Religious vision in modern poetry: Uku Masing

by Vincent B. Leich

Religious Vision in Modern Poetry: Uku Masing compared with Hopkins and Eliot

Vincent B. Leich, Mercer University

It is my belief that critical works of excavation and restoration, though risking some danger of suffocation in the labyrinthine byways of literature, offer to shed light on present understanding by suggesting new angles of vision. Thus, in bringing to light the religious poetry of the Estonian Uku Masing, I hope not only to open to attention Masing’s significant poetry itself via close analysis, but also to offer a different perspective on religious vision in modern poetry through comparison of Masing’s with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ and T.S.Eliot’s visions.

Uku Masing (1909 - 1985) first came to the attention of Estonian readers in 1935 with the publication of Promontories Into the Gulf of Rains (Neemed vihmade lahte). On the strength of this virtuoso volume he was represented three years later in the landmark Estonian anthology Soothsayers (Arbujad). Although at that time Masing’s original and visionary neo-symbolist poetry struck readers as unnecessarily complex and obscure, it was soon recognised that a significant major new poet had emerged.

Masing had been known to a few Estonian intellectuals earlier as a brilliant though eccentric young teacher of Theology and Semitic Languages at the University of Tartu, and as an editor of the Theological Journal. In Soviet times when the Faculty of Theology was closed, he held various jobs and translated poetry. (It should be mentioned that Masing was a superb linguist as well, knowing approximately 60 languages.)

Since his portion of fame rests squarely on the fifty-one poems in Promontories, a few words about the overall structure of this work provides a broad perspective for the subsequent discussion of specific poems. At the opening of the volume Masing has a long intimate introductory hymn addressed to God in which he humbly envisions himself as a participant in God’s Great Chain of Being. After this, Promontories is divided into three parts. The archetypal path in the first section of twenty-six poems leads man to God while the allegorical ship of the second section of thirteen poems brings Christ to man. The night-shelter, death, in the final group of eleven poems depicts in a surreal painterly manner the symbolic state of being and place from which man expresses his longing for God’s eternal home. Within this religious structure, Masing included poems of awesome epic-like mystical vision, as well as poems of intimate, almost childlike devotion. 

It is evident that Masing was essentially seeking a steady, unbroken consciousness of the presence of God, and that he was troubled by the precariousness, the uneven quality, of his experience of that religious consciousness. In his joyous moments he portrays his vision of the order and goodness of Creation and of God’s loving presence in Creation. This vision of reality, traditionally called ‘sacramental vision’, emerges out of an underlying direct and intimate relation between the poet and God.

By comparing Masing, Hopkins and Eliot, one can better understand Masing’s work. To be sure, any comparison of these poets requires a summary listing of their similarities and differences. To begin, then, with obvious similarities, each of these three by modern standards tends to be obscure, eccentric, and original in poetic matter and manner. At the same time each concerns himself centrally with moments of mystic insight and union, evidence of God’s presence in the world, and experiences of the dark night of the soul. Also all three are deeply concerned with man’s relation to God - with establishing and maintaining a direct and close relationship with the Absolute.

What distinguishes Eliot’s from Hopkins’ and Masing’s sacramental vision is the relative absence in Eliot’s canon of the moments of intense mystical insight. Another way of making this point is to emphasise Eliot’s basic inattentiveness to the world of nature. As an admitted anti-romantic, who campaigned against the stylistic excesses and the self-indulgent mystical tenets of western romanticism, Eliot’s avoidance of sacramental celebration comes as no surprise. Given a broad perspective, we are not at all surprised that avid readers of Eliot have learned to treasure those rare vague moments of sacramental vision that occur in his famous ‘Rose-Garden Experiences’.

As with Masing, so with Hopkins the experience of religious desolation is a topic of major importance to an understanding of his religious vision. In Hopkins’ notorious Dublin sonnets of 1885, the separation of man and God and the concomitant anger at and fight with God constitute one of the most dramatic examples in literature of the presentation of the dark night of the soul. And, indeed, even the most cursory reading makes evident that Hopkins’ poetry of desolation is more despairing and violent than Masing’s, as is most obvious in the sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, in which the poet, having flagrantly discredited Christ and Mary, expresses a longing for death and a horror of life that borders on the psychotic. Then, too, in the final four sonnets written just before his death, Hopkins again depicts a state of desolation that now inexorably tends to color his entire corpus. We sense in Hopkins’ late poetry (in the mid and late 1880s) the constant shadow of despair, only occasionally relieved.

