlight) in reaction to a assertive substance (the color and shape of my face) for the purpose of sharing the shape and appearance of that assertive substance. (I say in appearance, because I am trying to trace the probable formation of the idea of ‘image’ and not to recount the scientific explanation of mirrors.)

The nature of an image is such that it is “speaking” in a sense, and that it only speaks the truth if the image corresponds in some actual way to the original.

So far we have been assuming that all images are spatial things – that they are shapes. Suppose for an instant that some ideas are like shapes but are not literally spatial.

What I mean is this. Suppose that an idea springs to life in my mind – some concept. And suppose that I want the same idea to spring to life in your mind. I carefully concoct a sentence or two that I think will convey the idea from my mind to yours.

However, unless we are both psychic, it is hardly likely that I will be able to directly drop the living idea from my mind to yours. How then do people share ideas? Well, we share them in a similar way to looking at a map and grasping what is represented there. Somehow, you look at my sentence (or hear it) and you form a representation of what you are seeing, in your own mind. You form an “image” – that is, a responsive idea, or a reflection of my idea – in your mind. From there you proceed to treat the idea reasonably until you understand it.

So we see that reason alone cannot allow us understanding. Imagination is necessary also. Everytime we grasp an idea, we had to make an imaginative leap in order to first retain, or hold in mind, some intelligible representation – some reflection – of what the other person must have thought or seen or felt.


All right, got that? If you are with me thus far, let’s keep going down this contemplative path. Suppose that by the time you have reached thirty years of age, every idea you have encountered is lodged in your mind in the form of an “image” or a complex of “images.” When you hear the word “love”, you don’t run over the dictionary definition in your mind. Rather, something that “stands for” love in your mind springs up at the call of the word’s sounds. For me that something is a mesh formed of my mother’s hands and my father’s regard at their gentlest moments, the terror of my parents in other moments, bearing down on me with unbearable punishments, the way the sky leans down and seems to breath gentle pure life-giving breath into me, the skin-to-skin intimacy I share with my spouse, that special understanding smile I get from my best friend and from no one else, my arms aching for the leaping bodies of my children catching sunlight like gems yet tearing like tissue, those dreams I had in which a golden light shone out of someone’s chest, and a picture of my own body, glimpsed in the mirror, my ribs protruding and my eyes blackened with grief after someone was torn out of my heart.

Probably, even those pictures in their colored, spatial form, don’t parade in front of your eyes every time you hear the word “love.” Instead, something that has been distilled from those pictures and the experiences they represent, springs up unnoticed in the form of “understanding.” The word ‘love’ in the dictionary is a few sentences that trace the boundary of a word’s history and current semantic range. But the word in your mind is a different thing. It is an imprint formed by repeated association between the word and various experiences. It is an image – that is, a representative thing.

You probably have your own mesh, but the more your experiences are similar to mine, the more readily you will be able to make sense of, to fit in, the way I use the word ‘love’ in a poem. To the extent that my experiences were no ideal, I will struggle to apprehend the way that the word ‘love’ is used, say, by a saint.

For instance, what about a girl who was raised in the worse kinds of foster homes, who was sexually abused by a string of foster fathers,who witnessed women appeasing angry men by performing degrading sexual acts, who had a boyfriend or girlfriend from age 11, and who was prostituted by that boyfriend or girlfriend. I think we are all aware that this woman will have great difficulty in comprehending what it means when someone tries to tell her, “God loves you.” Examining the reason for this, surely part of it is that this word ‘love’ calls up images that those of us with better experiences will hardly give a moments’ thought to. The cultivation of her imagination has happened in the worst possible way – she is part of a culture of abuse.

