Breaking the Silence

Poetry and the Kenotic Word

by Malgorzata Grzegorzewska (Volume editor) Jean Ward (Volume editor) Mark Burrows (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 267 Pages


This book of essays on poetic speech, viewed in a literary-critical, theological and philosophical light, explores the connections and disconnections between vulnerable human words, so often burdened with doubt and pain, and the ultimate kenosis of the divine Word on the Cross. An introductory discussion of language and prayer is followed by reflections linking poetry with religious experience and theology, especially apophatic, and questioning the ability of language to reach out beyond itself. The central section foregrounds the motif of the suffering flesh, while the final section, including essays on seventeenth-century English metaphysical poetry and several of the great poets of the twentieth century, is devoted to the sounds and rhythms which give a poem its own kind of «body».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • The Tremulous Word: On Language in Prayer
  • 1. Theology, Poetry and the Word
  • Word into Flesh/ Flesh into Word: The Making of an Incarnational Textuality
  • The Dogmatic Definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451) of Two Natures in the Person of Jesus Christ as a Criterion of the Incarnational Character of Poetry
  • “That true word … shal be felt withall”. The Incarnation of the Word in Sibilline Oracles as a Theme of Renaissance Poetry and Iconography
  • Eugenio Montale, “The Poor Nestorian at a Loss”
  • Celestial Music Unheard: T. S. Eliot, “Marina” and the Via Negativa
  • 2. Words, Suffering and Silence
  • Robert Burns’s “Jarring Thoughts”: Carnivalesque Metaphorisations of Existentialist Spirituality
  • The Embodied “I”, the Suffering “I” in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • World as the Icon of the Word: Sacramental Imagination in R. S. Thomas’s Nature Poems
  • Lacerating Logos. The Divinity of R. S. Thomas’s Mythic Poems – A Reckless Experimenter or a Selfless Saviour?
  • Words Against Words. Four Quartets and the Failure of Poetry
  • 3. Flesh, World and the Word
  • Feet in Eden?: Some Aspects of Technique in Religious Verse – Edwin Muir, Jon Silkin, and Anne Stevenson
  • Incarnation and Embodiment in The Poetry and Theoretical Writings of David Jones
  • “One feels its action moving in the blood”: Arrhythmia as the Art of Reality in Wallace Stevens’s “Esthétique du Mal”
  • Word-As-Flesh Made Artefact: Andrew Marvell’s Poetic Moulding Of The Word
  • Notes on Editors and Contributors
  • Index

Małgorzata Grzegorzewska, University of Warsaw
Jean Ward, University of Gdańsk
Mark Burrows, University of Bochum


In the chapter of her Book of Silence entitled “Silence and the Gods”, Sara Maitland evokes her reassuring experience of solitude and silence on the Isle of Skye, and in the context of this recollection ponders why “Western society increasingly sees silence as an absence, and a dangerous absence at that” (117). The answer she provides, inspired by her correspondence with Janet Batsleer, encourages us to connect this anxiety with the Baroque horror vacui, which resulted in a restless desire, evident in seventeenth-century visual arts, to fill every empty space with familiar, recognisable shapes and figures, in order that the viewer should not be reminded of the ominous realm of death with which the uncanny void was identified. In one of his best known poems, Andrew Marvell described this realm, presumably not without a touch of bitter irony, as “Deserts of vast Eternity” (Gardner 251). Maitland recalls a fragment of the letter in which her friend referred to the beginning of the Biblical narrative of Creation (“In the beginning God said, God spoke”) and in contrast with that life-engendering speech of God, defined silence as “a space of non-being, from which all our yearning is to escape” (117). This type of silence is forbiddingly material: it weighs down on us, threatening to crush our fragile existence, formed, as Shakespeare has it in The Tempest, of “such stuff as dreams are made on”. This seems the reason, Batsleer concluded, why “all silence is waiting to be broken” (in Maitland 117).

