IT would not, I think, have been possible for a Christian before this generation to use such a phrase as the 'poetry of St. Mark'. If the word poetry implies the use of all the resources of verbal expression, obviously St. Mark was not writing poetry. Most of us, who are virtually Greekless and accustomed to the language of the Authorized Version, find it difficult to realize what an obstacle the style of the Gospels presented to cultured men of the first Christian centuries. It was one of those affronts which Christianity constantly affords to fastidiousness. The Old Testament was a different matter, much of that could be regarded as poetry of a high kind, and Isaiah could be praised by the scholarly Jerome as a 'man well-born, of urban speech, with no taint of rusticity'; but to the educated convert of the first centuries the Gospels were the writings of uneducated men, using a debased literary instrument. They had 'no form nor comeliness'. This would seem to have been particularly true of the Gospel of St. Mark, and it has been suggested that its comparative neglect in the early centuries may be explained by its suffering in comparison with the more literary and sophisticated Gospel of St. Matthew. Even in the Authorized Version the second Gospel is conspicuously lacking in verbal attractiveness. We do not go there if we wish to illustrate the subtle, haunting beauty of the rhythms of our Bible. On the contrary, as soon as criticism had established its priority, St. Mark's Gospel was valued precisely because of its lack of literary quality. Its unevenness, roughness, and abruptness made it precious. The author was described as giving the impression of being
'a faithful "interpreter" of another man's ideas, unversed in literary artifice, Greek in speech, but a native Jew in all that lies behind speech',
and was regarded as having provided 'the most direct and literal transcript for posterity' of the life of the Lord. When it is declared that St. Mark has written something nearer a poem than a treatise, it is not meant that St. Mark is a lord of language, a literary artist. A person who speaks of the poetry of St. Mark is not making the same extension of the meaning of the word as we make when we speak of the poetry of, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne.
On the other hand, a person using this phrase is not offering any opinion as to how far the events described by the evangelist actually occurred, or how far they occurred as he described them. No contrast is necessarily implied by this phrase between poetry and history. The poetry of St. Mark does not mean the fiction of St. Mark. The contrast between a poem and a treatise is a contrast between one manner of discourse and another: between language used to express an imaginative apprehension, whether of events, persons, or experiences, and language used for logical discourse and argument, or to give information. By the time we have read through the Gospel of St. Mark nothing has been proved, and we have not acquired a stock of verifiable information of which we can make practical use. In that sense reading the Gospel is like reading a poem. It is an imaginative experience. It presents us with a sequence of events and sayings which combine to create in our minds a single complex and powerful symbol, a pattern of meaning. Reading St. Mark is quite unlike reading a series of entries made by a compiler of annals, or a collection of separate anecdotes. The growth of the conception of poetry as essentially symbolization has made it possible for someone to speak of the 'poetry' of St. Mark; as it has made it possible for a writer to discuss a work of profound historical scholarship such as Gibbon's Decline and Fall and a romantic prose fiction such as Sidney's Arcadia under the same term as 'epics'. St. Mark is called a 'poet' because he was not concerned to narrate mere events, but to narrate meaningful events which compose a meaningful whole.
To Jowett and the exponents of the Liberal school of theology the Gospels were materials out of which it was hoped that historical criticism and analysis might be able to construct a biography. I suppose Dean Farrar's Life of Christ is one of the best popular monuments of that endeavour, a work containing a great deal of historical and topographical information. The school of literary critics to whom Gore was referring, the source critics, occupied itself with literary analysis of the documents in their relation to each other. It was inspired by the methods and skills of textual criticism, from which the so-called Higher Criticism developed, which always seeks to reduce the number of witnesses. Its great triumph was the establishment of the priority of St. Mark, a result which one imagines will never be questioned. It found itself obliged to postulate a second primary document to explain the relationship of St. Mark to St. Matthew and St. Luke. This 'Q' hypothesis was generally agreed to have solved the Synoptic problem, and left the Fourth Gospel standing apart as the 'theological Gospel'. Very recently, in accordance with the tendency which I have referred to, which has been operating in the discussion of such problems, the necessity of postulating 'Q' has been challenged. I am not competent to judge the merits of the argument and do not know how it has been received. I am only interested in the method and the assumptions which the questioner works with. The doctrine that we should make all we can of our extant documents before we make hypotheses about lost earlier ones has always been honoured in theory in these matters. It is applied more and more strictly because a different view of 'making sense of what we have' prevails. In this case it rests on the assumption that we must take seriously the imaginations of the writers of the Gospels ascribed to St. Matthew and St. Luke. It may seem rather old-fashioned to refer to the writers of the Gospels under their traditional names, with the title of saint; but in fact this is not so. One of the results of the new literary approach to the Gospels is that it has restored the traditional conception of four distinct writers to whom we must give personal names. Whether the names are historic or literary names is another matter; but they are names that mean persons through whose imaginations our own imaginations are illuminated.
