The Heretical Poets: the Greatest Heretics?
by Michael R. Burch
Were all the great poets heretics? One should (or so I have been told) avoid sweeping generalizations, but if "heresy" means something like
"disagreeing with the prevailing orthodoxy" then certainly some of the most interesting writers of what might ironically be called "the
Christian era" were heretics: the Archpoet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben
Jonson, Alexander Pope, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Emily
Bronte, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, A. E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S.
Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, et al.
And what about more orthodox Christian poets like Dante Alighieri, John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins?
Isn't it curious that none of their best-known poems are paeans to Jesus, or grateful effusions for the "atonement"?
Why did Dante and Milton utterly fail to give Christ his due? Why did Donne revel in sensuality and Hopkins in nature, rather than in
the love of their Lord and Savior? And if their religion gave them hope, why are their best poems so depressingly dark?
When studying the English language's canonical religious poems, one might suspiciously infer that even the most Christian of poets were far
from enamored with their "faith," its "Savior" and especially its "atonement."
Why does the term "Christian" make its disciples turn beet-red with shame, then immediately
start hedging their bets by explaining why they don’t really believe that God will allow (or, worse yet, cause) Gandhi, Einstein and the Dalai Lama to suffer for all eternity?
Isn’t it true that the main tenet of Christian Orthodoxy, "Jesus saves," has become an embarrassment to anyone
with a sense of justice? If Jesus is able to "save," why doesn't he just save everyone,
regardless of what they believe about him? If salvation is by grace, why can't
God just be gracious to everyone? If God is just and wise, why is the Christian
method of salvation so unjust and downright stupid?
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.
A major difference between heretics and believers is that heretics can criticize and poke fun at God. In my opinion, for whatever it's worth, anyone who is incapable of blasphemy is obviously dead wrong about God, because either he doesn’t exist, in
which case there is nothing to fear, or he is so far beyond man’s comprehension that what we
believe and say about him can hardly matter.
The much-feared "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" is nonsensical, because according to the Bible and in actual experience, no one knows the
mind of God. How can we blaspheme what we can't possibly understand? Do men
punish ants because they have incorrect thoughts about us? And besides, anyone who studies the history of the early Christian church can easily understand the origin of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit."
According to the New Testament, the various sects of early Christianity hated each other bitterly and believed wildly different things.
Thus, they wanted to be able to
excommunicate each other, and worse. (Saint Paul said that he wished the disciples of Saint James would emasculate themselves.)
Once Christians had invented the "unforgivable sin," they had carte blanche to
damn each other to "hell" in the name of God.
Pretty soon they were burning each other’s books, and before long they were burning the writers (i.e., each other) at the
stake. No fate was too horrible for "heretics" who had committed "blasphemy." But of course
whichever con artists happened to be in power at the time determined what
constituted "blasphemy." This had nothing to do with God, who presumably knew that the earth was round, not flat, and that it orbited the sun,
rather than the other way around. So, for the better part of 2,000 years, "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit"
actually meant "using one’s brain" and not believing things in the Bible that
made no sense whatsoever. According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit created a flat,
immovable planet with fixed foundations. How can it be "blasphemy" to say that
is actually round, and whizzing through space at incredible speeds?
Ironically, the men who at last freed the human race
from the Dark Ages were heretics who questioned the "truths" of the Bible: Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Da Vinci, Darwin, et al.
But of course bigger things were at stake than mere cosmology. Once
Christians had invented hell (which had never once been mentioned by Yahweh/Jehovah or his
Hebrew prophets), the church had far bigger fish to fry: human souls. One of the best heretical poems on the subject
of salvation is "Easter Hymn" by A. E. Housman:
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
—A. E. Housman
Housman was not a believer, but he had a better approach to Christ
than most Christians. If Jesus was just another prophet who was unable to
quench the fires of hatred, and only ended up fanning them,
he should "sleep well" and not be accused of what his ferocious acolytes did in
his name. But if he sits "at the right hand of majesty" and still
remembers the tears and agonies of being human, he should "bow hither out of
heaven" to see the condition of suffering humanity, and save.
Housman did not "believe," presumably because he found no evidence of anything to
believe, since Jesus seems incapable of doing anything about suffering and death
here on earth. But at least Housman didn't ask to be saved
by "grace" while his enemies went to hell. Housman was thus one of
the few true Christians ever to walk the planet, if a disbelieving one.
Other heretical poets are unwilling to give God/Jesus even a "what if." For
them the die has been cast irretrievably, and has come up blanks. One of my
favorite contemporary poets, Tom Merrill, seems to adopt this point of view in
his poem "In God We Trust":
Absolve yourselves, believe them saved,
Whom hungrily you brought to fare
As chance decrees, and leave to them
The fortune to which you rose heir.
Now theirs shall be the kingdom too,
This one and that, and all they hold,
All marvels present, and as well
Fresh wonders when the flesh turns cold.
All you who by blind pulse renew
The primal blessing cast in heat,
And to a season’s course entrust
Frail issue weather can defeat,
Who from flung seed grew anxious too—
Deny earth feeds on them and you.
Heretics are often too honest and too sympathetic to the human condition to subscribe to the prevailing fictions. If
God and Jesus love human beings, as the orthodox insist, why do they
condemn men to such dismal fates? Here’s a succinct poem on
the subject, "The Worms’ Contempt," by W. H. Davies:
What do we earn for all our gentle grace?
A body stiff and cold from foot to face.
If you have beauty, what is beauty worth?
A mask to hide it, made of common earth.
What do we get for all our song and prattle?
A gasp for longer breath, and then a rattle.
What do we earn for dreams, and our high teaching?
The worms' contempt, that have no time for preaching.
—W. H. Davies
Orthodox Christianity seems to boil down to simply (pun intended) believing in Christ,
then continuing to "sin" while consigning other sinners ("unbelievers") to hell.
If Christians are no better than other people, and often worse, why should they
be rewarded for their faith at the expense of non-Christians? Most Christians
seem to ignore anything inconvenient to
their faith, such as the nature of the real world. If God is all-powerful and he
"loves" Christians so much, and if Jesus bore their sins and sufferings on the
cross, why do they still suffer and die? Did God intentionally double suffering,
by making Christians and Jesus suffer the same pains twice? E. E. Cummings captures this
quixotic "belief system" wonderfully well in his poem "the Cambridge ladies who live
in furnished souls":
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
—E. E. Cummings
The thing I find most horrifying about orthodox Christianity is the
way parents and other adults in positions of authority
routinely condemn children to the terrifying flames of
an "eternal hell." Joe Salemi captures the insanity quite vividly in his poem
"The Missionary's Position":
I maintain it all was for the best—
We hacked our way through jungle and sought out
These savage children, painted and half-dressed,
To set their minds at ease, and dispel doubt.
Concerning what? Why, God's immense design,
And how it governs all we do and see.
Before, they had no sense of the divine
Beyond the sticks and bones of sorcery.
Granted, they are more somber and subdued,
Knowing that lives are watched, and judged, and weighed.
Subject to fits of melancholy mood,
They look upon the cross, and are afraid.
What would you have me say? We preached the Word
Better endured in grief than left unheard.