The inspiration for the essays collected in this volume arose from the third Power of the Word Conference, Poetry : Word Made Flesh : Flesh Made Word, held in Gdańsk in September 2013. Such a title might lead one to expect reflection on the Word that in the beginning filled the threatening void of chaos with sense, and then was “made flesh” in order to overcome the paralysing speechlessness of sin, destruction and death. Certainly, as Maitland has admirably shown, silence has its terrifying aspect, which might explain our culture’s urgent straining to escape it and its preference for the jungles of random noise. Yet instead of focusing on the dark sides of silence, we have asked the contributors to this book to share with us their experience of the silence which dwells at the heart of poetic language, and to explore the connections between our vulnerable words ← 7 | 8 → and the redeeming silence of the Cross, between the suffering of humankind and the kenosis of the Word.

The blank space above the first line of the present Introduction, and the margins of the page, mark out the space of silence: immaculate, white, inviolable; resembling the unleavened bread that is blessed, broken and eaten in memory of the Passion. The black marks on the page, in turn, disrupt the serenity of the silent moment. They are the fissures which admit words and ideas, blessings and curses. But despite the apparent durability of the printed word, its image slips out of view as quickly as it is spotted, just as spoken words depart from us as soon as we utter them. Some go astray into the stillness of the grave; others, as T. S. Eliot wanted us to believe, “reach into silence”, to be redeemed there, at the “still point of the turning world” (173). The essays collected in this volume dare to break the silence in order to examine the ways of wondering, wandering, bedazzled, a-mazed words, exploring their stammering insecurity, their airy, ephemeral texture, their vulnerability and destitution.

Contemporary literary criticism makes us think of the world as a space populated by homeless, idle, itinerant words: never at ease with the “things” to which our arbitrary choices have tied them, these nomadic presences traverse the dumb and silent plains. A similar image emerges from the Book of Psalms, whose poetry presents a world densely populated by wandering but at the same time restlessly busy words. Their utterance, often emerging out of night, as human prayers finding their way in the dark, yearns to reach God’s ear at the break of day: in the words of the King James Version, “But I have called my word and in the morning shall my prayer prevent [go before] me” (Ps. 88: 13).1 This Biblical passage makes us think of the world as reverberating with the cries of the struggling and troubled, and surely also at times with blasphemous complaint, rather than praise. Such language fills the Psalms, of course, drawing more of their attention than the sweeter songs of thanksgiving. If the Psalms are our guide, we do well to consider whether the language of suffering, even if tainted by impious rebellion, is not just as appropriate as praise, and in any case more suited to the anguish we face in our lives. One might even see this as holy language, a means of conversation with God that is as necessary for us as the calm contemplation of beauty and goodness or the ecstatic outburst of joy. The Jobs of this world – and we oftentimes among them – doubt that their supplications can ever do justice to their cause, ← 8 | 9 → to say nothing of winning God’s grace. If the Almighty contends with man, says Job, no one can answer him: “How much less shall I answer him, and choose out my words to reason with him?” (Job 9:14). In such Biblical passages, we are made to remember that the God whom we meet in affliction does not bring blessing, but rather overshadows the creation with the threat of un-doing it and casting the world back into a primeval gloom that is without life-giving light or warmth, and even without hope: He “removeth the mountains …, overturneth them in his anger, … commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars” (Job 9: 5–7). And although Job goes on to praise God’s creative powers – “Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea. Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south. Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number” (Job 9: 9–10) – he does not forget that this is a power which overwhelms rather than comforts the sufferer. The Creator remains remote, incomprehensible, hidden and possibly even indifferent to our human lot: “Lo, he goeth by me, and I see him not: he passeth on also, but I perceive him not” (Job 9:11). Human reason and language cannot grasp God, who alone has the capacity to answer our questions.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton concludes his Introduction to the Book of Job with a hint of an astounding parallel between Job and Jesus as he writes: “I need not suggest what a high and strange history awaited this paradox of the best man in the worst of fortune” (xxvi). Taking up this suggestion, we may say that the quest of our human poetic words is the endless and adventurous, even if seemingly hopeless, quest for the Word made flesh. Yet since we have so little trust in our language, our petitions and prayers are always burdened with the sense of doubt: “If I had called, and he had answered me, yet would I not believe that he had hearkened unto my voice” (Job 9: 16).