The triumphs of source-criticism raised problems which could not be solved by its methods. If St. Mark's was the earliest Gospel, its date appeared to be between the years A.D. 65 and 70, nearly forty years after the events which it purported to relate. The pressing question then became the form or forms in which the material the writer was using came to him, the manner in which the traditions were preserved. Form-criticism, which originated in Germany at the opening of this century, set itself to answer this question, not from guesses about what happened in the early Church, but from a rigorous analysis of the Gospels as they stood, which aimed at separating out materials of different kinds. It broke the narratives up into little sections, which could be compared with each other and whose form could be analysed; studied the links between the sections; and considered reasons for grouping certain stories together. The methods of form-criticism revealed that whether or not there was a chronological reason for the grouping of certain stories, there was certainly a topical one and this could be demonstrated. The fundamental question which the form-critic asks is 'Why was the story told?', or 'What is the point of the story?' The form-critic assumes that the meaning or point of the story has preserved it and has shaped the form in which it is told, so that what the story means and the way it is told are inseparable. The stories are seen as apologetic or dogmatic in intention. This method of treating the Gospel stories is very different from the method generally current before, by which the story was first elaborated and expanded by historical and geographical detail, a certain amount of psychological surmise was indulged in to make the narrative dramatically vivid and human, and it was then asked what could be learned from the story. This, which was the classic method of meditation on the life of Christ, was to a great extent also the method of scholarly interpretation. The form-critic does not consider the story and then look for the meaning; nor does he attempt to expand or fill out the laconic narrative. The shape of the story has been dictated by the significance and through this shape the significance can be understood. The story is not to be expanded, but interpreted as it stands. The form-critics distinguish two distinct types of narrative, the literary story, told with a certain amount of artistic elaboration, and the concise story, where only the bare elements of an episode are given. Within these large divisions they distinguish certain narrative patterns, such as various kinds of miracle stories, and 'pronouncement' stories, whose point is that they lead to a significant saying.
The emphasis of the form-critic is on what is called 'the Gospel behind the gospels', or the Apostolic Preaching, or the Kerygma. Its exponents display the Gospels as the expression of the mind of the teaching Church. Dr. Lightfoot judged the great merit of this school of criticism to be its emphasis
'on the vital connexion between the little sections, including the teaching, of the gospels and the great fundamental, permanent Gospel themes of vocation, physical and spiritual restoration, life and death, love and hate, judgement and salvation'.
He went on to say:
'It was probably to the light thrown by the historical traditions on these great themes, even more than to their historical interest, that the traditions themselves owed their preservation; and if form-criticism can show once more the vital connexion between the gospels and the Gospel, it will have proved its value.— R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (1950).
In the hands of its extremer exponents form-criticism can seem to reduce the Gospels to collections of sermon — anecdotes, composed, and some, it is implied, invented, to make a dogmatic point. In the hands of a master who combines power of critical analysis I with a delicate literary sense it can be most rewarding, as in a recent essay by Professor Dodd in which he applied its methods to the narratives of the appearances of the Risen Christ.
In their emphasis on 'themes', the English critics, who have employed and profited by the methods of form-criticism, have shown the same preoccupations which have been dominant in the criticism of literature. Behind the little story or section lies the significatio, or rather the significance is not so much behind the story as within it: it has preserved the story and shaped it. And the significance is primarily apologetic or theological. The Church produced its 'gospels as the expression of its Gospel'. Dr. Lightfoot's discriminating use of the capital is itself a highly significant symbol. The little stories are recorded because they are symbolical of the truth and the actualities of our salvation, whether or not they represent the truth and the actualities of historical occurrence. This is why they have been preserved in the form in which they have come down to us. It is their 'meaning' which matters, because it was for this that they were told.
