Man’s art takes the humble materials of creation and allows them to reflect the spirit.
Evangelicals tend to lament the lack of skillful writers brought up and nurtured in evangelical Christendom, who, in later life, remain faithful in their art to the Christian vision. But to emphasize our shortcomings may hinder the recognition of writers and other artists who are doing good work. It is thus fitting and important to celebrate the accomplishments of Robert Siegel.
Two of Siegel’s books were published this fall: Alpha Centauri, a fantasy novel (an excerpt is on page 30), and a volume of poetry, In a Pig’s Eye (Univ. of Florida Press). These follow The Beasts and the Elders, a collection of poems that prompted the London Times Literary Supplement to remark: “To meet the unpretentious versatility of Robert Siegel after the single-mindedness of other poets is like returning to the mainland after a tour of the islands.” Of Alpha Centauri, Madeleine L’Engle says: “Absolutely fantastic! Has all the qualities of classical fantasy.” My own reading of the second volume of poetry confirms the opinion of Poetry’s associate editor that, “In short, though still relatively young, [Robert Siegel] has demonstrated his mastery of the most difficult of artistic forms … he has already fulfilled much of his promise.”
A warm and radiant Christian faith informs Siegel’s work. Readers of Alpha Centauri will enjoy the superb way the narrative’s young heroine comes to embody the precept: Perfect love casts out fear. As a poet, Siegel draws from the best of the trinitarian romantic and neo-Platonic traditions within Christianity and crafts a poetry that urges the reader toward the place where “the fire and the rose are one,” where natural images reveal the supernatural that sustains them, the “divine milieu” in which the natural world and humanity move and have being. His incarnational aesthetic shows forth in poems that, while undeniably contemporary, are reminiscent of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and G. M. Hopkins.
I asked Bob Siegel about his vocation and his work. After undergraduate education at Wheaton College (Ill.), and graduate work at Johns Hopkins, he earned the Ph.D. at Harvard, where he worked with Robert Lowell, perhaps the most recent American poet to whom critics would venture to ascribe greatness. Coming to understand his vocation as a poet, Siegel feels that it was in his very early college years that he “became a loss to the world of getting and spending.”
After a period of agnosticism, Siegel underwent a “reconversion” as a college sophomore, spurred by reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In this work, he says, the “journey of the Red Crosse Knight [plagued] by evil magicians, sorceresses, and dragons struck me … [with] the capriciousness of life, the sense of a lurking plot, the quick change of the beautiful into the terrible, and the terrible into the beautiful.” He found in “Chaucer, Spenser, Coleridge, and Wordsworth a sense of the divine underlying all things.” If pressed to provide an apologetic for his faith, although insisting that “an intellectual system … is never in any ultimate sense representative of faith, which transcends the mere intellect,” he would point to the philosophy of Coleridge as one schema that, for him, offers an excellent defense of Christianity.
The romantics stressed the need to counter the hegemony of reason over the other faculties of the mind. Similarly, in Alpha Centauri, the author expresses through a pastoral landscape and its mythic inhabitants—the centaurs—the need to present our “whole bodies” as a living sacrifice.
“As C. S. Lewis points out,” says Siegel, “the animals have always represented parts of us that we lost in the Fall, and that we will regain when we are renewed.… You can consider the beasts as the subconscious, the eight-ninths of our minds that are below the surface, the feeling and intuitive part.… In a rationalistic age there’s a tendency among Christians to block out that whole aspect of themselves, to concentrate on rational belief and the will—which of course are very important—but to ignore the feeling and intuitive side of themselves. Yet God, being a jealous God, wants all of us.”
The novel comes off as it does at the end because the heroine, Becky, sacrifices her own self-interest—her whole self—in the cause of the centaurs: she is committed to them as we are to be committed to Christ. Siegel says, “When she can forget herself, even her own fear of failure, and let something else work through her, then she can completely identify with [the centaurs] in love and things open up. I think there is a spiritual principle operating here. This whole climactic scene is central to what I believe is going on in the book.”
Most of Siegel’s energies have been directed into his poetry. He agrees that while the fiction writer wants to expand his tale—to say everything—the poet works at compression. “The lyric poem,” he says, “is organized spatially like the visual arts, while fiction is organized musically: it moves through time.” Citing Coleridge’s exploration of poetry in the Biographia, he settles on the formula, “the best words in the best order,” as a description of what makes the two genres essentially the same.”
For Bob Siegel, “poetry begins in a moment of sharp awareness when things rise up as words and words become things. The mind and what it observes fuse for a moment, and the circle of meaning is complete. The working out of the poem is an attempt to record and elaborate that experience. I sincerely hope that in its own dim way the process is a reflection of creation and also of a consciousness which we may one day clearly have. I agree with Tolkien’s line: ‘We make by the same law by which we’re made.’ ”
These remarks imply that each word in a literary creation is a logos, an utterance that brings into being—not merely refers to—the thing it signifies. Such a high view of language contrasts markedly with what might be called the “instrumental” opinion of many evangelicals: the word they view as a tool whose only purpose and justification derives from its limited ability to evoke the higher reality of spiritual things. Those who share this view generally place a greater importance on “principles” that lie behind a story rather than the tale itself. They ask the poem or story to illustrate an abstract proposition. But the poet who views words as logoi intends to create the experience from which one may choose to cull abstractions as one means of understanding that experience.
Siegel says the “instrumental” view can be traced back through the “Puritan fear of idolatry … [their eagerness] to distinguish the functional language we use to talk about Scripture from the inspired words of Scripture.… [They wanted to make sure they weren’t] idolizing language, as well as to be absolutely clear in what they said. The functional view was also encouraged by the scientific revolution: the Royal Society [of science] deliberately fostered a simple and straightforward kind of prose in its search for empirical truth. Its ideal harmonized with the intent of Puritan preachers to avoid the adornment and literary art that had flourished earlier in the century in such preachers as John Donne, who were full of puns and verbal plays and metaphors.”
Similarly, Siegel agreed that a one-sided emphasis on the spirit has a corrosive effect on the means, the language, by which we know and evoke the things of the spirit: “It’s so anti-incarnational. We seem to forget that God came into the world and took upon himself our flesh, took matter up into his divinity. That is the thing the Christian artist has constantly to remember: that God divinized flesh … God has honored not only our physical being but our desire to be subcreators; that is, to help him in the matter of creation.… He has graciously allowed us to extend and efoliate—I love that word of Coleridge’s—efoliate the creation. I mean, he may have created the tree, but we’re branches of that tree; we are there extending some of the leaves of it.… Man really has been given license in his art to take the humble materials of creation and to help extend it.”
Robert Siegel does so, and creation is fuller and we are the richer for his efforts.
Mr. Fickett is the author of Mrs. Sunday’s Problem and Other Stories (Revell, 1979). He teaches English at Wheaton College, Wheaton. Illinois.
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