To us, in the Christian era, such a woman is quite simply a person in need of rescue, rehabilitation, and kindness. But it’s easy for us to misaprehend the magnitute of her difficulty. Free rent and a few boxes of ramen aren’t going to do much for her real problem. People who try to help her will find her slipping again and again into the same miserable patterns of behavior and wonder whether it’s any good. In the Old Testament, several cultures who had been entirely consumed by this kind of thing were destroyed by God. Christ had not yet come. There was no hope, on Earth and in Time, for their redemption. Lying in the dusty halls of Hades, unable to pursue their distorted passions, waiting for Christ to break all bonds, this was their best chance.

And yet – some women in this situation, some men in similar situations, do not succumb. Why not? Often it’s because they are readers. They read literature – or they meet someone – somehow their minds grasp the image of something better. The adhere to that image and refuse the evil images.

What I am saying is that it is important to cultivate the imagination – to carefully match the image to the word – because imagination is such a large part of character, of direction in life, of one’s hopes and intentions and one’s total sense of what is possible.

I have said that a thinking person needs a cultivated imagination. Here again, I wish to emphasize the need to move beyond reactions, compulsions, and automation. If our ideas are merely those collected by our own experiences, how narrow our minds must be! When we share the images formed by someone else’s mind – especially someone who lived differently from us – then we are purposely cultivating our imagination. We are intentionally altering (or someone is intentionally altering for us) that collection of images from which we distill the representation of ideas.

Generally, poetic criticism calls a poem “good” if it acheives its objectives in a skillful manner. As a Christian I can hardly assent. No poem is good, no work of art is good, unless the correspondence between the image and the thing it represents rings true.

If we imagine God in the right way, we are not inventing a God but we are leaping toward his arms.


I have written a long and complex essay about imagination above. Now I want to return to the poem that suggested it.

In this poem, the poet explicitly compares his Marshes of Glynn to God. Certain words he uses may strike oddly on our ears. For instance, the word ‘liberal.’

Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

He says that the marshes are liberal, and so is God. They are both so by reason of their “greatness” and “range.” If our mental image of this word ‘liberal’ is solely formed by contemporary American politics, I think we will be sorely imoverished compared to Sydney Lanier. I think we will have trouble understanding the point of the poem as he intended it. What? God is insipid, self-righteous, and suscetible to emotional arguments?

Thankfully, our poet uses the word only after givings us several images with which to qualify it. The word ‘liberal’ is his shorthand for something he has already described, and is now only referring back to.

“…suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin”

Here, I think, is his first thrust at it. “Free” and “liberal” refer to the same basic idea. ‘Liberal,’ of course, is related to the word ‘liberty’ – both come from the Latin libertas. Which means freedom in the usual sense, as well as “frankness and candor” – a free manner, in other words, as opposed to a formal and restrained and covert manner. What is free is the thing that does what it is meant to do, what it is built to do – the thing that expresses in its outward appearance exactly what it is at essence.

For the poet, thinking about fate and sin (in the context of the post-Civil-War south) is unbearably restraining; freedom comes from contemplating the Marsh and its liberality.

So I think it’s fair to guess that this line is part of the groundwork he has laid for calling the marshes “liberal.”

How does this freedom come?

By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.

So the very grandness – the far-spreading size – of the marsh, suggests “liberty” or “freedom” or “liberality” to the poet. Just like the “greatness” and range of the later line.

I suggest we take note here: for the cultivated imagination, here is a great image to attach to the word ‘liberal’: a sweeping, long, broad reach, of natural growth whose boundaries cannot be reckoned. It’s only one part – but it’s a part.

Here’s another:

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

This stretch of lines uses several words that presage ‘liberal.’

For instance, did you notice “candid?” That seems to come straight out of the Latin dictionary, where libertas meant “candor” among other things.

Candid, simple, withholding nothing, free – here is liberality. With these attributes (albeit in a non-conscious way) the marsh offers itself, “publishes” itself (another image of candor or honesty in self-representation.) It is tolerant in the sense that it allows itself to fully recieve (“suffer”) the sea surging in and surging out (the marshes are tidal marshes) and the rain falling on it and the sun shining on it.