—Joseph S. Salemi
Is there anything more horrifying than convincing small children who are
already starving and facing death on a daily basis to "look upon the cross" and
be afraid that their suffering might become eternal? If Christian mothers
really believe in hell, what right do they have to bear human children? Are they
Is there any better argument that orthodox Christianity could not have
originated with a just, wise, loving God . . . than this? If Jesus was able to
speak to suffering African children, is this the "good news" he would
tell them? I find it hard to believe Jesus (a compassionate man, by all
accounts) could have invented such an
infernal "gospel," so I have to conclude that the palpably evil parts were
created by evil men with evil imaginations: the witchdoctors, priests,
evangelists and theologians of orthodoxy.
In my opinion, adults who tell children about an "eternal hell" ought to be
treated like other child abusers: put in stocks, hung, drawn, quartered,
etc. How many of those children, full of the fear of an unjust God, will go on
to commit unjust acts themselves, emulating their Exemplar? Is this, perhaps, the
reason orthodox Christians have burned heretics at the stake,
taken slaves, exterminated entire tribes in their zeal to evangelize
unbelievers, dominated women, bashed gays, etc.?
Then there’s the injustice of what orthodoxy’s unjust God did to all
the poor animals. As Mark Twain pointed out, God blaming man for suffering and death
entering the world was a con job for the ages. After all, Adam and Eve were
innocents, with no knowledge of good and evil. How then could they have been
expected to make the right decision when presented with the forbidden fruit? What a frigging con job, for God to give them
the knowledge they needed to make the right decision, only after it was too
late! But what about all the poor animals? What had bunny rabbits, does and
fawns done to offend Yahweh? In the Genesis account God is the first murderer
because he gives animal hides to Adam and Eve, to cover their nakedness. Why
didn't he spare the poor animals and give Adam and Eve clothes of cotton or
wool? In my poem "Willy Nilly," I use doggerel to
defend the rights of animals not to be tortured and slaughtered by their Creator (not, of course, that it will do them any good):
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
—Michael R. Burch
Another poem in a somewhat similar vein that I have absolutely loved since I
first read it, is "Come Lord and Lift" by Tom Merrill:
Come Lord, and lift the fallen bird
Abandoned on the ground;
The soul bereft and longing so
To have the lost be found.
The heart that cries—let it but hear
Its sweet love answering,
Or out of ether one faint note
Of living comfort wring.
Merrill’s poem calls for compassion, but as we all know the world is
ultimately compassionless, amoral. One day, we too will fall by the wayside.
Neither God nor Jesus will hear or answer our pleas for compassion—will they? At
least the heretics are honest. Orthodoxy merely sings hymns of fawning praise to
God and Jesus—praise they have never earned, never having saved a single flea from
suffering or death between them. Why then should we praise them? As you will see if you
read far enough, even the poets who professed to believe in Jesus struggled to
say anything good about the main tenets of orthodoxy: the bloody atonement,
salvation by "grace" for one sinner with damnation for another, etc.
I stopped attending church for three reasons:
First, it seemed
dishonest to sing hymns of praise God, when really I only wanted God to help make the world a
better place to live (or get me out of it by whisking me off to heaven). As I considered the
horrendous gospel of hell that had
terrified me as a child (and, no doubt, multitudes of other children), I concluded
that God could never have allowed such a gospel to be preached to small
children, if he had a shred of decency. So I had to conclude that God does not exist, or that God
is unable to do much of anything worthwhile in this world, since he can't defend
innocent tykes from religion gone mad.
Second, the "believers" at my church obviously
assumed that heterosexuals would be "saved by grace," while for some absurd
reason non-heterosexuals wouldn’t. But many of the gay people I know have more "fruit of the spirit"
(gentleness, cleanliness, kindness, etc.) than their more orthodox condemners. When
I heard Christians preaching grace for themselves and hell for other people, I
became furious. I began to have dreams about public confrontations with my
pastor. So I decided to leave the church, and I believe I made the right
decision. Why would Jesus save bigots and hypocrites, but send Gandhi,
Einstein and the Dalai Lama to hell?
Third, because of what I
had suffered at the hands of the church as a child, whenever I thought of adults
telling children about hell, I wanted to slug the abusers. Ironically, I had to
get out of the church to avoid going to jail myself, for trying to defend the
children from their parents, pastor and Sunday School teachers!
Is it possible to concoct a more absurd religion? I don’t see how. In any
case, I wrote "What Would Santa Claus Say" to express my deep dissatisfaction
with orthodox Christianity:
What would Santa Claus say,
about Jesus returning
to kill and plunder?
For he’ll likely return
on Christmas Day
to blow the bad
little boys away!
When He flashes like lightning
across the skies
and many a homosexual
when the harlots and heretics
are ripped asunder,
what will the Easter Bunny think,
—Michael R. Burch
I like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because they’re creatures of grace
and light, who don’t discriminate against gays and non-Christians, and probably
make lots of allowances for human nature. If God and Jesus are bigots, I doubt
their "heaven" is all it’s been cracked up to be. The vision of Jesus Christ
returning to earth to kill billions of non-Christians, then condemn them to an
"eternal hell" has turned the Christ of orthodox Christianity into the Devil.
Should parents teach their children to worship the Devil? The seemingly innocent
words "Jesus saves" have terrorized billions of children over the centuries.
"Saves" them . . . from what? Obviously, an eternal hell. Saves them how? Obviously
unfairly, since believers are saved by grace (no one knows exactly how), while
presumably billions of people who never heard of Jesus, or were too intelligent
to believe he's the Devil, go to hell. If you continue to read,
you will soon see what the strange dogmas of "hell" and the "atonement" have managed
to produce in the work of even the great Christian apologists like Dante, Milton
and Herbert. The results are bizarre. But first let me share the work of a
fascinating, little-known heretic: I hope you like him as much as
One of my favorite heretical poets is the Archpoet. He wrote on
the cusp of the Inquisition, which probably explains his need for a pseudonym. (As the Divine Oscar Wilde observed, in a self-fulfilling
prophecy, if you tell some people the truth, they’ll kill you.) Excerpts from
the Archpoet’s magnificent "Confession" (translated from the original medieval
Latin by Helen Waddell) reveal what one might term "the Great Divide"
between the fire-breathing forces orthodoxy and the always-imperiled heretics:
Never yet could I endure
Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
Did she make her dwelling.
The Archpoet was one of the first "vagabond" or "rogue" scholars. His motto
seemed to have been "make love, not religion." He didn’t buy all the burdensome
crap about the "sins of the flesh" and the "joys of asceticism," not for a
minute. His god was not the one Swinburne forlornly called the "pale
Galilean"—the ascetic, joy-crushing Christ.
Nay, his god was the love goddess, Venus.
We will see the same thing happening on a regular basis when we look at the
work of poets like Edmund Spenser, John Milton, et al. Even the so-called
"Christians" wanted little or nothing to do with the orthodox Christ. It was
Venus in all her multitudinous forms they were after (but always primarily sex
and the imagination). Like Adam, they were after Eve, and they intended to find
her in the garden of love and earthly delights. If
they loved Christ as good little orthodox Christians claim to love him, where
are their great poems in his honor? Why are all their best poems about women,
love, passion, etc.?
