Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum

Customer Rating for this product is 5 out of 5 A Startling New Take on Christ
Allan Brick, Yale Ph.D., professor, Quaker, author, department chair 09/23/2005

The Will to Christ by David Swartz (New York, Lincoln: iUniverse, 2005) Review by Allan Brick PART ONE ((((((((((((( David Swartz’s “The Will to Christ” is a daringly confident attempt to bring new life to—and indeed rectify—past literary versions of the tragedy of Jesus and his immediate followers as originally portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels. Manifestly, it honors yet argues with both Milton’s Paradise Lost and Blake’s Milton, which itself was a radical outburst of monism aimed at correcting Milton’s dualism. Blake is proudly outspoken in his intention of refuting Milton’s conventionally Protestant (God knows better, all is in His hands) presentation of the Biblical Creation Myth and its Christianization by the Gospel of St. John. Swartz echoes yet corrects them both, offering a version that poses vibrant humanism against Divinely-necessitated asceticism and sacrifice. He dramatizes this tension as necessary to the human condition. To a degree Swartz joins D.H. Lawrence in his passionately pagan attack on Christianity in The Man Who Died but at the same time he incorporates Lawrentian humanism into a radically revised acceptance of Christian orthodoxy. This is an enormous task, so much so that it would take a fine poet, a learned scholar, and a passionate believer who deeply feels his own hard-earned faith, to conceive of it, much less to carry it out. People necessarily skeptical in reading this commentary and then daring to open the book, would go into it saying, “Oh, what chutzpah!” Even so, strange as it may seem, Swartz impressively succeeds in his project. And, as with both Milton and Blake, the result is as convincing as religion as it is literature. The poem is strong both in poetry and character. It has immediate dramatic impact, which grows throughout the plot, which is the familiar story of Jesus’ time from Gethsemane until his death on the Cross. The characters are Mary Magdalene, Judas, Joseph, and Christ himself. Each one has his own struggle in light of the fundamental idea: God’s demand that we sacrifice our human life to accept the Cross, that we do this in very immediately personal terms, and that this necessity is irrefutable and inescapable. The poem’s form is as a quartet of soloists, monologues done in rotation, each one four times. Thus it moves from Magdalene, to Judas, to Joseph, and to Christ, repeating this sequence five times for a total of twenty sections. Then there is a twenty-first section in which Magdalene offers a kind of Greek chorus summation of the whole experience, in effect allowing each person in the audience to recognize how they have experienced their own involvement. PART TWO ((((((((((((( Swartz’s most impressive accomplishment—from both religious and dramatic points of view—is characterization. These are very real people. Magdalene has been a working prostitute who, now with a whole new life of meaning before her, maintains still—one feels she is heroic in this—her insistence that life exists for human sensual involvement, for the body as constituting human spirit. Judas, the most present and realistic of them all, is a very determined homosexual thoroughly physically and emotionally in love with one Sashi, whom he continuously addresses in a sad anger that he has been slated as the myth’s archetypal betrayer-sinner, and that now he must suffer that role with all of its opprobrium, at the cost of his sensual commitment to human life as it must be. Judas continues to savor all that is sensual bodily, emphasizing even his desire for the wonderfully carnal Jesus—at the same time as he must face the fact that Jesus was ever to be denied him. Thus the despair and revenge motivating Judas’s betrayal is made very clear. But it is Joseph with whom the reader—at least this male reader!—feels most at one. Joseph is fundamentally unforgiving of God for placing him in the position of having this sweet virgin, Mary, for his spouse and finding her utterly alien to him physically, only to be kept for the service of the Divine as she bears the Christ Child. He can’t understand. He is angrily un-accepting of this authoritarian necessity. One thinks of Job, and, indeed, as Joseph’s character reaches its denouement, it is in fact the enforced fact of Divine rule that he has accepted but the resonance of his vibrantly expressed outcry against injustice is still present for the audience. Also, and more directly as poet progenitor, one thinks of Browning. That poet’s dramatic monologues all tend to portray a person in increasing denial, with the breakthrough to some sort of recognition (often still denied) coming at the end. The beat of the truth is there throughout, and it increases as the denial becomes finally impossible. Now, what about the character of Christ? This, indeed, was Milton’s stumbling block. Famously, he gave us a thoroughly convincing Satan, and—Satan’s spin-offs as dramatic characters—a self-divided Adam and a magnificently sinning Eve. But when suddenly, Christ appears in the poem, while the blank verse continues resonantly grand, the dramatic sense of character evaporates. How can you dramatize in human form the character of Christ in Heaven? Impossible, has been the verdict of critics and readers. And quite rightly so, for the pious ones. Swartz solves this problem by portraying Christ in two forms, two voices: Christ suffering and incredulous, his faith even undercut by his pain (thus we think of the suffering Jesus of “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”), and then Christ as in fact the Christ, fully arrived member of the Godhead, addressed in his role as Resurrected. This splitting, in the poet’s sure hand, becomes a universalized version of how ego speaks to superego, sensual self speaks to moral self, in all of us. PART THREE ((((((((((((( It is this human contradiction between the human urge to live truly, sensuously, a full life, and the unqualified demand of ascetic service to God that becomes the driving dramatic force of the poem. Each character struggles on, persisting in the outcry for human life, coming increasingly toward a realization of what fate, the enforcing Divinity, requires. Human awareness itself—the existential consciousness of the human person— is based on the tension between this desire for life and the administered moral-religious necessity of death-in-life. Magdalene must accept that which she both wants and rejects for fulfillment in life involves denial of sensual existence, even as that existence becomes all the more appealing and meaningful in itself as she inevitably moves toward accepting this truth. Judas must accept the horror he has committed even as he, ever more acutely, longs for full erotic and loving union with his young lover Sashi.  His is the most dreadful of the tragedy of loss in the name of Redemption that is faced by each character. Joseph must, however grudgingly, accept the omniscience of the Divinity, whose ways he must no longer question. Joseph concludes by submission to the overarching Wisdom, which goes infinitely far beyond any conceivable human knowledge. Joseph piously concludes: “See a billion burning years, no further. / No earthly Father. See farther.” Most remarkably, this dramatic account—dramatic indeed, for we are left to side in whatever way we will with each tragic character—is carried forward by vibrant poetry. The basic form in which each character (with notable exceptions) speaks consists of four-line stanzas, the lines varying in stress count, each stanza having 12 to 13 stresses. The most notable exception is Joseph, who speaks in couplets, with, at the outset, six-stress lines, chiefly unrhymed. The effect then, by contrast, is for Joseph a kind of blank-verse, though a blank verse very tightly controlled—as if he speaks through clenched teeth. [As if in a provocative fusion of “open” and “closed” forms, rhyme itself throughout is used complexly, usually not end-rhyme, sometimes internal rhyme, and sometimes off-rhyme and assonance.] Thus it is that form advances the power of content. And the form had to be very well honed indeed to do this job adequately. The full effect is a daring poem, completely successful in its intention, often startling in the full frankness of true-to-life speaking that is provided (Judas especially is all there in his shocking sexual imagery). The result is a poem that is as involving, as readable, as it is important in expressing humanist Christianity and dramatic tragedy.

Also recommended: Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Blake's 'Milton'


                                         the poet with logo {at 69}


                                                                                                J. Swartz


                                           the wrecked Buick {1957}



                                            Eyes in the Heat {detail}


                                                             {at 17}



                                                         D. Swartz