"Many young people, even if they have exposed themselves to rottenness in their search for reality and intensity, if they get out of it in time, are still good, innocent kids, because in a backwards and self-contradictory way, they have been striving to preserve innocence."1
-Monk Damascene Christensen
Surely, there is a parallel between the darker poets of the Romantic and Victorian eras, and the anti-Christian worldview that has now come about in full-force. However, their writings and thought give us a glimpse into the world of the person who either wrestles with God or has rejected him in full force.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, arguably the greatest of the Romantic poets, walks a strange line between a kind of pseudo-worship of pagan deities and outright atheism (and indeed, he was a fervent atheist). But it is in the world of the decadents, the ones that I call the Satanic Poets, that we see nihilism and rebellion against God depicted in full force. Two poets represent this group the best to me - skipping over the youthful terror of Rimbaud, I immediately latched on to Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
For the tragic person who has rejected God, yet is fully aware that He is there, Charles Baudelaire becomes something of a soulmate. A French Catholic who struggled deeply with God his whole life, Baudelaire's infamous works such as The Flowers of Evil and Paris Spleen demonstrate the alarming agony of such a life. With stark detail and passionate fervor, he paints a horrid series of nightmarish images of death, poverty, existential angst, and nihilism.
Baudelaire's world is the world of the "eternal rebel"2, Lucifer, romanticized to the inth degree - for Baudelaire, the devil has become his only friend. But in this friendship, suddenly a whole new world, that of the demonic and the lost, opens up with a vividness found perhaps in no other writer. St. Augustine, writing 1500 years earlier, evoked the same sense of anguish found in Baudelaire: "My heart grew sombre with grief, and wherever I looked, I saw only death."3
For me, this had become true in my own life. I had latched on to Lucifer as the one and only constant in my life, the eternally rejected tragic hero, neither a force of evil or destruction, but a fallen being who questioned God and was eternally damned for it. Baudelaire's poetry gave me a voice, and in him, I found a kindred spirit. He was the one who gave my rebellion against God and practically everything else, a voice: "My Grief, give me your hand; come this way, far from them. See the Years that have died leaning over the balconies of heaven, in old-fashioned dresses; see my Regret in smiles rising up from the depths of the water..."4
My love of Algernon Charles Swinburne was of a similar and yet different sort. Unlike Baudelaire, Swinburne was a professed atheist, and yet his subdued rage against Christ betrays a quiet and yet rebellious admittance of His existence.
Where Baudelaire's poetry was violent, agonized, and furious, Swinburne's was subdued and tragically romantic. Though the "pale Galilean"5 had conquered, Swinburne's poetry still evokes an existence of living in spite of it. In essence, from Swinburne I acquired the idea of the God who punished the world for not having pity on Him as He hung from the cross. The world was conquered and subdued by Christ, and all the passions that I thought in those days made us truly human - these were now acts of rebellion, though all were pointless. The finest example of the sad romanticism of Swinburne was in his short poem, "Love and Sleep", where sex and love had almost become a dying act, a last and final push to be human in the face of an inhumane God.
The writings of these two poets scarred me to such an extent that it has taken years to recover from it all. At times, I find myself still struggling to not fall back into such abysses and pits as these poets had dug for me, and others like me. This is how truly dangerous and truly satanic their writing is. I say this, not in an alarmist or fundamentalist sense, but to point to the true nature of what much rebellion against God can entail.
This is important to know - as Christians, how can we understand the modern rebellion against God if we do not understand its chief prophets and thinkers? The core of these two poets is the abyss that forms itself in the heart of man when God is seemingly no longer there, or is outright rejected in favor of a life of passionate rebellion, the rebellion that I myself had mistaken as being "something positive and good."6 (Fr. Seraphim Rose)
In the poetry of Baudelaire and Swinburne, we see what the rejection of God really looks like; that is, a kind of interior agony and Sisyphus-like existence of pushing our respective boulders up the hill instead of carrying our crosses to the top of that hill. Their's are the exhausted souls, lashing out in bloody defiance against the unjust God who may or may not be there, and yet Whose presence these poets find inescapeable.
For myself, this was my life and worldview. It was finally conquered by my laying down my arms of rebellion and rejection, by my exhaustion at the hands of grief. "What agony I suffered, my God! How I cried out with grief, while my heart was in labour! But, unknown to me, you were there, listening."7 (St. Augustine)
Perhaps it was this thrashing about that God allowed in order that, tired, I might throw myself finally into the arms of my Redeemer8 (cf. Blaise Pascal), rather than die alone in the wilderness of my own making. To me, the Satanic Poets were the stillborns who died in their rejection of God, who refused to grow old, and remained stuck in their egoistic existence of passion, pleasure, and ultimately, both rejection of God and themselves.
1 - Death to the World, No. 1, "Perfection in Pain"
2 - Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State
3 - Confessions, IV:4
4 - "Meditation"
5 - "Hymn to Proserpine"
6 - Nihilism, pg. 74
7 - Confessions, VII:7
8 - Pensees