The assumption that whether in pain or joy, in grief or rapture, creation “pronounces” God, speaking with the “languages” of man and beast, of plants and inanimate nature, informs many of the essays included in the present volume. At the same time, we find throughout these chapters reminders of the homelessness of the Word within the world of God’s creation, a plight illustrated in Jesus’s reply to one self-appointed, over-enthusiastic candidate for apostleship: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). The good news of how the Word has “pitched its tent” among us is over and over again disrupted in the Gospels by reminders of human inhospitability towards the Divine Visitor. Turned away from the ← 9 | 10 → doors of human dwellings, the Divine Word waits for its second birth, swaddled in the night of our ignorance.

Responding to our invitation, the authors of the articles included in this volume have listened to the language of prayer (Sławek), paid attention to the precarious fortunes of the Word in the world (Reek), and referred to the connections between poetry and the Christian Dogma of the Incarnation (Sawicki). Marcin Polkowski’s analysis of the Christian adaptations of the ancient topos of the Sybils refers us back to the early modern cultural palimpsests of semina Verbi, while Jamie Callison’s reading of Eliot’s “Marina” provides us with an insight into the ineffability of the mystical experience. A separate section devoted to presentation of the suffering flesh in poetry contains readings of Robert Burns (Modrzewska), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Włodarczyk), R. S. Thomas (Dudek and Michalski) and (once again) Eliot (Gutorow). The last section is mainly devoted to the material side of poetry: the sounds of words, the rhythms of speech which make a good poem a breathing, living and feeling “body”, compassionate with our suffering bodies. The examples analysed in this section include English metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century (Łączyńska) and several of the great poets of the twentieth century: David Jones (Potter); Edwin Muir, Jon Silkin and Anne Stevenson (Malcolm); and Wallace Stevens (Esser).

The editors of the volume wish to thank Dr Francesca Bugliani-Knox for the inspiration to studies of poetry given by the Power of the Word project; Professor Marek Wilczyński for supporting the idea of this publication; and Katarzyna Dudek for her invaluable and dedicated technical assistance in preparing the manuscript.


Maitland, Sara. A Book of Silence. A Journey in Search of the Pleasures and Powers of Silence. London: Granta, 2009.

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. “Introduction”. The Book of Job. With an Introduction by G. K. Chesterton and Illustrated in Colour by Mary Tongue. London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward: London, 1916.

Eliot. T. S. “Burnt Norton”. The Complete Poems and Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Gardner, Helen, ed. The Metaphysical Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972. ← 10 | 11 →


  1  In the present volume we have asked all the authors to refer consistently to the King James Bible – regardless of the period which they discuss in their texts – as the dignified, archaic idiom of this translation resounds in the English language throughout the ages.

Tadeusz Sławek

University of Silesia

The Tremulous Word: On Language in Prayer

Empty words; dissolve the solid meanings. To dissipate the gravity, the darkness of matter, let the light in … Let there be light. Love without attachment is light. Consciousness penetrates the darkness; consciousness is an opening or void.
Norman O. Brown, “Love’s Body”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Srache und Schweigen metaphysische Dichtung Srpache und Gebet
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 267 pp.

Biographical notes

Malgorzata Grzegorzewska (Volume editor) Jean Ward (Volume editor) Mark Burrows (Volume editor)

Professor Małgorzata Grzegorzewska lectures at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. Professor Jean Ward lectures at the Institute of English and American Studies, Gdańsk University, Poland. Professor Mark S. Burrows lectures at the University of Applied Sciences, Bochum, Germany.


Title: Breaking the Silence