All the same, form-criticism, particularly in its extremer manifestations, is not congenial to the temper of mind which regards it as the first duty of the critic to make sense of literary wholes. It disintegrates the separate Gospels, and is open to the literary objection that it is not dealing with the work itself, but with the materials out of which it was made; and these materials, the oral preaching of the Apostles, do not exist; they are irrecoverable except by deductions from what we have. It can be complained that the form-critic has reduced St. Mark to a mere piecer-and-stitcher-together of materials already given form by others. The questions which form-criticism raises but cannot by its own methods and on its own assumptions answer, in its search for 'the Gospel behind the gospels', are 'Why was a Gospel produced?' 'What is a Gospel, considered as a literary form?' or 'What kind of model, if any, had St. Mark in mind when he sat down to begin to write the first Gospel?' He can hardly have thought of himself as setting out to write a memoir. Memoirs are not a Jewish form; and, anyhow, his work has no resemblance to a memoir, as a glance at its opening words will show. The newer method of criticism of the Gospels is both a development from, and a reaction against, what one of its foremost exponents, Dr. Austin Farrer, has described as the attempt 'to shoulder St. Mark out of the way and lay our hands on his materials'.
I do not know whether Dr. Lightfoot, whose History and Interpretation in the Gospels and Locality and Doctrine in the Gospels are singled out by Dr. Farrer as 'two classics of the new method', was aware of how closely in its search for a symbolic or theological pattern in St. Mark's Gospel, his work paralleled the interpretative work of many literary critics, particularly the critics of Shakespeare. With Dr. Farrer there can be no doubt. He approaches the literary criticism of the New Testament with a mind steeped in secular literature both ancient and modern, and he shows himself fully aware of the parallels between what he is doing and what is being done by modern critics of poetry. How wholeheartedly he has adopted the methods of modern literary criticism can be seen from his handling in The Glass of Vision, the Bampton Lectures for 1948, of a classic problem in the New Testament. He took there as an example of a problem which demands a literary solution the abruptness with which St. Mark's Gospel breaks off at the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter, with the flight of the women from the empty tomb and the words 'for they were afraid':
Dr. Farrer declares that the question whether St. Mark can have intended to end at this point is essentially a literary question, and that if we are to defend this abrupt ending as the intended ending of the work we must do so by literary arguments. Gore would have agreed; but he would have been much startled by the kind of arguments employed. We must, if we are to defend the abrupt ending,
'try to persuade ourselves that we have been missing the true poetic pattern of the book. Either, like some of Mr. Eliot, it defeats us at first sight, through our failure to pick up the crucial literary allusions; or we have been reading it through a haze of memories of St. Matthew and St. Luke, and not in its own clear light. The purpose of our arguments must be to show that the last line is inevitable in its finality —we must show that, so far from its being impossible for St. Mark to stop here, it would be impossible for him to go on.
Dr. Farrer undertakes to show this by considering theme, recurrences of phrase, and sequences of narrative, and by noting the occurrence of images with underlying symbolic reference. He points first to what he calls the theme of the entire Gospel.
'The act of God always overthrows human expectation: the Cross defeats our hope; the Resurrection terrifies our despair.'
Throughout the passion narrative, he declares, this is the dominant idea. Men do not know what to do with the divine when it is in their hands. A woman anoints the Lord's body for glory, and is told she has done it for his burial; the apostles attempt heroics, but at the crisis they flee; priests condemn him to preserve their priesthood which is to be destroyed; Joseph buries him whom no sepulchre can hold; women bring spices to embalm the already risen God:
'The mere rustling of the hem of his risen glory, the voice of the boy in the white robe, turns them to headlong flight.'
Such an analysis reminds the literary student of many similar treatments of poems, designed to bring out the 'irony' and 'paradox' which a notable school of modern critics think the essential differentiating quality of poetic speech.
Dr. Farrer then turns to argue from grounds of phrase, recurrent rhythms, and 'formal recurrences of St. Mark's poetical magic', examining two parallel sections:
'one describing the last experiences of Jesus in the body at the hands of his disciples, the other describing the body of Jesus in the hands of his disciples after his death'.
The first begins with the woman's anointing him at supper, followed by the giving of the sacramental body and the promise: 'I will go to Galilee.' In a garden a watch is set, but at the crisis all forsake him and flee, among them a youth in a linen cloth, who left it in the pursuers' hands. In sequence two, Joseph of Arimathea obtains the body and wraps it in a linen cloth: three women bring perfumes to embalm it. Entering they see a youth in a white stole. He bids them tell the disciples that Jesus goes before them into Galilee. Dr. Farrer then draws out the parallels between these sequences to show how they display the 'theme' of 'human perversity', and so comes to the linen winding-sheet, the boy in linen, and the boy in the white robe.
