Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Tragic World of the Satanic Poets

"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  

Ten years ago, if someone had asked me who my favorite poet was, I would have rattled off a list of decadents, masochists, rebels, and atheists; sure, I would have snuck the quiet poetry of Robert Frost in there somewhere but for the most part, I was swept off my feet by the tragic literary rebellions of everyone from Shelley to Baudelaire.

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


  1. Indeed, those are poets of the darkness of Absence, not the pregnant and even more terrible darkness of the Presence of God - in the latter category, St John of the Cross perhaps. Nowhere, however, I would tend to think, is the distressing ambiguity of human desire better painted than in Baudelaire's Hymne a la Beauté.

  2. I've never read much poetry, and have, perhaps thankfully, never read the authors you mention (although, I have to say I do admire Mary Shelley's book :)

    But, I can relate, in a sense, because I've delved deep into philosophy and particularly the work of Ayn Rand, who was a masterful psychological / ideological manipulator. It took decades to unravel the web her ideas enveloped me in, and it will probably take the rest of my life to undo the damage I caused to myself and to my view of other people. It took a long time to understand why people called her a cult-like figure, and I saw how, despite apparently impeccable logic, she was fundamentally wrong (starting with the concept of value - if all values depend on a valuer, then all values are subjective, yes? I never did get a satisfactory answer to these kinds of questions, except to be told we have to start with certain *assumptions*)

    I won't say this time spent in such a huge diversion was a waste, as it was instructive and formative. I don't see that I would have chosen any other course at the time. I still find myself falling into the doubts those ideas raised, but this is a good thing. Doubts give us (and God) the opportunity to find and reinforce the (right) answers.

    I tell people often enough, a plant does not grow strong unless exposed to the weather, being battered by the wind causes micro-fractures which lead to strengthening. I also read, not too long ago, some quotes from St. Paul of the Cross:

    "Be thankful for your precious trials, both interior and exterior; it is thus that the garden of Jesus is adorned with flowers, that is, with acts of virtue!"
    "The more deeply the cross penetrates, the better; the more deprived of consolation that your suffering is, the purer it will be; the more creatures oppose us, the more closely shall we be united to God."
    "Believe me, afflictions, fears, desolations, dryness, abandonment, temptations, and other persecutions make an excellent broom, which sweeps from your soul all the dust of hidden imperfections."
    "Have you ever noticed rocks in the sea, beaten by the tempest? A furious wave dashes against the rock, another and yet another does likewise, yet the rock is unmoved. But look at it after the storm has subsided, and you will see that the flood has but served to wash and purify it of the defilement it had contracted during the calm. From now on I wish you to be as a rock. A wave dashes against you? Silence! It assails you ten, a hundred, a thousand times? Silence! Say, at most, in the midst of the storm, "My Father, my Father, I am all Thine! 0 dear, o sweet will of God, I adore Thee !"
    "The statue must be chiseled with very sharp tools before it is fit to be placed in the grand gallery."
    "The holy gospel tells us that unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat, and does not bear fruit. But the poor grain by being sown, how much must it not suffer to die and fructify! It must endure rain, snow, wind, and sun. The soul is a seed that God sows in the field of holy Church; to fructify, it must die by dint of pain, contradiction, and persecution."
    "I wish that all men could understand the great favor that God grants them when, in His goodness, He sends them suffering, and especially suffering devoid of all consolation; for then the soul, like gold which is purified in the fiery crucible, is cleansed, made beautiful, detached from earthly things, and united to the Sovereign Good, without even being conscious of it."
    "Remember that true holiness is accompanied by pains and tribulations from within and without, by attacks of visible and invisible enemies, by trials of body and mind, by desolations and prolonged dryness; "and all that will live in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12) -that is to say, all sorts of trials from demons, from men, and from our rebellious flesh."

    1. Sometimes I'm pretty slow on the uptake. It just dawned on me this morning (at least, in a very conceptual sense), that the fact I was such a staunch atheist, and practically overnight converted to Catholicism, is nothing short of remarkable - and so reflects God's glory :)

  3. Jason, we should write a book on this.
    Like Dr Edward Feser that wrote in The Last Superstition the impact of Hume and Kant among others on modern atheist society.
    Pedro Erik

  4. I mean, YOU should write a book
    Sorry. I do not have the minimum requirement.