And the result? The marshes grow! They spread and span. They are like the “catholic” man – a great man, an established man, a man posessed of every virtue.

The catholic man, of course, is not a member of the Roman church, but instead it is a man who is both everyman and everything to every man (like the Marsh houses the marsh-hen; like God is the home of the poet.) The catholic man is not what he is without effort, but instead he has mightily wrestled with knowledge, (a burden sometimes) pain, blindness, and stain and has won God, good, sight, and purity out of them.

This is Sydney Lanier’s idea of liberality. God is liberal, the marshes are liberal, and the catholic man is liberal. The poet experiences a borrowed liberality as he contemplates (forms internal images of) the Marsh.

This is an excellent set of ideas – no, of images – with which to cultivate our imaginations. What strikes me afterward is that other poets could easily have conjured ideas of rot and death from the marsh, or images of botheration and tedium. Imagination is character; character is fate.

Here’s the whole poem.



  1. About to leave home to observe another wonder of water and nature, this in the north, an image and experience of the “grandeur of God” – – I read the whole poem with excitement and reverence. It came at a good time for me. A beautiful, haunting but inspiring meditation. And your commentary enriches everything about it. Almost. Later, I want to ask about (1) “my Lord Sun” (2) “And the sea and the marsh are one” (3) “And I wish I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in”

    Thanks, Alana, for your commitment to this project (and your whole blog) and for your generosity in sharing it!


    • Glad you enjoyed it. It is part of a larger work, ‘Hymn of the Marshes.’


      Well, for later then:

      (1) My Lord Sun – have you never felt this? A sense of reverence toward the most grand of the natural bodies? I have. I understand how he would come to this. You mentioned somewhere else a belief that capital-L ‘Lord’ would only be addressed to God, but of course in nations where an aristocracy is present, that is simply not the case. For instance, if you read any of Dorothy Sayer’s “Lord Peter” detective novels you would see the same formula used over and over again. Calling God ‘Lord’ turns out to be another metaphor from human experience (only America finds it normal and natural to have no Lords.)

      Another objection might be that this kind of thing is forbidden by church and scripture as leading to idolatry. And so it is. This particular consideration fills me with great joy, because I realize that in spite of the many ways in which we are inferior to our forbears, the monoethist project has really succeeded in us. None of us as the slightest REAL inclination to adore the sun as an actual god – thoroughly chastened, His Fiery Majesty rejoins the pantheon as the instructor of our awe.

      (2) These tidal marshes are really amazing ecosystems. When the tide goes out, they are like any other marsh. When the tide comes in, the marshes are flooded with sea-water. How does it manage? I have no idea, but I’ll never forget the sight.

      (3) The above probably answers this question as well. When the marshes are flooded with sea-water at high tide, the poet wonders whether any larger sea-animals are swimming around in the marshes, in addition to the usual marhs-animals. It’s part of his sense of a fullness to great for him to coneive, but immediate and generous enough for him to trust in and revere as a mystery.


      • “When the marshes are flooded with sea-water at high tide, the poet wonders whether any larger sea-animals are swimming around in the marshes, in addition to the usual marhs-animals. It’s part of his sense of a fullness to great for him to coneive, but immediate and generous enough for him to trust in and revere as a mystery.”

        Yes, and by analogy it may also have been a commentary on the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind that take over during sleep, flooding and covering consciousness just like the sea floods the marsh:

        “And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
        Roll in on the souls of men,
        But who will reveal to our waking ken
        The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
        Under the waters of sleep?”


    • Michael, that’s a good question without an easy answer. I guess the answer closest to hand is what I’ve been saying here: the cultivation of one’s imaginative faculty by exposing it to images known to be good.