'There is surely some symbolic motif here', he says, 'if we could only hit upon it'
He begins by reference to Jewish customs. The priestly watchers in the Temple who were caught sleeping on duty had their robes taken from them. The young man's loss of his garment is a dramatic symbol of the idea 'Caught asleep on duty'. The sleeping guard was stripped of his robe of honour and had to slink away naked of glory. The naked body of the crucified is wrapped in fine linen to bestow honour upon it. But when the women come to embalm the body, it has been clothed in the radiance of glory, which the white stole of the angel by the tomb signifies. Lastly there is the name Joseph. Why has the name of this minor figure in the story been preserved? The man from Arimathea is a true Joseph when he begs the body of Christ from Pilate, as Joseph the patriarch had gone to Pharaoh to beg him that he might give his father Jacob burial in the land of Canaan. And at once, when we see this, other echoes of the story of Joseph can be heard. The boy who fled away leaving the linen cloth in his pursuers' hands recalls Joseph fleeing from Potiphar's wife, leaving his garment behind. Most of all, Joseph was betrayed by his eleven false brethren, buried in prison, and believed dead. But, in due course, he appeared to the brethren who had betrayed him as one alive from the dead, clothed in a robe of glory, as the man of the king's right hand. But when he said to them 'I am Joseph', his brethren could not answer him 'for they were confounded'. The last words of St. Mark's Gospel echo the very words of the Septuagint, when Joseph thought dead revealed himself to the eleven who had sold him.
'St. Mark's words', comments Dr. Farrer, 'are shaped by a play of images and allusions of the subtle and elusive kind which belongs to imagination rather than to rational construction.'
It will be noted where the images come from. The Christian Fathers were concerned to defend the ancient Scriptures as the revelation of the one God and Father of the Lord Jesus against Marcion and the Gnostics. For this reason they looked everywhere in the Old Testament for types and figures of the New, to bind together the two Covenants. Today the process is in a sense inverted, in that it is the New Testament which is being interpreted through the Old. A literary criticism which sees narratives as organizations of symbolic images sees everywhere in the New Testament the images of the Scriptures on which the writers' imaginations had been nourished from childhood. How else should these writers express their belief that the God of Israel had indeed visited and redeemed his people except through images coloured by the memory of the images of his great deliverances of old?
The methods of literary criticism and analysis which Dr. Farrer was applying here he employed on an extended scale in his A Study of St. Mark in 1951, and developed them further, with considerable modifications of earlier discussions and conclusions, in St. Matthew and St. Mark in 1953. They bring together what have sometimes been regarded as conflicting canons of interpretation: the canon that it is the work itself which the critic is concerned with, and the canon that interpretation must take into account the writer's intellectual milieu. As well as finding pattern and significance by analysis of the work as it stands, Dr. Farrer is guided by something else. He is not content to assert, as some of the more reckless interpretative critics do:
'This meaning is there, because I have demonstrated its presence. Whether the author intended it or not is something we can never know. He is not here to be cross-examined, and if he were he might well refuse to add to what he has written; as many persecuted modern poets do, who, when asked what their poems mean, reply that they mean what anyone can make of them.'
A conception of how St. Mark, a Greek-speaking Jew of the first century, would have thought is present, as well as a conception of how the human mind operates. The object of the inquiry is how St. Mark thinks. We are to arrive at a meaning which he would have recognized as what he meant.