When considering Eliot’s postconversion poetry, it is clear that desolation plays a significant role in his religious vision of reality. The first two Ariel Poems, for instance, which came right after his baptism and confirmation, portray the death-like experience and despair that follow when two characters confront the reality of Christ’s coming. For each of Eliot’s personae the new dispensation brings fear and a consequent longing for death. In ‘Som de l’escalina’, Eliot portrays the aloneness and the contempt for the world and the flesh that comes with the bitter journey to God. Unlike Masing and Hopkins, though, Eliot tends to be analytical and philosophical rather than emotional and lyrical throughout his desolation poetry.

From a broad perspective, Masing’s poetry of desolation is seen to fit somewhere between Eliot’s cool and Hopkins’ heated portrayals of the dark night of the soul. Using Nietzsche’s famous terminology, one could characterise the difference between Hopkins and Eliot as instructively analogous to that between the so-called Dionysian and Apollonian artist. From this angle of vision, Masing is seen to express attitudes characteristic of each type, as is clear in his ‘Only the Mists are Real’and ‘Darkness Defies Light’ respectively. Basically, then, Masing occupies a middle ground between Eliot and Hopkins, though he tends more often to approach the personal intensity and lyricism of Hopkins.

Beneath their celebrated moments of mystical insight and union, their experiences of the presence of God and their encounters with the grim reality of the dark night of the soul, each of these poets reveals a persistent, common concern with the establishment of a direct relation with God. Yet, with different versions of this relationship, each shows very basic and distinct individuality.

For Eliot, man’s relation to God is very often characterised as indirect and tenuous. Eliot never fully encounters the face of God; he never speaks directly with God. When he prays, he seems to express the desperate wishes of an unconvincingly heroic persona rather than the gentle and reverent requests of a needy lover, as, for example, in the close of Hopkins’ ‘In the Valley of the Elwy’ and the second half of Masing’s ‘Of Nothing but Faith’. For Eliot the rare random moments of vague vision in the Rose-Garden are as close as one gets to God. Hopkins and Masing, on the other hand, are often in direct intimate contact with God. Their conversations with God are the colloquies of respectful, if annoyed, lovers; so too their prayers are uttered with a sense of the closeness and affection of God. When angry, both poets argue and accuse God, as one would do with a dear friend. Eliot, in his individual fashion, focuses his anger on the tragic nature of human life rather than on the seemingly unjust and cruel dictates of God. For Eliot, the Fall of Man - man’s Original Sin - seems to set an impossible barrier between man and God; man has limited vision and an ever-present potential to avoid the austere duties of the ascetic life. Like Eliot, Masing occasionally reveals a sense of the distant and transcendent nature of God. God, the omniscient ruler, as opposed to God the close and affectionate lover, appears in ‘Darkness Defies Light’ and ‘Song of Warriors Retreating Before Ghosts’. With broader perception, God is almost always immanent in Hopkins’ religious vision and nearly always transcendent in Eliot’s, whereas in Masing’s religious vision God is both near and far by turns, which is to say man’s basic relationship with God in Masing’s vision changes significantly from one religious experience to the next.

It is hoped that this brief examination of Masing’s poetry and summary comparison with Hopkins and Eliot will bring Masing a wider audience and, too, will suggest a slightly different angle of approaching religious vision in modern poetry. Clearly, each of these poets handles religious joy and desolation differently - distinctively; just as each poet certainly has a distinct and definable relationship with his Lord. Masing, Hopkins and Eliot are committed to Christ. While their emotions, thoughts, and experiences within this common commitment are intensely individual, their shared respect and love for their God is immediately apparent. Let me sum up in a simple fashion by relating my secret visions of these religious poets: secretly I picture Hopkins as the mystic ‘lover’, Eliot as the scholarly ‘intellectual’, and Masing as a lover prone to the enticements of the intellect - a reverse Faust, if you will.

Original article, much longer, was published in the
Journal of Baltic Studies, 1974, No 5, pp.281 – 294.