In all fairness to Jesus, let me point out that he may have been quite the
connoisseur of the flesh himself, as he seems to have had a gaggle of
female adorers who paid all his expenses. One of them famously anointed his feet
with extravagantly expensive nard, earning the ire of Judas Iscariot. Jesus also
feted hookers (or did they fete him, since he was legendarily penniless?) to the
consternation of the Pharisees, who called him a glutton and a wine-bibber.
Well, wouldn’t we like him all the better if he was, if only we could be honest
about such things? Jesus was quoted as saying the prostitutes would enter the
kingdom of heaven before the self-righteous. Well, they would certainly be much
better company, wouldn’t they? What sort of party will Christ, whom
Christendom made the greatest party-pooper of all time, throw for his
friends the prostitutes at the end of time? Will he torture them for their
"sins" or accept them gladly for the many extravagant graces they lavished on
lonely men who were only too happy to pay for their charms? My vote,
for what it’s worth, is that the prostitutes lead the parade into heaven, with
the Pharisees and pious orthodoxists bringing up the rear. How is it
possible that a God of Love would not agree?
Other heretical poets would subscribe to the same school of thought as the
Archpoet, notably William Blake, perhaps the greatest heretic of them all. Blake
accused the "black-robed" priests of orthodoxy of erecting a "Thou Shalt Not"
sign above his "Garden of Love" (in a poem with that title):
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
Any schoolboy who ever worshiped a schoolgirl and her "garden of earthly
delights," while giving short shrift to the pieties of religion, belongs to the
same order of heretics. Which means, basically, everyone. But of course some
heretics are more honest than others.
Another disagreement between the schools of asceticism and earthly love has
to do with "faith." For the writer of the godawful Epistle of James, faith must
be set and anchored in stone; he said no one should expect God to answer the
prayers of a man whose faith wavered in even the slightest degree. But the
heretic often subscribes to the school of Heraclitus:
Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.
The Archpoet’s irony will no doubt be lost on the true believer. On the other
hand, reading his "Confession" make me inordinately happy. Just think: while all
the forces of Orthodoxy had assembled to create a great Christological (er, make
that Christo-unlogical) machine to crush the human spirit in a
remorseless vice (pun intended), here was a solitary heretic—and a vagabond poet
at that—quietly mocking the whole ludicrous enterprise. What did he care for Christ
or Jehovah, if only he could have an earthly Venus? Salvation for him was to
enjoy the flesh while it lasted:
Down the broad way do I go,
Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
Better save the skin.
Like Adam, the Archpoet made the obvious choice, choosing exotic, erotic Eve
over God and his pallid priest, the "master of discretion":
Pardon, pray you, good my lord,
Master of discretion,
But this death I die is sweet,
Most delicious poison.
Wounded to the quick am I
By a young girl's beauty:
She's beyond my touching? Well,
Can't the mind do duty?
The heretic is young and honest. The "master of discretion" is a hoary (and
probably horny) old fount of disinformation and religious propaganda:
Hard beyond all hardness, this
Mastering of Nature:
Who shall say his heart is clean,
Near so fair a creature?
Young are we, so hard a law,
How should we obey it?
And our bodies, they are young,
Shall they have no say in’t?
"Hard beyond all hardness" is a master "stroke"! The "master of discretion"
falls into one of two categories: either (1) he’s a hypocrite who still feels
the pangs of human desire, but shamefully legislates for others laws he is
incapable of keeping himself, or (2) he’s become so superannuated his sex
hormones have finally "petered out" and left him believing the
"Holy Spirit" has finally helped him win his life-long battle with the "flesh,"
when in reality he’s become a
walking, talking cadaver. In either case, the young heretic is right and the
"master of discretion" is beyond our contempt; we can only loath him. And yet he
is the oracle of all the dubious "wisdom" of Christendom!
How many ignorant young mothers down the centuries heeded Orthodoxy’s
"masters of discretion" and handed over the souls of their
children into their fetid, cadaver-like embraces? How many boys and girls
became walking, talking contradictions and eventually Towers of Babel
themselves, as a result? How many children have the Archpoet’s ability to see through the fog of deception, and
are able to rescue themselves from their mothers’ and religion’s lunacies?
Perhaps only a few.
The young heretic is as honest and wise as the "master of discretion" is
dishonest and foolish. The young lover freely admits he has no ability to resist
Sit you down amid the fire,
Will the fire not burn you?
To Pavia come, will you
Just as chaste return you?
Pavia, where Beauty draws
Youth with finger-tips,
Youth entangled in her eyes,
Ravished with her lips.
The young heretic knows that no one his age is capable of chastity (Sarah
Palin should read him, and absorb wisdom). But he knows more than that, for no
one else is capable of chastity either:
Let you bring Hippolytus,
In Pavia dine him,
Never more Hippolytus
Will the morning find him.
In Pavia not a road
But leads to venery
Nor among its crowding towers
One to chastity.
Of course love and sex are not the only attractions the world has to offer:
Yet a second charge they bring:
I'm forever gaming.
Yea, the dice hath many a time
Stripped me to my shaming.
What an' if the body's cold,
If the mind is burning,
On the anvil hammering,
Rhymes and verses turning?
Besides gambling and poetry there is, of course, that den of gluttony, ribald
jokes, wine, women and song: the tavern. The tavern has become a recurring theme
in the work of vagabond poets like Rumi, Omar Khayyam and our good friend the
Archpoet. Strangely, they seem like the most spiritual of poets, perhaps because
they are the most honest and accepting of human nature:
Look again upon your list.
Is the tavern on it?
Yea, and never have I scorned,
Never shall I scorn it,
Till the holy angels come,
And my eyes discern them,
Singing for the dying soul,
"Requiem aeternam" means "eternal rest." The Archpoet intends to enjoy the joys
of the tavern until the angels bear him off to his eternal rest (or eternal
party, as the case may be):
Tis the fire that's in the cup
Kindles the soul's torches,
‘Tis the heart that drenched in wine
Flies to heaven's porches.
Sweeter tastes the wine to me
In a tavern tankard
That the watered stuff my Lord
Bishop has decanted.
The Archpoet was wise to write under a pseudonym, just as he was wise to
despise the watered-down hogwash his "Lord Bishop" was selling, at such
extravagant prices. If the love and grace of God are free to all, why does
organized religion have to bottle and sell them?
Let them fast and water drink,
All the poets' chorus,
Fly the market and the crowd
Sit in quiet spots and think,
Shun the tavern's portal
Write, and never having lived,
Die to be immortal.
Why fast, shun strong drink, give up earthly love, and—never having truly
lived—hope to die and become immortal?
Good my lord, the case is heard,
I myself betray me,
And affirm myself to be
All my fellows say me.
See, they in thy presence are:
Let whoe’er hath known
His own heart and found it clean,
Cast at me the stone.
The Archpoet admits his own "guilt" and asks who will cast the first stone.
But of course during its various Inquisitions, Crusades, heretic burnings, witch
hunts and gay-bashings, what has Orthodoxy done, but cast stones at every
conceivable target? But perhaps it’s beginning to run out of targets . . .