By this method, the Gospel, considered as a work of literature, is seen as a great effort of symbolization, which we shall apprehend as we concentrate upon the lesser symbols which it integrates into its total pattern, until we see them all cohering into a structure of meaning. St. Mark, when we read him thus, is seen to have no need to give us narratives of the Risen Lord's appearances to the disciples. His whole Gospel is a great and complex symbol of the Resurrection, faith in which is its pre-supposition. This is the Gospel informing his Gospel. By the time we have read to the end, with minds alert to the recurrent patterns, the rhythms of thought, the cycles in which his mind expressed itself, this ' Gospel' will have become an apprehensible reality to us. We must be aware too of the whole word of Old Testament images and symbols with which his mind is stored and of the habits of mind natural to a man of his time and race. He was accustomed to search the Scriptures, to think of the Hope of Israel as figured forth in great figures of the past: Moses the saviour of his people, Elijah the prophet of the Most High, David the anointed king. Those words 'Son of Man' which were to Arnold so touchingly simple and human in their appeal, so wholly free from 'theosophy', meant something very different and much more complex to a writer steeped in the Book of Daniel and the later Jewish Apocalypses. A new historical approach, as well as a different attitude to poetry, has made it impossible to regard the notion of Scripture having hidden senses as an aberration of the Alexandrian Fathers. The New Testament came into being in a world which was everywhere accustomed to look for esoteric meanings. The Scriptures had been allegorized, as the works of the pagan poets had been allegorized before them. It was a world in which numbers, colours, and jewels were pregnant with symbolic meanings. The Scriptures which St. Mark was brought up on had come to him loaded with interpretation and comment.
Dean Farrar thought of the Christian expositors as inheriting a fatal legacy of Palestinian and Alexandrian interpretation from the Rabbis and Philo, and stigmatized them for their 'wholesale intrusion of the subjective into the field of revelation'. He treated the New Testament writers as if they were largely isolated from this infection, on a small island of their own, lifted above the seas of nonsense that raged beneath and around. The historical approach to literature in his day meant the study of the political, social, and economic conditions under which writers worked. Today it means preeminently the attempt to take into account, and, more ambitiously, to recover, older ways of thought, and to learn the assumptions and presumptions out of which men wrote. The attempt to recreate the 'climate of opinion', sometimes rather inappropriately called 'background' of a period, is a distinctively modern enterprise. If anyone had used the phrase 'the world of the New Testament' fifty years ago, he would have been expected to be referring to the conditions in Palestine under the Roman occupation. Today the chances are that a book bearing this title would be concerned with belief in the power of demons, concepts about the destiny of Israel, and eschatology.
The best way, perhaps, to sum up the revolution which has taken place in the last thirty years is to quote from the S.P.C.K. Commentary of 1928 the note on the admittedly puzzling episode of the young man who fled away leaving behind the linen cloth:
The certain young man has of late been generally identified with Mark himself; in which case the introduction of the episode, otherwise meaningless, would be at once accounted for —Mark wanted to bring in his own solitary point of contact with the Gospel story. The details given suggest that the lad had got out of bed in his night-clothes to follow our Lord and the Twelve to Gethsemane: it looks as if he belonged to the house where the Last Supper had been held, was perhaps aroused by the chanting of the final psalm, and then with a lad's adventurous curiosity had determined to see things to the end. If he was a son of the house, his father was well acquainted with our Lord and so he may have heard talk about the danger to which the Prophet of Galilee was exposed, and the animus of the Jewish authorities against Him, after His dramatic cleansing of the Temple: a lad's enthusiasm may have reinforced a lad's curiosity, and when the Apostles all fled he still 'followed with him'. When we remember further that Mark's mother Mary had a house in Jerusalem large enough for many Christians to meet in, and central enough for Peter to turn his steps to after his deliverance from prison, it must be admitted that, though the elements of this reconstruction are conjectural, they connect astonishingly well together.
To return to this after reading Dr. Farrer is like returning to Bradley after a course of reading in modern studies of symbolic patterns in Shakespeare's plays. A parallel development could be shown in discussions of such problems as the unexplained appearance of a third murderer in Macbeth.
I am not competent to discuss these methods of criticism in the field of the New Testament. I have neither the linguistic, nor the historical knowledge. My concern with these questions is that of a Christian whose profession is the study of English literature. I am in something of the position of an historian, or doctor, or barrister, or clergyman, who has always loved poetry and read it for pleasure, and who has bought, let us say, a recently published volume called Interpretations, a collection of articles on 'How to read a Poem', or has been listening to a series on the Third Programme called 'Reading a Poem'. As a professional student of literature I should be interested to hear his views. But I cannot presume to think that my views are likely to be of equivalent interest to a New Testament scholar, for the amount of specialized information and technical competence required in the two fields is not comparable. All the same I hope it may not be thought wholly absurd for me to make some general comments before turning to a discussion of the application of these methods in fields where I have more knowledge.
Dr. Farrer, with his accustomed clarity, puts a main difficulty when he says that some readers may have felt that under Dr. Lightfoot's guidance they were 'rediscovering the evangelist and losing the facts of the evangel'. This difficulty Dr. Farrer addresses himself to answer. He believes, as any Christian must, that
'the principal importance of St. Mark's Gospel lies in its historical content, and a main object of any study in the pattern and movement of the evangelist's imagination must be to assess more accurately the bearing of his historical testimony'.