      But to go a little deeper, I’ll pull out my “Trail of Delight” theory. My theory is that there’s a certain feeling – delight – that one can only feel toward truth, toward honest goodness. The quality of that delight is stained or ruined as it encounters less worthy material. If you find one thing in which you can feel honest delight, let your soul feed on that one thing. As your capacity for delight grows, you will soon find another thing in which you can honestly delight, and you feed on that. Eventually these good and true things – images – form a trail leading your from lesser to greater goods. Sometimes I tell people to start with Dr. Seuss. It’s not religious, but some of it incarnates whimsy, and that may be where some people need to start – especially if unbending a little is part of the treatment they require. My next Poetry Survey Post will be a collection of some of the more clever nursery rhymes, so we’ll get a chance to find delight in something very rudimentary.

      A larger answer, though, is to modify one’s approach to Holy Scripture if need be. Once, for a change, I prayed through Psalm 119. Many images appear in this Psalm having to do with how the scriptures (David had far fewer and less inspiring than we do) enlightened and fed him. I really doubt that he came by that insight through a scholarly or analytical approach to the law. (You see a similar approach from elders and the poetry of the Liturgy.)

      What ravished him so?

      When we begin to treat scripture as proper food for the soul, and not as the chains of our religious slavery or the information-source for our religious correctness, then its images will have a chance to inform our minds and delight our heart. A single phrase can feed us all day long.

      I think it’s important, though, to interact with scripture as a creative being, and not as a printer or other duplicative machine. In other words, we have to trust ourselves – the way God made us, the equippment he gave us to work with. And we have to trust the scriptures, that God has allowed them to be of man and for man, fit for use by that very mental equippment, and yet still quick with His Breath. We have to trust ourselves to process the scriptures imaginatively, and to respond with imaginative impulses of our own – impulses that trade on the scriptural images, or build on them, or see their likeness elsewhere or everywhere.

      But like I said, you have to start with a single image that honestly delights you. One of my favorite is the sun as a strong man running a race. Which is, I think, Psalm 19.

      Maybe we’ll have a poetry challenge later, to build a poem around a scriptural image.


      • I’ve been thinking about training our imagination. Some of my meanderings:

        My mother frequently talked about a vocabulary of dance. The best choreographers have a much larger vocabulary of movement than lesser ones. I can definitely see that when I watch dance. Bob Fosse was a really gift, but troubled, man. His dance communicated a daring energy and a crackling of life, yet it is quite easy to identify his dance because his vocabulary was rather limited.

        George Balanchine was also a highly gifted and equally troubled man. Watching his dance is a very different experience. Even though the style, ballet, in which he composed seems far more restrictive than the jazz style Bob Fosse used, Balanchine had a far greater vocabulary of movement and surprises when the norm is expected.

        The examples are many. I am limited as a poet because I have an really limited vocabulary of images. The meter, the rhyme, the word choice, the overall form I get. However, the images I lack and they do not come easily to me.

        Is it also a matter of love? Lanier clearly loved the marshes and in love there is a unity and images come easily, or so it seems to this hard-hearted man. Ah too often I am linear and stand away from things and people so no images form to act as and express the connection.

        I also wonder if the art of poetry is not appreciated or practiced as it used to be in part because of the general iconoclasm of this age? I think it is lessening some, but certainly during the time I was growing up, it was really strong.


        • Michael, those are great concepts: the vocabulary of motion, the vocabulary of image. Imitation, copying, reciting, memorizing – all are wonderful tools to help us enrich our imaginative vocabulary (or our vocabulary of motion.) I occasionally see current dance and I often feel a sense of contempt for it, and I think you’ve put your finger on why. It seems that half of dancing is gesturing toward areas of the dancer’s body I don’t really want to think about, and the other half is a really limited range of jerky, agressive motions. Occasionally something sort of virtuosic (but not very expressive) crosses over from gymnastics. Right now the web is going crazy over “Ballet Jasmine Flower” which was a lovely traditionaly asian fan dance done by a group of young asian girls on “America’s Got Talent.” Everyone is blown away by the beauty of the dance, and it is very beautiful, but it hints at the impoverishment of the usual fare that there is so much surprise at what is, after all, a very traditional and conventional dance.