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the rift between Christian orthodoxy
and the great writers centers around the godawful atonement. To be an orthodox Christian requires a belief
in God (which would exclude atheists like Shelley but not pantheists like
Whitman) and also a belief in the salvific blood of Jesus Christ. Orthodox
Christians must famously be "washed in the blood of the Lamb," however ghoulish
that sounds to the non-prehistoric ear. Who can imagine holding a newborn baby up to the crucified Christ,
to be ghoulishly "cleansed" in
great gouts of blood spurting eternally from his hands and side? Perhaps that’s
why babies came to be christened with water: because the early experiments with
actual blood were horrendously gruesome and frightened away new converts.
I once supported a young missionary and his wife, who took shoes to orphans
and the homeless. At the time, I was having severe doubts about the helpfulness
of giving shoes to children while simultaneously suggesting that "Jesus saves,"
when those two small words fling open the gates of hell. When my
missionary friend told me that he was invoking the "blood of Christ" to protect his
newborn son, that sealed the deal for me. I stopped giving money to Christian
charities. The cost is too high. Now I give my money to secular charities, whose
aid doesn’t come with such evil strings attached. Why can’t Jesus do good merely
for the sake of doing good, like the saints of other religions? Will Jesus be
the last tyrant-conqueror among the "gods"—closer to Thor than to Balder the
Beautiful? But hell, even the Vikings had the good sense to know the old warlike Gods
would have to be replaced, eventually.
Were even the great apologists of Christianity (Dante, Milton, Herbert, Donne
and Hopkins) embarrassed by the idea that God could ever have been "pleased" and
"appeased" by horrific, bloody sacrifices? Why did Yahweh (Jehovah) crave blood
and the "sweet savor" of holocausts (burnt offerings of animal flesh)? Why,
after millions of poor, innocent animals had been killed to "please" and
"appease" him, did Yahweh still demand the grotesque "sacrifice" of Jesus?
If God can forgive sins, why not just forgive them? If he can save (make whole),
why not save without all the histrionics? If he wants human beings to overcome
evil with good, why doesn't he follow his own excellent advice? King David
believed in grace long before the "atonement," saying God could simply choose to
not impute sin. (This was convenient for David, since he killed every woman when
he "smote the land.") If David was saved by grace centuries before the birth of
Christ, what conceivable purpose did the crucifixion serve?
One would expect pagans like Swinburne and atheists like Shelley to give the
atonement short shrift. But why did Dante profess to be saved by Virgil and
Beatrice, rather than by Jesus Christ? Why did Milton give the atonement a scant
half-line in his great epic, "Paradise Lost," which he famously claimed would
"justify the ways of God to man"? Where is the atonement to be found in the
poems of Hopkins, the English language’s greatest devotional poet? If Hopkins
wrote about the atonement, I don’t remember those poems; certainly his
best-known poems are not about being "saved" via a ghoulish downpour of
So let’s examine the heresies, or possible heresies, of the great poets,
paying particular attention to what they said about their personal, saving
relationships with Jesus Christ. Were they washed in the blood of the Lamb, or
did have their own peculiar ideas, perhaps their own personal religions?
Since we have to start somewhere, let’s start with Saint Paul. Paul was a
Universalist (he said all Israel would be saved) who never mentioned a place called "hell" in his epistles.
Embarrassingly (for him), he did seem to believe in the atonement. But who
knows, perhaps someone less enlightened doctored his work later. Paul wrote
the best definition of love in the English language: 1 Corinthians 13:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am
become as a clanging gong or a tinkling cymbal . . ." This passage presents profound
problems for non-universalists. If God is speaking through Paul, he has just
said that if he is not Divine Love, all the words of the Bible are mere noise.
On the other hand, if God is not speaking through Paul, then Paul has thrown
down the gauntlet, so to speak: is it possible for Christianity’s greatest
evangelist to have gone overboard, and overstated the magnitude of God’s love?
In either case, once these stirring words were written, it seems that in order
for the God of Christianity to be God, he must be Love. If God is Love, there is
no need for hell, the atonement, religious beliefs, theology, etc. So perhaps
that explains the entire mystery: God is Love, and he loves everyone
unconditionally. This world is hell, and when we die, we leave hell and our
bodies behind, and magically we’re in heaven. Paul said human beings would be
transformed in the twinkling of an eye: perhaps that twinkling is the moment of
death, when the spirit leaves the body. If so, Love needs no theology, because
no one needs to fear Divine Love. Of course all this remains a
matter of faith and belief. But not believing in Divine Love would not cause
Divine Love to turn into the schizophrenic God/Devil of orthodox Christianity.
In any case Paul was undoubtedly a heretic, because he threw out the entire Old
Testament law, which he admitted hating, and replaced it with what I call "the
grace of God and the karma of Christ":
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
and have not love,
I am become as sounding brass,
or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy,
and understand all mysteries,
and all knowledge;
and though I have all faith,
so that I could remove mountains,
and have not love,
I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor,
and though I give my body to be burned,
and have not love,
it profiteth me nothing.
Love suffereth long, and is kind;
love envieth not;
love vaunteth not itself,
is not puffed up,
doth not behave itself unseemly,
seeketh not her own,
is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil;
rejoiceth not in iniquity,
but rejoiceth in the truth;
beareth all things,
believeth all things,
hopeth all things,
endureth all things.
Love never faileth:
but whether there be prophecies,
they shall fail;
whether there be tongues,
they shall cease;
whether there be knowledge,
it shall vanish away.
For we know in part,
and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come,
then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child,
I spake as a child,
I understood as a child,
I thought as a child:
but when I became a man,
I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly;
but then face to face:
now I know in part;
but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, love,
but the greatest of these is love.
The second poet in our countdown is John the Divine. Not John of Patmos, the
author of the horrific book of Revelation, in which it is said that human beings
will be tortured with fire and brimstone at the foot of the throne of God, "in
the presence of the Lamb and the Holy Angels." No, I am referring to the author
of the Gospel of John, who wrote that Jesus Christ was full of grace and truth.
Perhaps if Christians believed the good things Paul and John wrote, and
forgot all the nightmarish and ghoulish things, they might have something that
wouldn’t terrify their children. John’s gospel is radically different from the
other gospels. In the other gospels, Jesus speaks in parables. In the gospel of
John, Jesus becomes an eloquent preacher of sermons and the personification of
the Greek Logos (Word). Heretics like Paul and John created a new religion and
were hardly orthodox in their own day.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him;
and without him was not any thing made that was
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,
(and we beheld his glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,)
full of grace and truth.
Next on our list is Dante. I’ve never been a fan of Dante, perhaps because
translations can’t do him justice, or perhaps because I’m unable to be
enthralled by a poet who consigned so many human beings to various compartments
of hell. In that sense, Dante may be the most orthodox of Christian poets. But
it seems he loved and/or worshiped Beatrice (his Venus) and admired the Roman poet
Virgil; therefore he simply threw out the various aspects of salvation that
didn’t appeal to him and manipulated things in order to be imaginatively "saved"
by a pagan poet and a love goddess. What did God or Jesus have to do anything?