St. Mark's imagination has shaped his apprehension of events into a certain expository pattern, because his imagination apprehended a meaning in those events. If we can follow the movement of St. Mark's imagination as he develops the theme of his Gospel, understand, for instance, the symbolic significance of his thirteen miracles of individual healings, his two feedings of the multitude, and see how each section repeats, yet expands, and unfolds itself in the next, we shall see that the expository pattern is derived from a fundamental conception. This fundamental conception is the idea of prefiguration, which is the evangelist's mode of historical thinking. Once we grasp this we are in a position to consider St. Mark as an historian, and can translate the history he is relating into our own untheological pattern of history, which looks for causes and effects. By understanding how St. Mark understood history, we can arrive at a narrative sequence which is in our sense of the word historical. This leaves St. Mark with a philosophy of history and us with a bleak little summary of events.
But my difficulty does not lie here. I am dissatisfied because this method does nothing to illuminate, and indeed evaporates, St. Mark's sense of what we mean by historical reality, the 'Here and Now' of our daily experience, the 'Then and There' of memory, by which I do not mean detailed precision of testimony, but the deep sense of 'happening'. Surely a literary criticism of the Gospels must take into account this quality, which has struck, and strikes, reader after reader. I have in mind here, as a contrast to the method of interpretation through patterns of symbolic images, a remarkable piece of literary criticism which illuminates precisely this: the chapters in which Professor Auerbach in his Mimesis, or the Representation of Reality in Western Literature discusses the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis and the episode of Peter's denial in the Gospel of St. Mark. He compares Homer with the Old Testament writer to demonstrate the difference between legend treated as poetry and the sacred legend of the Jews, whose historical reality the writer believed in. After his discussion of St. Mark's narrative, he declares that he can find nothing comparable in any antique historian for sense of actuality.
The second difficulty I feel arises from distrust of an assumption which underlies much interpretation in terms of the 'ways of thought' of an age. It seems often to be taken for granted that because something is present and obvious in one place it must be assumed to be present, although it is not obvious, in another: that because writers of this age were plainly habituated to allegorical interpretations and thought frequently in terms of types and figures, we can assume they never thought in any other way. The presence of so much deliberate and explicit reference to the Old Testament in the New casts some suspicion on the notion that the writers would, in any matter where it was important, be content to leave the reference indirect. They were not, after all, we must assume, attempting to be indirect, allusive, and subtle. St. Paul thought it proper to explain clearly his little allegory of the two sons of Abraham, adding 'which things are an allegory'; and the writer of the first Epistle of St. Peter again thought it necessary to state precisely that the Ark was a 'figure' of baptism. I find it hard, therefore, to believe that the first readers of St. Mark would have been as ingenious in picking up symbolic references as is suggested. Further, it is agreed that St. Matthew is often concerned to clarify and expand what St. Mark has left enigmatic. If, as Dr. Farrer has argued, there is a deep and important significance in the numbers fed, the numbers of loaves, and the numbers of baskets of fragments left over, it is difficult to see why St. Matthew, repeating the conversation in the boat after the Feeding of the Four Thousand, contented himself with explaining the relatively simple metaphor of the 'leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees' and made no attempt to explicate the riddle of the numbers. Number symbolism, like statistics, is notoriously susceptible of varying interpretations. I cannot believe the significance of these numbers, if they have symbolic significance, was so luminously clear to the first readers of the Gospels as is suggested by St. Matthew's failure to clarify St. Mark's 'riddle'. Or are we to assume that St. Matthew himself did not see the point nor any other commentator before the twentieth century?