          • Hip-hop dance is as you describe: aggressive with a limited vocabulary of motion and rythmn.

            I like watching So You Think You Can Dance. It forces the participants to go beyond their comfort range.

            One of the most entertaining was one from several years ago when two highly masculine street dancers did a Bollywood number together.

            It can be a lot of fun.


            • I’ve never gotten into talent competitions, mainly because they keep cutting away to show the judge’s reactions, and also because most of the judges are fairly inarticulate about why they like what they like.

              That being said, every now and then I catch a clip and go, “Wow!” I do love performance art, because it gives me a fuller sense of humanity, of what humanity can be and do.

              If you find that bollywood number with the two street dancers, let me know. I would like to see that. 🙂


  2. I think it’s really fascinating that you are taking the poetry survey series in this direction. I often wonder about why and how the imagination works as it does, especially when it comes to some of the more spontaneous imagery it produces– in dreams, daydreams, waking “visions” and so on. It seems, to me, that paying some attention to those kinds of productions may be an important part of cultivating the imaginative faculty, aside from the fact that they tend to convey valuable information about the inner life, in symbolic form.

    Then, when I think about these things, I sometimes find myself wondering how our experiences of this nature differ qualitatively from the dreams and visions in the Bible, and I wonder (is this too bold?) if maybe they don’t, maybe it’s *all* revelatory, but some dreams and visions were handed down and canonized because they spoke more powerfully, universally, or directly than others.

    I wonder the same thing about the psalms and other poetry in the Bible. How did the experience of these inspired writers differ from, say, yours when you are writing spiritual poetry? Perhaps they were closer to God and had better first hand knowledge whereof to speak, but still– they were just people writing poems, right? God wasn’t dictating?

    Another thing this makes me think of (I hope you don’t mind my continued rambling :)) is a movie that moved me profoundly– “Holy Smoke” with Kate Winslet. I forget the other actor’s name. **possible spoilers ahead** She is a young woman who on a college trip to India becomes brainwashed by a Hindu guru and decides to stay there and marry him, refuses to have anything further to do with her family, etc. They lure her back home by pretending that her father is dying and then (illegally) put her in the hands of a “deprogrammer” for three days. He successfully deprograms the girl but (almost) destroys her spiritually in the process. Enraged, she turns the tables and seduces then taunts him, effectively breaking him down psychologically in retaliation. It’s all quite well acted and believable, and so extreme for both people that they are each nearly dead by the end of the movie, but then, as he’s wandering in a desert :), just before he passes out, he has a “vision” of the girl as a Hindu goddess, and he smiles.

    She finds him, they are both rescued, and eventually both transformed into gentle, chastened, stable searchers in peaceful relationships (with other people) who remain friends with eachother.

    I think I could interpret his vision symbolically as a recognition of the necessity of spirituality- something he was so contemptuous of before- and of seeing, finally, the divine in this other person he had nearly destroyed. So far so good, but as a Christian it troubled me a little that I was so inspired by this movie with religious imagery that was not at all Christian! However, psychologically, given his character and his experiences, it rang true that *this* was the vision he would have and not one of say, the Theotokos.

    But. . but. . . but. . . if God created our imaginations and psyches to work as they do, and this is how they work with even non Christian religious symbolism (it can be healing and transformative), what are the conclusions? Doesn’t that seem to even everything out and relativize a bit? Really thinking (or trying to) about inspiration and revelation can be scary. I don’t want to lose my Orthodoxy!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, cool. I hope you don’t hate it or find it offensive, but if you do it’s okay to say so. It may have spoken to me as it did because I was in a more unsettled stage of religious flux at the time I watched it than I am even now.