Dante created his own Trinity. That makes him a heretic in my book.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
Now let’s consider the first known English poet, Caedmon. According to Bede,
Caedmon was an illiterate herdsman who worked, presumably tending flocks of some
sort, for the monastery of Whitby. Bede says Caedmon was given the gift of
poetry by an angel, and founded a school of poets, which presumably led directly
to us having this conversation. Granted, we only have a few lines from a poem of
his, but if the hand of God is truly in such things, why is there not a word in
it about Jesus Christ, or the atonement? Let’s put Caedmon down as a probable
Now we must honour
the Measurer's might,
and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father . . .
The next important poet on our list is Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is entirely too
profane and irreverent to be considered a good Christian, so he must
be a heretic:
"My lords," said he, "in churches when I preach
I take great pains to have a haughty speech
And ring it out as roundly as a bell;
I know it all by heart, what I've to tell.
My theme's always the same and ever was:
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.
(Greed is the root of all evil.)
One of the first English poets who still reads well today and can justifiably be
called great is Thomas Wyatt. He was born just after the discovery of the New
World and lived from 1503 to 1542, so he may be considered the first great poet
of modern English. None of his best-known
poems mention the atonement, that I can remember. In his poem
"What Should I Say" he clearly says "faith is dead." Heretic!
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array, after a pleasaunt guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewith all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, "Dear heart how like you this?"
It was no dream, I lay broad waking
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness;
And she also to use new fangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
Edmund Spenser wrote about "Gods of Love," Venus, Pan, "God Bacchus," Juno,
Cynthia (the moon goddess), nymphs, faerie queens, etc., but when did he ever
bother to thank Jesus Christ for a deluge of magical blood? Heretic!
Sir Philip Sidney wrote a poem called "Ye Goatherd Gods" and elsewhere
invoked Saturn, Venus, Pan, Juno, Iris, Cupid, Vulcan and Momus (god of
laughter). Any yet I can find no mention of Jesus Christ in his best-known
seems to have been a notorious rogue, brawler, spy, homosexual and atheist. He
was accused of "utterly scorning both God and his ministers," of blasphemy and
of "vile heretical conceits," to such an extent that a warrant may have been
issued for his arrest on these grounds, just a few days before his death (he was
murdered). His poems are full of references to Apollo, Venus, Adonis, Cupid,
Cynthia, et al, but where are there any limpid paeans to Jesus Christ?
Undoubtedly, a heretic!
William Shakespeare, if he had a religion, kept it incredibly well hidden. In
his entire opus, is there a single poem in which he thanked Jesus Christ for the
bloody atonement and his personal salvation? Heretic!
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—ding-dong, bell.
With John Donne it seems we must finally have come to a true
Christian poet. And it’s about time, as Donne was born in 1572 and lived until
1631. The early Donne was undoubtedly a heretic, because he wrote sex-saturated
poems. The young Donne seems hedonistic, even paganistic at times. But Donne
later became a preacher. His "No man is an island" sermon probably inspired the
Paul Simon lines "I am a rock. I am an island." So surely Donne was a true
Christian poet. But perhaps things are not so simple. It seems Donne really
didn’t want to be a preacher, and was more or less forced into the role. In his
best-known poems he writes about Mary Magdalene and Mahomet, but where are the
sweet paeans to Jesus Christ? One of his poems, "Good Friday, 1613, Riding
Westward," does imagine the crucifixion in some detail, not at all
happily. It concludes with the lines:
Burn off my rusts and my deformity;
Restore thine image so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.
That seems pretty clear. Donne would look to Christ when Christ
completed his work, not before. In his "Holy Sonnet 14," Donne clearly tells God
that he is "betrothed unto" his "enemy" and will never "be chaste, except you
ravish me." Donne was a sensual man who seemed quite content to remain sensual
until God was able to complete his yet-unfinished business. Heretic!
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devils foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true and fair.
If thou find'st one let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not; I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two or three.
Ben Jonson was a heavy drinker and carouser who was once jailed for acting in
a seditious play. In 1598 he killed a fellow actor and "narrowly escaped
hanging." His best poems are not about Jesus Christ, but wine, women and song.
Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
Robert Herrick wrote poems about surprising his lovers with his "tendrils"
and devoted so many lines to legs, thighs, bellies, buttocks, waists, "parts
which maids keep unespied," "erring laces," "crimson stomachers," "tempestuous
petticoats" and "sweet disorders in the dress" that his flesh ended up "more
like a stock than a vine." But where are his poems of praise to Jesus Christ?
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
Oh, how that glittering taketh me!
George Herbert is perhaps the most likely Christian poet on our list. But
what does he have to say about "salvation"? In "Redemption" he searches high and
low for his "rich lord." After a long search he finds him amid the "ragged noise
and mirth / of thieves and murderers." As soon as he has finally located his
long-lost lord, before he can utter a single word, the lord immediately grants
him his "suit" and dies. Strange stuff, this Christian redemption. But then in
"Sin (I)" Herbert says the whole "array" is blown away by "one cunning
bosom-sin" (i.e., a sin of the heart). So it seems the "finished work of Christ"
merely falls back in the lap of human beings who are unable to save themselves
despite their best efforts. How, then, can a man be saved? Herbert admits the
problem himself, in "The Windows," complaining, "Lord, how can a man preach thy
eternal word?" How, indeed? Herbert provides the best argument against his own
faith and faithless God, admitting, "O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue /
To cry to thee/ And then not hear it crying!" Despite his best efforts, Herbert
ends up denying his own faith, or making it unpalatable. Heretic!
John Milton purported to "justify the ways of God to man." Then he managed to
write an epic poem that gave the atonement an embarrassed half-line, while
making Satan and Eve rebellious heroes for the ages. As always, God is merely a
foil for the antics of man and fallen angels. William Blake correctly said
Milton was of the Devil’s party (meaning it as a compliment), without knowing
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
Purification in the Old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.
Alexander Pope, in his "Essay on Man," seems to have planned to "pull a
Milton" and justify something about God to man, or vice versa (emphasis on
"vice"). But I find his "essay" poems impossible to read, and don’t consider him
a great poet. However he did say that "no Christians thirst for gold," proving
thereby that there truly are no Christians, leaving only heretics.
William Blake was certainly a great heretic. It has been said that he saw and
spoke to angels on a daily basis, but they were hardly the angels of moralizing
Christian orthodoxy. Blake had a wonderful heart for children and along with
Charles Dickens helped expose the plight of children being forced to work
unthinkably long hours as virtual slaves, doing backbreaking, dangerous work. He
wrote poems calling for "Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love" and one of the first poems
about racial equality, "The Little Black Boy." But Blake certainly did
not hold with the "sex is evil" crowd. He saw the black-robed priests of
religion erecting "Thou shalt not" signs in "The Garden of Love." For Blake,
this love seemed to be "free love," although by all
accounts he was a happily married man. Like all great heretics, he was
ahead of his time.