It may be that I am confusing an attempt to discover the writer's intention with an attempt to discover the way 'his mind works', although I am not quite sure in reading studies such as this that their authors are not hunting both hares at once. I am aware that the notion that we can grasp, and having grasped, should respect, a writer's intention has been much scoffed at; but if a writer's intention is difficult to come by, which is not in my view in most cases true, the 'way his mind works' is far more of a will-o'-the-wisp. When a writer's first drafts, scraps of memoranda, and 'doodles' have been preserved, we may possibly have a limited success in tracing the workings of the creative imagination, though even there the results are highly speculative. To attempt to do this backwards from the finished work is like weaving ropes of sand. I do not doubt that St. Mark's mind, like all human minds, was something of a rag-bag of memories, in which ideas and images and phrases jostled together and got 'hooked together' by processes of association. It may be that the name Joseph brought to his mind the story of Joseph the patriarch and this dictated the actual words he used to describe the amazement of the women. If the reminiscence was unconscious, it does not very much concern us. Such verbal echoes are a trick of thought whose presence we are often aware of in talking to friends. An odd phrase will strike us and temporarily distract our attention from what is being said until, having hunted it down, we once more pay attention. If it is intended to suggest that St. Mark was modelling his narrative consciously on the story of Joseph, the notion cannot, I think, stand examination. The three suggested parallels, Joseph fleeing from Potiphar's wife, Joseph asking Pharaoh's leave to bury his father, and Joseph appearing to his brethren, are in the wrong narrative order. The motives of the flight of Joseph and the young man's flight are entirely different: Joseph was saving his honour, the young man losing his, if that is what the loss of the white garment signifies. And the main point of the narrative of Joseph's revelation of himself to his brethren is their ashamed recognition of him. Conscious literary influence does not work like this. The parallel between the Septuagint and the last words of the Gospel is purely verbal. It prevents us from thinking that the words are as odd a conclusion to a sentence as we might have thought. It does not make them any less queer as the end of a book. The relevance of the existence of any such reminiscences of the story of Joseph to what St. Mark was concerned to relate seems to me insignificant. The unhappy effect of much literary criticism of this kind is that, although undertaken with great seriousness and much intellectual energy, it leaves an impression of intellectual frivolity, as if the critic were concerned with anything and everything except what mattered to the writer and what matters to his readers.
I am quite certain that I have been in contact with the mind and imagination of Dr. Farrer. Since it is a lively and fertile mind and a profoundly poetic and Christian imagination I am grateful for the experience and for much matter for meditation. I have very little sense, after reading him, of having come nearer to the mind and imagination of St. Mark. This method of 'submitting ourselves to the movement of the writer's imagination', of discovering the pattern he has created through images and recurrent phrases, is perhaps again only another method of 'shouldering St. Mark out of the way'; this time to get at his 'imagination', which turns out to be a scheme, a way of thinking, which is curiously like what we are discovering everywhere. I am reminded of James Thurber's attempts to learn botany. He tried every adjustment of the microscope and with only one of them did he see anything
but blackness or the familiar lacteal opacity. And that time I saw, to my pleasure and amazement, a variegated constellation of flecks, specks and dots. These I hastily drew. The instructor, noting my activity, came back from an adjoining desk, a smile on his lips and his eyebrows high in hope. He looked at my cell drawing. 'What's that?' he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. 'That's what I saw,' I said. 'You didn't, you didn't, you didn't!' he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the microscope. His head snapped up. 'That's your eye!' he shouted. 'You've fixed the lens so that it reflects! You've drawn your eye! — My Life and Hard Times, ch. 8.
If patterns are what we are interested in, and patterns are what we are looking for, patterns can certainly be found. For all its apparent deference to history, in its reference to the history of ideas, the method is often oblivious of, and impatient with, the historical. Whoever wrote the Gospel of St. Mark was a man, not a disembodied imagination. He was writing a work in which his readers would find things able to make them 'wise unto salvation'. What differentiates his Gospel from all other messages of salvation, is the assertion that something has happened in the world of history. It is surely an odd phrase to speak of St. Mark's imagination being 'controlled' by facts. If we believe that what he is recording are facts — and that is the crux of the matter between Christian and non-Christian — then it is surely filled by the wonder of those facts, and not merely respectful to them. It is curious that the study of images, which began from a high theory of the imagination's power to apprehend the truth and value of experience, and to express its apprehension of the world, has led only too often in practice to an ignoring of the primary imagination, which degrades the secondary, or creative, imagination into an instrument for perceiving analogies and making connexions.
No one's salvation [says Dr. Farrer] depends on the comparison between Joseph with his eleven false brethren and Jesus with his eleven cowardly disciples; or on the antique symbolism of the robe of honour; or on the inverted parallels which give opposite expression to the theme of human perversity. Do not let us suppose that these things are the substance of saving truth. The substance of the truth is in the great images which lie behind, in the figure of the Son of Man, in the ceremony of the sacramental body, in the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb, in the enthronement of the Lord's Anointed. What we have been looking at is a play of secondary images and ideas under the pressure of the great images. — The Glass of Vision (1948), p. 146.