    • Leah, you seem to be addressing, sort of, my question of how one tells a true image from a false one. Certainly we are warned that satan is expert at manipulating images to lead us astray. That is why AR’s answer that our imagination needs to be trained is important. It is also about the purification of our imagination which has many levels just as we do as human beings. One reason why many spiritual elders cautioned against the imagination as a guide. The more we unite with God, the more pure our imagination.

      Orthodoxy is not just about images you know. It is about the real person, Jesus Christ. We encounter Him in both seen and unseen ways in the Divine Liturgy. It is really difficult to loose that without a concentrated effort of will.

      There is a story I really like that I’ll share:

      A young man in China wanted to become a jade master. He was apprenticed to a man who was a renowned jade master. The master told the boy to come at a certain time the next day. The boy came. The master gave him a piece of jade and had the boy sit in front of him. The master then began to converse with the boy about normal things, this and that, small talk actually. It went on for an hour. The master told the boy to come back the next morning at the same time. The same process occurred. For months, each morning the boy went, took the jade the master offered and held it in his hand and listened as the master talked about everything but jade. Finally the boy’s patience reached its limit. He asked the master, “When am I going to learn about jade?” The master simply told the boy to come back tomorrow. The boy did. The master placed a stone in the boy’s hand that looked like jade just as before. As soon as the boy held it, he blurted out, “That’s not jade!”


      • I love that story, Michael.

        The concept of purity is difficult when one is examining the mechanics, or biometrics, if you will, of how the human soul and mind and spirit function. It’s true of course that a pure imagination will produce true and insightful and inspired images. But the question of how purity happens, what it is exactly in this context, is very delicate, as St. Porphyrios would say. It’s not enough (or always appropriate) to pursue a rigorous regime of privation. Defilement can come from within – in a sense it only comes from within.


      • “The more we unite with God, the more pure our imagination.”

        Definitely agree there! I have some more thoughts and may come back with them later. Now my husband wants me to watch the Hobbit with him so I’m going to feed my imagination that way for a bit.


    • Leah, I’ve just bought ‘Image and Imagination’ – a collection of literary essays by C. S. Lewis – and I’m hoping that reading it on my Kindle over the next few days will help me to think a little deeper into these questions. I was in the middle of writing a long reply and lost everything I wrote, and I’m struggling to get it all back. I’ll try to be brief, but keep these questions in mind as I develop posts over the next few weeks.

      1.) Scripture. Well, at the heart of scripture is a man speaking. Everything else that scripture is, is built on this. “No scripture is from private opinion, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” Boiled down to subject and verb, that sentence reads, “Men spoke.”

      I don’t really know what it means to be holy, or to be “of God” or to be moved by the Holy Spirit. I do know what it is to be a man, and what it is to speak. I do believe that those who wrote scripture were essentially doing the same thing we do when we write, and most of the time the consciousness that makes its way into the scriptural passage does not reveal an awareness of revelation or inspiration happening. Sometimes it does – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” Isaiah cries, but Paul says, “On this matter, I have no commandment from the Lord, but I think I have His Spirit.” Certainly the words of Christ are all words of God, and yet we know that he often spoke as a spiritual man instead of as an incarnate God.

      The Holy Spirit, that Person of the Trinity, is the least visible, the least revealed, to our human gaze. For some reason the only image I associate with him is of a man standing behind a pillar in the temple. I know he is there, the way we do know the location of people in the room, but I cannot see him. God is invisible, but the Holy Spirit is more than invisible. He is that which fills all things without invading them – present without being intrusive – moving them and within them, without interfering.

      How this can possibly be is a question that hints at the Lord’s relationship to our very existence. The Father is Being to us; The Word is Reason to us, but the Spirit is Motive to us. None is extraneous, but all are proper to a full human existence. What that means, I think, is that the the Heavenly King is present in every human motion, but when a holy person is moved to speak, the Spirit’s presence is not conflicted or buried in the person as it usually is in most of us. The presence is clear and untortured. The Spirit’s presence in the inward motions of a holy person, without changing the essential nature of the act of speaking, results in exceptional purity and wisdom, pleasing to God, full of understanding and faith and all the fruits of the Spirit. In addition, some scripture may record a revelation of some kind, but not all, as far as I can tell.