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
I won’t attempt to unravel William Wordsworth’s beliefs. It seems that he,
like a number of poets, more or less created his own faith. For Wordsworth
nature may have been both God and religion, or perhaps there was some sort of
pantheism involved. But whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be orthodox. His
great Ode finds "Intimations of Immortality" in nature and the innocence of childhood, not
the atonement. His poem below suggests pagan creeds and gods are better than
modern religion. Heretic!
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath d horn.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friend and peer of Wordsworth, was one of the more
active heretics among the poets. In his youth he declared himself to be a
disciple of Voltaire (an opponent of orthodoxy), and was whipped for his
transgression. Undeterred, Coleridge became a Unitarian (denying the Trinity)
who opposed overly literal interpretations of the Bible. In one of his poems he
mused in a pantheistic fashion that it is "God diffused / through all that doth
make all one whole." But whatever his beliefs, his actions tended toward
"drunkenness, debt and debauchery." When he began to preach to Unitarian
congregations, he opined that "my sermons spread a sort of sanctity over my
sedition." In his later years, Coleridge seemed to both recant and not recant
his heresy, calling Unitarianism "idolatry" but also saying that many Unitarians
were good Christians. Heretic, albeit perhaps a bit addled in his dotage (and
perhaps by his abuse of opiates).
The poet in his lone yet genial hour
Gives to his eyes a magnifying power:
Or rather he emancipates his eyes
From the black shapeless accidents of size—
In unctuous cones of kindling coal,
Or smoke upwreathing from the pipe's trim bole,
His gifted ken can see
Phantoms of sublimity.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great heretic who despised institutionalized
religion, no doubt because in his youth he was "harangued by his pious,
domineering mother and catechized by a string of Presbyterian tutors and
scripture-toting nurses" and thus came to believe he was irredeemably damned.
So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
—George Gordon, Lord Byron
Something similar happened to me in my childhood, and it took me the better
part of 50 years to begin to recover, so please bear with me while I examine in
some detail what can happen to a bright, sensitive young boy when adults in
positions of authority tell him his fate has been "predestined" by an unjust,
tyrannical God who perches like a vulture on his shoulder and continually
condemns him for the "sin" of having been born human. Is this what we want for
our children, really?
Byron seems to have become the near twin of his literary creation Childe
Harold—"a brooding, enigmatic pariah haunted by a dark past and nameless guilt."
But was this image planted in his mind during his childhood, by the
religion-addled adults around him? Did the power of his imagination somehow
focus and produce their prophesied image of Cain, stamped with the stain of
Accused of adultery, homoeroticism, pederasty, incest and God knows what
else, Byron eventually fled abroad in 1816, never to return, as throughout
England the clergy thundered "on his head pious libels by no means few." But his
later vices may have been encouraged and aggravated by an early indoctrination
into Calvinism and its gloomy dogma of predestination, which he seemed unable to
entirely shake, despite "an early dislike for the persuasion."
His wife described him as a victim of religion gone haywire: "His principal
insane ideas are—he must be wicked—is foredoomed to evil—and compelled by some
irresistible power to follow this destiny." According to another biographer,
"Armed with a Puritan conception of wickedness, Byron wallowed in Olympian
debauchery, oscillating between ‘ungodly glee’ and self-loathing. His
Calvinistic conscience doomed him to repetitive rounds of sin, remorse, and
desire for punishment." According to critic Mario Praz "Byron wished to
experience the feeling of being struck with full force by the vengeance of
Heaven. The gloomy tragedy of his life was set in a moral torture chamber."
It seems that, like Childe Harold, Byron was tormented by
demons, who impair
The strength of better thoughts, and seek their prey
In melancholy bosoms, such as were
Of moody texture from their earliest day,
And loved to dwell in darkness and dismay.
As with Cain in the Garden of Eden, Byron’s parents were of no help:
They have but One answer to all questions,
"'Twas his will, And he is good."
How know I that?
Because He is all-powerful, must all-good, too, follow?
Byron’s Cain is counseled by Lucifer, who explains that he is called "wicked"
because conquerors define morality. Those deemed "good" are merely servile
hypocrites who worship God out of fear, not love. The tree of knowledge, Cain
carps, "was a lying tree, for we know nothing." Without knowledge the sentence
of death is unjust, but life is not much better:
But live to die; and, living, see no thing
To make death hateful, save an innate clinging,
A loathsome, and yet all invincible
Instinct of life, which I abhor, as I
Despise myself, yet cannot overcome
and so I live.
Byron was not a fan of the Bible: "In morality I prefer Confucius to the ten
commandments and Socrates to St. Paul."
He discounted the divinity of the Bible: "God would have made his Will known
without books, considering how very few could read when Jesus of Nazareth lived,
had it been His pleasure to ratify any peculiar mode of worship."
He did not take communion: "I refuse to take the Sacrament because I do not
think eating bread or drinking wine from the hand of an earthly vicar will make
me an inheritor of Heaven."
Christian salvation was nonsensical to him: "Christ came to save men, but a
good Pagan will go to heaven and a bad Nazarene to hell. If mankind who never
heard or dreamt of Galilee and its Prophet may be saved, Christianity is of no
avail. And who will believe God will damn men for not knowing what they were
The Christian is no more spiritually secure than the ancient Roman:
"According to the Christian dispensation, no one can know whether he is sure of
salvation—even the most righteous—since a single slip of faith may throw him on
his back, like a skater, while gliding smoothly to his paradise. Therefore,
whatever the certainty of faith in the facts may be, the certainty of the
individual as to his happiness or misery is no greater than it was under
Byron anticipated Freud's "moral fallacy" of Christianity: "The basis of your
religion," he wrote to a Christian who tried to convert him, "is injustice. The
Son of God, the pure, the immaculate, the innocent, is sacrificed for the
guilty. This proves His heroism; but no more does away with man's guilt than a
schoolboy's volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the dunce
from negligence or preserve him from the rod. You degrade the Creator by
converting Him into a tyrant over an immaculate and injured Being, sent to
suffer death for the benefit of some millions of scoundrels, who, after all,
seem as likely to be damned as ever."
Christians did not impress him: "Talk of Galileeism? Show me the effects—are
you better, wiser, kinder by your precepts? I will bring you ten Mussulmans
shall shame you in all good will towards men and duty to their neighbours."
He expressed doubts about "seventy-two villainous sects tearing each other to
pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other."
For the narrator of "Don Juan" bouts of illness explain orthodox doctrines:
The first attack at once proved the Divinity
(But that I never doubted, nor the Devil);
The next, the Virgin's mystical virginity;
The third, the usual Origin of Evil;
The fourth at once established the whole Trinity
On so uncontrovertible a level,
That I devoutly wished the three were four
On purpose to believe so much the more.
Despite his "antic impieties," Byron "never completely made up his mind."
Percy Bysshe Shelley, his neighbor and fellow exile in Switzerland, bemoaned his
own inability to "eradicate from Byron's great mind the delusions of
Christianity, which, in spite of his reason, seem perpetually to recur."
Which leads us to our next great heretical poet: Shelley, who published a
tract called "The Necessity of Atheism" that got him kicked out of Oxford.
When his father demanded that he recant, he also had a falling out with his
father. ’Nuff said.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
John Keats was another of the great Romantic poets who rejected the Christian
faith. In one of his letters he called the atonement a "horrid subject" and
wondered if Christians "shudder" at the thought. Of course they should: heretic!
