15 May 2005

Religion in the poem

Having just returned from the Saint John show, where I performed in St. Paul's Parish Centre (adjacent to the church itself), I thought I'd briefly comment on the role of religion in the poem, and the audience's view of it.

First of all, though there is a bit of religious background in the poem, it couldn't remotely qualify as a religious poem. Religion is basically confined to the following points:
  • when Wolfe's soldiers burn a church ("Ste. Anne's inviolable temple") and kill its priest, the latter's "dying cry" for vengeance is responsible Wolfe's sickness
  • Wolfe's dream mentions that "the angels and the saints" now refer to the Plains of Abraham as "the Fields of Grief"
  • in some performances, "gentle sleep" is shed by "some demon" on the sentries' eyes at L'Anse-au-Foulon
  • whenever the Ursulines appear, they're described as having vowed to be "the brides of Christ"
  • occasionally a priest says Mass, in which case the following 2-line formula is deployed:
And there the holy priest : with silent step : brought forth the bread and wine
In pious sacrifice to God : the vessels of the Word made flesh
  • The mother of the Ursulines at one point prays to the Virgin, and in response the Virgin is explicitly said to weep (resulting in "mistiness and fog" on earth)
  • they bury Montcalm in the chapel of the Ursulines, which is described as "the holy place of Christ" a couple of times
  • various references throughout (in lines of 3-part metrical shape) to "Heaven's power"
It will be seen that these "religious" points basically add period detail: everything is implicitly "focalised" (perceived from a character's point of view), perhaps through the habitants, as in this couplet:
And soon they reached the holy chapel : where the painted altar stood
Before the English soldiers came : across the cold Atlantic sea
and this applies even to the Virgin's tears as rain on the battlefield. Also, everything is quite vague. In this, I follow Homer, whose religious material is Panhellenic in scope, incorporating no local peculiarities and consequently representing a Greek religion that is, as it were, slightly out of focus. In my poem, I'm vague precisely so as to maintain that inclusive point of view.

(Sometimes, indeed, I am apparently too vague -- or too Homeric. All the way across the Prairies, Dave, who has never tried to pass for a theologian, kept discreetly mentioning that one line, in the mouth of the mother of the Ursulines no less, was perhaps rather theologically incorrect:
And none was yet to woman born : who tasted of eternal life
Being stubborn, I tried to defend this, but ultimately there's no denying that this idea doesn't sound authentic. So I dropped it for a while, though I'm now saying "Few were yet to woman born" etc., which I think is OK.)

To return: could one compose a poem whose action takes place in New France and not mention religion? I doubt it. Yet it remains a tricky subject. Partly, there are a lot of secular people around who just get a bad taste in their mouths at mention of the word "God" -- as do a lot of religious people. (A secular person myself, I think such a reaction is foolish -- an inherited peasant superstition if there ever was one.) Partly also, "religious" people nowadays don't know how to react to my injection of the fairly Gothic, quasi-medieval 18th-century Catholic point of view, the Christian religion being basically unrecognisable these days (very Jesus-oriented, I find, even apud Catholicos). A couple of times, older women have sheepishly blessed me after the show.

Overall, though -- and this is the important thing -- nobody minds the presence of religion in the poem; the worst reaction I've had was at a Catholic school, where the students temporarily lost interest at the first appearance of the holy priest's silent step (neither he nor the Ursulines reappeared that performance). No one mistakes me for an 18th-century Catholic; no one accuses me of propagating some heresy. I attribute this excellent response to the ability of epic to present potentially divisive things -- first and foremost the English-French rivalry, but also religion -- in an elevated manner, separate from reality and therefore detached from the real purpose of the poem, which is historical.

This is fortunate for me, because while I've had to eliminate almost all supernatural elements from and can't get away with having Olympians charging to and fro across the battlefield (much less debating the plot chez Zeus), I seriously wonder how else I could achieve the instant long-term perspective you get by invoking things like Fate, Heaven's power, etc. I would have to digress every time in order to achieve that, using five lines where I can (as things stand) use half a line or less -- thanks to the shorthand we call religion.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful indeed. I think religion plays an important role in tbe poem, and in the performance, and it makes the whole experience all the more powerful. The scenes with the Ursulines are among the most moving in the poem.

Anonymous said...

I just think that is a really freaky picture.