      I do think you are right that the Church curated the scriptures based on a judgment having to do with content and authorship and public importance to the congregation, rather than on any a priori knowledge of the method of composition.

      I imagine that in the blessed life, we will all speak scripture of our own, without any dimunition of freedom or creative personhood. With that in consideration, the scriptures can be seen as the literature which comprises the most exceptional examples of normal human speech – but only if we define normal as “full of the Holy Spirit.”


      After thinking about the movie for most of the day, it’s my guess that in spite of your state of flux, you interpreted the religious imagery in a far more Christian way than it was intended! One could see God’s providence in that, or your true inclination, or both.

      I think the whole movie could be summed up by PJ’s statement at the end of the movie. “I’m writing my second novel. It’s a story about a man who meets his avenging angel – hah!” Then he looks at the hindu icon which obviously represents Ruth to him.

      The name Ruth is related to ‘rue’ which means ‘regret’ and she definitely makes him regret his being the instrument of her family’s act of violating her religious choice. Despite my sympathy for her family’s concern, the way they treated her made me sick. Aside from any concern one might have over the images of depravity in the movie, I would say that it attempts to show the relationship between seduction and religion (which can be a very real concern) and ends by saying in effect, “We are one another’s real gods, and therefore the only religion is to be kind to one another.” It would have been impossible to show Ruth as the Theotokos because, a) the Theotokos is a virgin, and b) the Theotokos is not a fit image for feminine empowerment – even if she is the really classic image of feminine divinization.

      There’s also a fair amount of feminist ideology, in that the man is seen as physically stronger, attempting to dominate, but ultimately powerless before the goddess-like seduction of the woman, who first avenges herself on him and then comforts, forgives, divinely and unconditionally loves, and morally rehabilitates him. Of course, she also learns a lesson but his lesson breaks and chastens him, while hers divinizes her. Her father and brothers (except the gay one, of course) turn out to be complete jacks, while her mother, who only did what she thought was best, ends up happy in India rescuing animals at the end. Of course, there was a really horrible female character, as well, but her horribleness consisted mainly in her interest in men!!!


      I don’t think I’ve even come close to answering your real questions, but I will continue to ponder them while reading and writing in the weeks to come. Thanks for a challenging comment/question! If you have any further relfections I would be glad to see them.


      • Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful reply and the serious consideration you give these things. As to whether you came close to answering the real questions, it may be that they don’t even have answers, but that the perspectives and responses raised by observantly and non reactively considering them (a lot of people can’t do that!) are valuable in themselves. I like what you wrote here very much:

        “How this can possibly be is a question that hints at the Lord’s relationship to our very existence. The Father is Being to us; The Word is Reason to us, but the Spirit is Motive to us. None is extraneous, but all are proper to a full human existence. What that means, I think, is that the the Heavenly King is present in every human motion, but when a holy person is moved to speak, the Spirit’s presence is not conflicted or buried in the person as it usually is in most of us. The presence is clear and untortured. The Spirit’s presence in the inward motions of a holy person, without changing the essential nature of the act of speaking, results in exceptional purity and wisdom, pleasing to God, full of understanding and faith and all the fruits of the Spirit. In addition, some scripture may record a revelation of some kind, but not all, as far as I can tell.”