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
In his poem "In Memoriam," Alfred Lord Tennyson clearly declares his
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life will be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shriveled in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
If salvation is universal, there is no need for a bloody atonement. Heretic!
Robert Browning, after reading Shelley’s "Queen Mab" became, like Shelley, a
vegetarian and an atheist. Whether he remained an atheist is a matter of
speculation. It has been reported that when he was asked if he had become a
Christian later in life, Browning shook the rafters with a thunderous "NO!" But
even if the account is apocryphal, how can anyone be a good little evangelical
Christian and not make his faith perfectly clear to all the world? Heretic!
Emily Bronte was a Universalist who denied creeds as "diseases of the intellect"
and avoided prayer as a "disease of the will." She wrote . . .
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain;
worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest frost, amid the boundless main . . .
. . . Heretic!
Walt Whitman was both a Universalist and a Pantheist, who claimed to be one
with all of creation: "Divine am I inside and out," he said, "and I make holy
whatever I touch or am touch'd from." Whitman was like Jesus on steroids. But he
also said, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." So according
to Whitman we are all Jesus on steroids. Heretic!
For Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as with his namesake Dante Alighieri, salvation
came in the form of feminine beauty. Heretic!
However, it seems his sister, Christina Rossetti, may have been an actual
Christian! At long last! But unfortunately, on reading her poem below it seems
Christianity only made her miserable. And it seems she turned down marriage on
more than one occasion because of her religious beliefs. In a poem where she
attempted to explain her rejection of a suitor she was said to have loved
deeply, she called herself the "sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with his crook."
I’m reminded of Mother Teresa, who in her writings said she experienced fifty
years of "spiritual dryness." So much for the joys of being a bride of Christ.
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me, like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
Emily Dickinson called herself a pagan and never professed to have been
"saved," which excluded her from certain activities at the church she attended.
She seemed to resist the Calvinistic dogmas prevalent at her time in her area
such as "original sin" and "predestination." She also seemed not to care for the
"tortured consciences" she saw around her. Whatever her religion, it was far
from orthodox. Her poem below seems to suggest that her hope had nothing to do
with dogma or performance. In another poem she called the Bible "an antique
Volume / Written by faded men," pointed out that the boys who "believe" are
"very lonesome" and said that all the boys would come if only the song had a
more captivating "Teller," like Orpheus, whose sermon did not condemn. Heretic!
Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings a tune without words
And never stops at all.
And sweetest, in the gale, is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That keeps so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet, never, in extremity
It ask a crumb of me.
Matthew Arnold, whose "Dover Beach" may have been the first modern poem, wrote
of the "Sea of Faith" that he only heard its "melancholy, long, withdrawing
roar, / retreating, to the breath / of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
/ and naked shingles of the world." How can faith retreat into darkness, unless
one is a heretic?
Algernon Charles Swinburne was an atheist who repeatedly pilloried
Christianity. He said despairingly of Jesus Christ, "O pale Galilean, the world has grown
gray from thy breath." Heretic!
Thomas Hardy deserted Christianity for a "thoughtful agnosticism" and seemed
to agree with Nietzsche that God was dead.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is perhaps the greatest devotional poet in the English
language. His religious poems are full of striking images and sounds. Surely we
have at last found a true Christian poet! Well, he did
write a poem, "The Windhover," subtitled "to Christ our Lord." But only the bird
is described, in wonderful detail. Christ is conspicuously absent. As with the
other "more Christian" poets in this list, Hopkins seems less than enthralled
with his Lord, asking, "Comforter, where, where is your comforting? and complaining, "Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, / How would
thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost / Defeat me, thwart me?" He ends up
begging, "O thou lord of life, send my roots rain." It seems we have only
heretics, and every now and then a very dejected Christian.
A. E. Housman was an atheist who said "the house of delusions is easy to
build." After his prayers for his mother failed to save her life, it seems
Housman came to see God as non-existent, or as having abandoned his creatures,
as in his poem "Lines for my Funeral":
O thou that from thy mansion
Through time and place to roam,
Dost send abroad thy children,
And then dost call them home,
That men and tribes and nations
And all thy hand hath made
May shelter them from sunshine
In thine eternal shade:
We now to peace and darkness
And earth and thee restore
Thy creature that thou madest
And wilt cast forth no more.
—A. E. Housman
William Butler Yeats dabbled in the occult, sťances and mysticism and took
the magical name Daemon et Deus Inversus when he joined the Hermetic Society.
Whatever he was, he was hardly orthodox. Heretic!
Robert Frost called himself a "Old Testament" believer and said "my fear of
God has settled down into a deep and inward fear that my best offering may not
be acceptable in his sight." But of course in orthodox Christianity, only the
sacrifice of Jesus is of any account. Heretic!
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.
Ezra Pound moved in the same circles as Yeats and seems to have also dabbled in
occultism. He called Christianity a "bastard faith" that had been
designed to produce good, obedient slaves for the Roman Empire. Heretic!
I’m not sure what Wallace Stevens believed, if anything, but whatever it was,
it wasn’t orthodox Christianity. His family disputed reports that he
converted to Catholicism at the end of his life. Roman Catholic priests are
required to keep records of all baptisms, and there is no record of Stevens
having been baptized during his final days.
In Opus Posthumous, Stevens wrote, “After one has abandoned a belief in
god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption."
T. S. Eliot may, at long last, be our first true disciple of Jesus Christ. After
all, he is probably the most famous poet to convert to Christianity. But where are his sweet paeans to Jesus Christ and the atonement? Why
were his poems after his conversion just as dark and melancholic as his poems
before his conversion? Is there any evidence that his conversion made him happy?
Hart Crane was gay, and liked to pick up sailors. He committed suicide after
taking what seems to have been his single stab at a heterosexual relationship,
then making a shipboard pass at a male sailor and being rejected. Hardly the stuff of orthodox
I think I'll stop here. It seems obvious to me that most of the great poets were
heretics. And even
generally considered to be Christian made "salvation" sound like the darkest
religion imaginable. Where is a single happy, optimistic poem about the love of
Jesus by a great English or American poet? I rest my case.
But for people still wrestling with "the Bible says," here are some tidbits
about what the Bible really says . . .
It the Bible is the word of God, why does it contain passages of
palpable evil? Mark Twain said, "Most people are bothered by those passages of
Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do
understand." Twain was no doubt referring to passages like Numbers 31, where
Moses became enraged with his warriors for not killing defenseless women and
children; he then gave his men instructions to kill all the mature women and
male infants, keeping only virgin girls alive (obviously as sex slaves). One of
the most horrific commandments of Moses occurs in Deuteronomy 22, where he
commands that girls who had been raped be either stoned to death (a horrific
method of execution), or sold to their rapists for cash to be paid to their
fathers. The "logic" is obvious: a girl was of no value to her father once her
hymen was no longer intact, so the rapist should pay her father (in which case
he could then rape her "legally") or she should be murdered. How can this be the "word of God"? Is God an evil
moron? According to Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 31, he most certainly is.
