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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Cosmic poetry, Tasso to Teilhard

After Teilhard's short story The Painting (1916);
with a digital background by Selkis;
The Sacred Heart by Pompeo Batoni (1767);
book cover picture from Fra Angelico

The "Christian cosmic" poetical genre was launched in western literature by Torquato Tasso with his long poem Il Mondo Creato, that the regular readers of this blog may happen to have already heard of. Tasso's descriptions most probably inspired the "song" of creation in Milton's Paradise Lost, bk 7. Paradoxically, or maybe not, the genre did not experience a revival after the scientific revolution of the 19th century -- though hints at evolution already existed in Tasso himself, depending on his main source, the Sermons on Genesis by St. Basil the Great, who in his turn depended on Greek science/philosophy. Studying the past paved the way to the future. William Blake's cosmic myths in fact date back to few decades before the epoch of Charles Darwin (he made some illustrations for a book written by Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus).

In a sense, a fascinating poem singing the marvels of the "modern" universe can be considered E. A. Poe's book Eureka, or at least, Poe said that "it is as a poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead." And in this sense, we could read as a Christian and inspired poem Fr. Pierre Teilhard De Chardin's descriptions of the cosmos. The book whose cover is shown above is an Italian version of the French anthology Himne de l'univers; it was first published in 1961, immediately before the Teilhard-mania broke out worldwide (after his death in 1955, since he had been prevented from publishing his theological essays by his superiors of the Jesuit Order). The anthology includes some 80 brief passages from Teilhard's main works, but is remarkable especially because of two literary texts of 1916 and 1919, in which he does not provide theories but powerful 'optical' experiences: The Christ in Matter, three short tales after the manner of R. H. Benson, and The Spiritual Power of Matter, a Jacob-like struggle of the author himself with a mysterious entity. Here are the first lines, though just a translation of a translation:
The Man, followed by a companion, was walking in the desert when the Thing assailed him.
From afar it had looked very small, crawling on the sand, not bigger than a palm of the hand of a baby; a yellow and elusive shadow. . .
The Thing seemed not to bother about the two wayfarers; it wandered whimsically across that wilderness. But suddenly making the direction of its movements clearer, it darted definitely towards them like an arrow.