        Did you hate watching the movie? I was just using it as an example in my post and didn’t expect you’d watch it, and I was a little nervous when you said you were going to– not because I thought you couldn’t handle it or because I was (overly) concerned about what you’d think of my standards, but because the level of raunchiness does make for unpleasant viewing, and I didn’t want you to have an unpleasant experience! I was a little torn over saying something to that effect last night, but then I thought, “Nah, she’s an adult, she doesn’t *have* to watch the movie, she can read the reviews, I don’t want to be condescending, etc.” 🙂

        Anyway, I watched it myself that (once!) 🙂 in spite of all that because I was soooo drawn in by the story line and the actors and character development once it got going. You may be right that I read my own values and interpretations into the movie. I got caught up in seeing some of the events of my own life allegorically in the lives of the characters, and so by the time they were wandering in the desert in such bad shape, I was quite emotionally involved and the “vision” became something of a personal symbol for me, too- of hope and grace appearing in unexpected places and forms when everything you thought you were or knew is breaking down, and of seeing the divine in others and feeling kindness as an imperative as at least a starting point.

        Hmm, I was going to proceed to analyze the film a little further, kind of in response to the points you raised (which I don’t necessarily disagree with) but find I’m hesitant to be more objective about it. I’m afraid I’ll disappoint myself by finding it a desert with nothing but sand. 😉


        • Leah, no I didn’t mind watching the movie, there were just a few parts where I took off the headset or looked at something else! I do understand why a movie can mean something to someone when it deals with situations similar to their own. My crying “feminist” doesn’t mean that there’s no value or meaning or truth there. I think there is. But specific to the question about images and imagination, and especially now that I’ve worked my way through the implications (or some of them) of St. Jack’s essay, I think it’s fair to say that there was real imagery in the movie – it rang true for you – and the stamp of ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Christian’ is not what makes an image real or gives it power. One of the things Lewis said was (I’m paraphrasing) God can bring so much good out of evil, and the devil can bring so much evil out of good, that you can’t evaluate an image based purely on its origins. I think that’s pertinent here.

          I don’t see why you should reject the images and concepts that helped you, but perhaps we should all hold our favorites loosely because better ones may be coming to take first place.


    • Well, the poem is the most important part. 🙂

      Lanier is best known for this poem, and for his theory about the connection between poetry and music. To me this poem always sounds symphonic.


  3. I just reread everything above. Very challenging! Inspiring too. I’m going to keep thinking about all this, but not too long because it might inhibit me, or distract me, from writing a poem like Lanier’s, in his style I mean–a more frightening activity than thinking but one that also reveals things in a different way. (I imagine writing poems, I frequently fiddle with words, also word patterns and sounds, more than I actually complete a poem. That’s a different topic, however . Another reason I keep checking out this blog.)

    Would you believe that even though I had read everything in this section soon after each comment was posted (what, 18 months ago) it’s as if I’m reading it all – – including my own comment early on! – – for the first time. Surprisingly, I don’t feel that way about the poem. I enjoyed rereading it because I knew it, in a mysterious way, even though I hadn’t memorized it, or even read it recently.

    I don’t plan to watch the movie–I get too involved in the faces, especially eyes, also mouths–but then there are clothes (colors, styles, tones) – – and of course speaking voices, their range, their various messages beyond words–I could go on. . .

    But by then I would have forgotten about ideas. And if I were to watch the film, by commenting on the images I might destroy their special power. I’m not against reflection or analysis. They are valuable activities. The nice thing for me though about Sidney Lanier’s lines is that I can keep returning to them. I could even learn some, as I have learned certain hymns. Then I would stop thinking about the images, and simply be them – – as a musician and his music are joined, or can be; as we ourselves, listening, can enter the music. Poems too. (And Alana already said, “. . . the poem is the most important part. :)”


    • Albert, when I found time I went back and re-read the post and comments, too. I had forgotten about this one. It takes me back to a time that, because so much has happened since then, feels like long ago. These are good memories. And it helps me to remember what I thought and knew, so I don’t regress.

      Like you, I was surprised at how I read these comments. They don’t feel unfamiliar, but I’m realizing how much I have integrated everyone’s thoughts and ideas. I have slow processing speed – it’s really a burden, but the upside is that I seem to keep learning from people’s words long after they’ve stopped speaking.

      There may be a poem in that.


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