As I read this analysis of the 'play of images' which leads to the great images which lie behind, I murmur with Madame Sosostris, the famous clairvoyante of The Waste Land, as she sorts her Tarot pack: 'I do not find the Hanged Man.' The central image of a human life and death seems to have disappeared.
Reflecting on the course of his own life, Dr. Edwin Muir whose poetry is particularly rich in mythological allusion and symbolic imagery, declared that he could not bring the meaning of his own experience into a neat pattern. When he originally published an account of the story of his life in 1940 he called it The Story and the Fable, making a division between the narrative of events and the inner life in which they were transformed into symbols. His emphasis in the title and in the book suggested that it was in the latter that the significance lay. When he republished the book in 1954 he was content to call it by the non-committal title of An Autobiography, and his final summary of his life tells us why. In our memory certain events and persons, and certain events through which we have lived, stand out like boulders in a stream or great rocks among waves. This element of the 'given' in memory, resisting, and subsisting through, the transformations the mind makes, sharply distinguished from reverie and still more from dream, forbids the ascription of significance to fable over story. Significance appears to hover over their intersection. Of certain persons, and by analogy of certain events, we exclaim:
Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice,
To make dreams truths; and fables histories.
The same sense of historical reality, or otherness, inheres in works of art and cries out against the attempt to reduce their meaning to something which they symbolize.
'What is left to say when one has come to the end of writing about one's life?' asks Dr. Muir: Some kind of development, I suppose, should be expected to emerge, but I am very doubtful of such things, for I cannot bring life into a neat pattern. If there is development in my life — and that seems an idle supposition — then it has been brought about more by things outside than by any conscious intention of my own. I was lucky to spend my first fourteen years in Orkney: I was unlucky to live afterwards in Glasgow as a Displaced Person.... Because a perambulating revivalist preacher came to Kirkwall when I was a boy, I underwent an equivocal religious conversion there; because I read Blatchford in Glasgow, I repeated the experience in another form, and found myself a Socialist. In my late twenties I came by chance under the influence of Nietzsche. In my early thirties I had the good fortune to meet my wife, and have had since the greater good fortune of sharing my life with her. In my middle thirties I became aware of immortality and realized that it gave me a truer knowledge of myself and my neighbours. Years later in St. Andrews I discovered that I had been a Christian without knowing it. I saw in Czechoslovakia a whole people lost by one of the cruel turns of history, and exiled from themselves in the heart of their own country. I discovered in Italy that Christ had walked on the earth, and also that things truly made preserve themselves through time in the first freshness of their nature. — Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (1954), p. 280.
Living in Italy, and particularly in Rome, brought to Dr. Muir a profound imaginative experience, the experience of the significance of history, which came to a mind which had habitually thought of significance as to be sought primarily in myth. The primary historical imagination is that by which we know human beings and human experience and contemplate them and it seriously. If this is weak or scorned, attempts to understand how men once thought, and to recreate the past imaginatively, degenerate into mere antiquarianism on the one hand, and a reduction of individual human minds to schematic ways of thought on the other.
I cannot feel satisfied with a literary criticism which substitutes for the conception of the writer as 'a man speaking to men', the conception of the writer as an imagination weaving symbolic patterns to be teased out by the intellect, and in its concentration on the work by itself ends by finding significance in what the work suggests rather than in what it says, and directs our imaginations towards types and figures rather than towards their actualization. As literary criticism I cannot regard the new symbolical or typological approach to the Gospels as satisfactory. It does not explain a prime historic fact; that for centuries Christian emotion directed towards the historic person of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, has found in the Gospels the strength of its own conviction that 'Christ walked on this earth'. I feel the same kind of dissatisfaction with the results of these methods applied to the interpretation of poetry. I am not happy at the assumption that there is a royal road by which we can get at 'meaning', and I am particularly suspicious when the critic buttresses the claim that he has found the 'meaning' with the statement that this was the meaning the work must have had for men of its own age, since we know how men of this age thought. To borrow the words of Dr. Muir,
'Things truly made preserve themselves through time in the first freshness of their nature.'
It is the first responsibility of an interpreter that he should neither disregard nor damage that first freshness with which things made by long-dead men speak directly to the mind and heart.
|«NEXT»||«Business Of Criticism»||«Literary Criticism»||«Library»||«A Plea»||«Home»|