And what sort of hypocritical "god" commands human beings to love and forgive
unconditionally, to practice chesed [mercy, compassion, lovingkindness]
and social justice, and to overcome evil with good . . . but then pants after
blood and burnt offerings like a ravenous beast?
And why did Yahweh repeatedly forget that he had created "hell," never once
mentioning it in Old Testament chronologies covering thousands of years: not even to
the worst of people at the worst of times? Why didn’t Yahweh mention "hell" to
the first murderer, Cain, or to Noah at the time of the wickedness that led to
the Great Flood, or to the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, or to the wonderfully
contumacious Pharaoh, or even to Moses when the Israelites were wandering in the
wilderness and taxing Yahweh’s patience (or rather, his lack of it) so that he
slaughtered them left and right? If Yahweh was so angry about sin, and hell was
the curb men needed (not that it has done them any good since), he should mentioned
it to Moses, at
time of the giving of the law and its punishments. But of course no one in those days believed in eternal suffering
and there was no place called "hell," only Sheol, the grave. Anyone who cares to
confirm this can do so quite easily, since all good modern translations of the
Bible lack any occurrence of the word "hell" in their Old Testaments, including
the version recently commissioned by the famously conservative Southern Baptist
Convention: the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
That there is no "hell" in the Old Testament is so obvious, it’s painful. Or
rather, it’s painful that so many Christians have tortured their children with a
hell their all-wise God completely failed to mention to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac,
Jacob/Israel, Moses, et al. And the Hebrew word Sheol, if it means "hell," contradicts
all Christian eschatology, since Job asked to be hidden from suffering in Sheol, while King David said God would be with him if he made his bed in
Sheol, and the sons of Korah said God would redeem them from Sheol. They were
all clearly speaking of the grave, not hell. If they were speaking of hell, then
obviously hell must be heaven!
So according to the Old Testament there is no hell. The Hebrew prophets spoke
at times of a general resurrection, of even Sodom being restored, and of the
lion lying down with the lamb. But when did they ever mention eternal suffering
after these blessed events took place?
Now good little orthodox Christians may hasten to "help" me by pointing out
that hell was created at the time Jesus was born, or at the time he died, or at
some other time. But that would have been a very mean trick for Yahweh to play
on mankind, wouldn’t it? After he had promised to save all creation entirely by himself
(the Old Testament never mentions the faith or works of man being required for
God to save),
at the moment of his greatest triumph . . . did he blink?
Not according to the New Testament, because in the early going the Christians
still didn’t know about hell. Jesus never said a recorded word about hell after
his resurrection, even though according to the gospels and the book of Acts, he
spoke to his disciples on a number of occasions. If there was a hell, and if
human beings were in danger of it, then surely the three great preachers of early
Christianity—Peter, Stephen and Paul—would have known about hell. But they
obviously didn’t either.
A place called "hell" or "Hades" was never mentioned by Paul in his epistles
(you can verify this quite easily by searching the HCSB and other modern
versions of the Bible for "hell" online), or in the entire book of Acts (the King James
version contains two mistranslations of the Hebrew word Sheol, which clearly
means "the grave"). Acts is supposed to be the self-recorded history of the
early Christian church, and yet there is no mention of anyone being condemned to
"hell" in Acts, even though the book records the first two sermons of Peter and
the sermon of Stephen at the time of his martyrdom, preached a mere forty days
after the crucifixion, to the very same people who had presumably been crying
out for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be killed.
If the men who murdered Jesus weren’t in danger of hell, why would anyone be?
Bible scholars generally agree that the epistles of Paul are the earliest
Christian texts. If Acts is accurate about the early sermons of Peter and
Stephen, we can safely say that from the beginning of Genesis until the deaths
of Stephen, Peter and Paul, there was no "hell." Obviously "hell" came later,
after Jerusalem was destroyed and the center of the early Christian church moved
to Greece and Rome, where ignorant people believed in "hell" because "hell" was
a great motivator for Roman emperors who wanted docile sheep to obey their
orders on cue. The emperor of Rome was the high priest of the state religions,
and a demigod himself. "Hell" was a just a tool in his superhero utility belt,
so to speak.
But even so, the Greek word Hades did not mean "hell." Like Sheol, Hades
meant the grave, and everyone went there—good and bad. Anyone who reads Greek
mythology can easily verify this. Or just check out the Wikipedia page on Hades.
To condemn someone to Sheol or Hades was merely to say they would be destroyed
in this life. Hades was separated into a blissful abode of the blessed
(often called the Elysian Fields) and a dark, fiery pit called Tartarus. So if
we want to look for evidence of someone being condemned to "hell" in our Greek
New Testaments, we should be looking for a specific word: Tartarus.
The word Tartarus appears in only one verse in the entire Bible: 2 Peter 2:4.
But this verse is about fallen angels awaiting judgment. So Tartarus is not for
human beings, and it is not eternal, according to the Bible.
If the Bible is to be believed, the only beings who need to fear hell are the
The other word commonly translated as "hell" in the New Testament is Gehenna.
But Gehenna is a physical location in Israel. At the time the Bible was written
it seems to have been a fiery, smoking landfill where trash was burned. But
today Gehenna is a lovely park. You can find pictures of it on the Internet. So
Gehenna is obviously not "hell."
And so orthodox Christianity obviously has serious credibility issues. If
there is no hell, and never was, what is there for Jesus to "save" men from? The
bloody "atonement" serves no purpose, if God is able to fulfill the prophecies
of the Hebrew prophets. How can the glorious end-time visions of the Hebrew
prophets and the life and ministry of Jesus be reconciled with a God who slavers
for blood and sacrifice?
In short, they can’t.
How then, can the Bible be explained, if men didn’t make the whole thing up?
Well, one might venture that perhaps God did reveal good and wonderful things to
the prophets, but that the black-robed priests and witchdoctors of religion kept
demanding sacrifices because in those days meat was the most valuable thing the
common folk had to offer (to the priests, not God). Then, as now, "men of God"
avoided real work and became rich, fat and lazy at the expense of more
This, of course, has never changed. The gullible still give a tenth of what
they make to the people who invented hell and use it to enslave the rest of
mankind. Why is it, have you ever wondered, that even after Christians have been
"predestined for glory" and "saved by grace" they must still constantly confess,
repent and tithe? Mark Twain, America’s foremost critic of Christianity,
discovered the secret of yo-yo-like "salvation" and put it succinctly: "I found
out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of
that, it was so ignoble." Readers who want to hear "the other side of the story"
should invest a few bucks in Twain’s excellent book "Letters from the Earth:
Uncensored Writings." It may save them small (or vast) fortunes.
Twain held up the publication of his book until fifty years after his death,
no doubt to protect his family from the witch-hunters of Orthodoxy. For the better part
of 2,000 years, merely to question the atonement was very dangerous business.
Throughout the centuries, writers and philosophers of note have been killed for
their beliefs, including Socrates, Saint Paul, Thomas More, Jan Hus, Giordano Bruno and
Michael Servetus. So Twain was both a wise and practical man.
But why should all the world have to fear the wrath of the orthodox, and what
do the orthodox have to fear so much that they regularly kill other people over
their endlessly strange beliefs?