Scott Cairns: the T. S. Eliot of the 21st century

That this blog is named after a line from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets should be a clear indication that Eliot’s poetry has a special place in my heart. I do not exaggerate when I say that reading Eliot made me a theologian. Without his poetry, I am not sure where I would be today. That said, I could see someone like me a decade or two from now naming a blog after a line from a poem by Scott Cairns. He is without question one of the world’s finest living poets, and like T. S. Eliot, R. S. Thomas, and Denise Levertov before him (among others), his poetry engages the Christian faith in creative and surprising—not to mention truly human—ways.

Cairns writes poetry as an Orthodox Christian, though it wasn’t always so. He began Baptist, before wandering through the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches on his way toward the Orthodox Church. His journey within the Orthodox tradition is evident in his writings. After a number of beautiful books of poetry beginning with Theology of Doubt, Cairns published his first collection of poems, entitled Philokalia (meaning: “love of the beautiful”), after the Greek collection of Orthodox spiritual texts ranging from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries that was originally compiled and published in the eighteenth century. In the meantime, he went on several pilgrimages, three to Mt. Athos, the mystical and spiritual heart of Orthodoxy. These trips became a book released earlier this year called, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage. (An excerpt from this book was published in Books & Culture under the same title.)

Most recently, Cairns has published Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which is a truly marvelous collection of poems in which Cairns has “translated” selections from the early church mystics (used broadly to refer to all the spiritually and theologically important figures in the early church) into poetry. The poems all share Cairns’ distinctive style, but they bear the distinctive stamp of each church theologian. The poems are even more profound when you are familiar with the mystical-theological writings from which Cairns is drawing. One of my favorites so far is from Saint Melito of Sardis, entitled, “How It Was”:
How It Was

The earth trembled; its foundations
shook like silt; the sun, chagrined,
fled the scene, and every mundane
element scattered in retreat. The day
became the night: for light could not endure
the image of the Master hanging on a tree.
All creation was astonished, perplexed
and stammering, What new mystery is this?
The Judge is judged, and yet He holds his peace;
the Invisible One is utterly exposed, and yet
is not ashamed; the Incomprehensible is grasped,
and will not turn indignant; the Immensity
is circumscribed, and acquiesces; the absolutely
Unattainable suffers, and yet does not avenge;
the Immortal dies, and utters not a word;
the Celestial is pressed into the earthen grave,
and He endures! What new mystery is this?

The whole creation, I say, was astonished;
but, when our Lord stood up in Hades—
trampling death underfoot, subduing
the strong one, setting every captive free—
then all creation saw clearly that for its sake
the Judge was condemned, et cetera.
For our Lord, even when He deigned
to be born, was condemned in order
that He might show mercy, was bound
that He might loose, was seized
that He might release, suffered
that He might show compassion, died
that He might give life, was laid in the grave
that He might rise, might raise.

—Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), 9-10.


learnerpriest said…
My goodness, that's wonderful. Thank you for introducing this - I hadn't come across Scott Cairns before, but will be looking out for his work immediately!

Do you know Olivier Clement's book, The roots of Christian mysticism? It's an anthology of patristic texts arranged loosely by subject - it has something of a similar feel, I suspect.
dw said…
Glad to read your appreciation for Cairns, one of my favorites (and mentors). A couple of corrections:

1) His first book is actually The Theology of Doubt (Cleveland State, 1985).

2) After Theology of Doubt and before Philokalia (a new and selected poems published in 2002), he published The Translation of Babel, Figures for the Ghost, and Recovered Body).

3) Because the press that published Philokalia folded, Cairns published a new Selected Poems, Compass of Affection (Paraclete, 2006). It's good, but some of the extremely good midrash poems from Recovered Body and Philokalia are missing.

4) Besides his brilliant memoir and "translations," Cairns' most important contribution of recent vintage have been his interviews and essay on what he calls a "sacramental poetics."

I'm finishing an encyclopedia article on Cairns at the moment and will be posting a page on his work. I'll put that link on my blog.

D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for the comment. Since I own everything Cairns has written, I am quite well aware that Philokalia is not Cairns first book of poetry. I used the word "collection," by which I meant his first book of collected poems. I supposed I should have said anthology, but that word doesn't seem right to me. I generally say a "book of poetry" when it is an individual book and a "collection of poetry" when it is a collection of previous books. Awkward, I know. I'm sure there is a better way of which I am not aware.

I too am sad that the midrash poems are not in the recent collection. Those are easily some of my favorite poems in Philokalia. I wrote my own poem on Jephthah after reading his.

I look forward to reading your entry on Cairns.
D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for the comment. I had not heard of Clement's book, but it sounds really interesting. Definitely be on the lookout for Cairns. I highly recommend Philokalia if you can get your hands on it (used copies are a bit steep). Otherwise, Recovered Body and Figures for the Ghost are my two favorite books.
dw said…
Ok, so in my enthusiasm for Cairns' work, perhaps I came off as a bit of the pedant. Let me edit.

"A couple of additional details for those who don't know Cairns' work"