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Can Poetry Replace Religion?

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Can poetry replace religion?

Poetry and religion are two antithetical terms. Wordsworth defined poetry  as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. In literal sense it is a form of literature that  evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience. The canvas of poetry is very vast. Aristotle described poetry as an “imitation” of life. It can be said that poetry is a medium through which a poet gives a deeper meaning to life. The scope of poetry is immense both for the poet as well the readers. On the other hand religion is a particular set of beliefs, feelings, dogmas and practices which are unquestionable. Religion is a very static entity which gives no space to its’ practitioners. Religion is simply blind faith. Hence, poetry and religion stand in sharp contrast to each other. One is static, rigid and the other is dynamic and fluid.

In his essay “Study of Poetry” Matthew Arnold envisaged that poetry can be a substitute to religion. He wrote: “ Mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for  us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” He gave the same theory which Shelley  espoused in his A Defence  of  Poetry , that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Arnold claimed that poetry will provide the same consolation and inspiration, the sense of purpose and guarantee of values that religion had previously embodied.

Arnold lived in Victorian era in which religious beliefs were fast loosing. He wrote in Dover Beach “the  Sea of Faith was once ,too, full ... But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” The advancement in science and technology had led society in a strange darkness where “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight , ignorant armies clash by night.” The importance of religion was submerged. People were becoming  fact  seekers.  A gap was being developed and he believed that poetry could fill that gap by noble and profound application of ideas to life which should be of noble nature. He demanded that poetry should serve a greater purpose instead of becoming a mere medium of gaining pleasure and appreciating beauty. Arnold said that “ future of poetry is immense, where it is worthy of its high destinies , our race as time goes own , will find an ever surer and surer stay.” It is through poetry, rather than through revealed dogma or traditions of the church  that all spheres of life – science, politics, economics and morality- will gain their meaning.

Arnold gave primacy to poetry over religion because in poetry “ there is not a creed which is not shaken , not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable , not a  received tradition which does not threaten o dissolve .” In poetry there is nothing which can’t be counter questioned. Poetry , in the form of classics, provide a “stay” which can’t be provided by science as it is not a stable discourse. He gave the condition that poetry can replace religion provided that poetry is serious and truthful. Then only literature can be claimed as ‘secular religion’.

Arnold set up poetry as the arbiter over the whole of life, seeking to thereby fill the vacuum in man’s religious nature and environment with poetry. He contended  that virtue of poetry is in its insight and  wisdom which is above the vagaries of the historical, diurnal ebb and flow of ‘sea of faith’. Religion had materialised itself in the fact which is now failing it because of the devastation that science and evolution had wrought on Christian dogma. By elevating itself to the idea, poetry perpetually endures , no matter what values may be displaced by the historical flotsam and jetsam of events , persons, scientific discoveries or cultural ideologies. In supporting his arguments for poetry he said that “for poetry the idea is everything the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. The poetry attaches its emotion to the idea ; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our  religion today is its unconscious poetry.” So, poetry succeeds in transcending ‘ science.’

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