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Feminine Irony in the Religious Poetry of Gwyneth Lewis

Daniel SZABO


Analyser l’ironie féminine dans la poésie d’une poète galloise écrivant en anglais semble en soi assez ironique pour un critique français. C’est pourquoi il paraît pertinent de faire appel à un autre critique français, Frédéric Regard, qui, dans La Force du Féminin, suggère que le féminin opère principalement dans l’ironie. L’ironie chez Gwyneth Lewis, première “National Poet” du Pays de Galles, est surprenante car elle est utilisée principalement en rapport à, ou même à l’encontre de, semble-t-il, de la religion comme pour mettre une distance avec le lecteur, avec le critique mais surtout une distance entre le poète et Dieu. Pourtant Lewis le confesse, elle se considère bien comme un (e) poète religieux mais son ironie lui permet de s’affirmer en tant que poète travaillant sur et avec les mots tout en évitant tout sentimentalisme et en anticipant les critiques. Son ironie semble ainsi lui permettre petit à petit d’en venir à ce qui est selon elle l’objectif de son travail en tant que poète du sacré: faire l’éloge de Dieu.

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1As the critic starts this article entitled ‘Feminine Irony in the religious poetry of Gwyneth Lewis’, he is fully aware of the irony at play here: a French man, non Welsh speaker, attempting to analyse the feminine irony – if such a thing exists – of a Welsh woman poet writing in both English and Welsh. He is also aware and even slightly scared of Virginia Woolf’s warning: “it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. [...] And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.” (Woolf 1989, 99-100) He therefore cowardly calls to his rescue a fellow French critic – also a man – Frédéric Regard, whose seminal essay La Force du Féminin describes the “feminine” as a “post-feminism” in which the “post” does not denegate its past, takes it into account but also opens another space (Regard, 6). In his essay, he argues that the “feminine” operates essentially in irony, within itself and for itself, beyond or under oppositions. The feminine reinvents a difference: it is a gesture, a style, a form which sweeps away figures. It is an act of delinquency that disobeys the commonplaces of a coherent and totalitarian system. (Regard, 7) It is strictly in that sense that the adjective feminine will be relevent in this study.

  • 1  Chaotic Angels refers to the book published in 2005 whereas ‘Chaotic Angels’ refers to the sequenc (...)

2 Irony seems to be particularly present in the poetry of Gwyneth Lewis who, in 2005, was made first National Poet of Wales; she writes and publishes poetry both in English and Welsh. In 2005 she published Chaotic Angels (CA)1 which collects her three books of poetry in English Parables & Faxes, Zero Gravity and Keeping Mum. She is perhaps most well-known and acclaimed for her bilingualism and the way she symbolises a generation of Scottish and Welsh poets stemming from Devolution who tend to resist to Mother England and its concept of anglicity. Marc Porée suggests that “her almost sole interrogation is a quest for an emancipation from the infantilising thought of a mother tongue inextricably linked to the mother land”. (Porée, 311) This need and desire for independence is of course also present in irony. Bernard Brugière finds Gwyneth Lewis to be close to “the heart of things” as she practices what he calls an “ascetism of perception, engaging in an almost mystical quest of being thanks to a transvaluation of sensory data.” (Brugière, 266) As with irony, transvaluation enables the shift of the evaluative connotation from negative to positive, or inversely, relying on the two vocabularies that seem to be availabe to describe things (one positive and one negative).

3 If language is at the very heart of her craft as with any good poet, it is maybe even more central for her because of the tension created by growing up with two languages – a tension not unlike that of another major Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, whose influence Gwyneth Lewis acknowledges in her obituary of Thomas for The Guardian on September 27, 2000. However, one also feels in her poetry – as in R. S. Thomas’s poetry – an ambiguous relationship with a God, most likely Christian, sometimes kept at bay through irony sometimes very close because of suffering. This religious theme can be traced in the title of her collection Chaotic Angels but also in the title of the first and last poems collected: ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Christ as Angel of the Will of God’. The adjective “chaotic” in the title summons up Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ where she argues in her conclusion that “we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition.” (Woolf 1966, 335) Woolf would probably turn in her grave to see her use of the words “truth” and “chaotic” linked to Gwyneth Lewis’ chaotic angels, as her angels are divine messengers even if they are of the ordinary, every day kind as in her poem ‘Minimal Angel’ (CA, 184): “Angel of dust, / angel of stem cells, of pollen grains” and humourously: “Angel of dog smells, angel of stairs, / of gardening, marriage.” Etymologically an angel is a messenger of God, it is a holy creature “yet endowed with free will, and therefore not necessarily impervious to temptation and sin.” (Douglas, 37) The word holy means separate, set apart: angels are thus divine messengers set apart from the other creatures but Lewis seems to be deflating the nature of angels by implying that anything can be the bearer of a message.

4 According to Regard, irony can be one of the major modes whereby women reinvent themselves or simply to express their “otherness”, their alterity – an alterity that welcomes opposites – (Regard, 7) as irony allows a certain distance from the “I”, as well as a distance from the reader but more importantly from authority, from the doxa, and maybe from men. This irony develops in turn into a kind of freedom or independence as the French philosopher Proudhon puts it in a more political context: “Ironie, vraie liberté!” (Proudhon, 292) If, according to him, it frees man from the ambition of power, from the enslavement to political parties and to routine it also liberates him from the adoration of the self. This liberation from the self is exactly what Virginia Woolf does not detect in the writings of Mr. A, which she, somewhat ironically, finds at first “delightful” and “admirable”, “so direct, so straightforward”, writing with “such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself”, the mind of someone who had clearly “never been thwarted or opposed.” (Woolf 1966, 99) Yet after a few pages she comes across a shadow, “a straight dark bar”, shaped something like the letter ‘I’” which makes this man’s writing boring and arid. (100) Woolf uses irony to serve her purpose and to denounce men’s apparent freedom which turns into the egotistical dominance of the phallic “I”.

5 If irony can liberate one from the tyranny of the self and from that of others, it also has negative connotations derived from a possible misconception of Socrates’ feigned ignorance. Hegel considers irony – especially romantic irony which almost elevates the self to a divinity – to be the final stage in the degradation of subjective morality, the moment when subjectivity expresses itself in its absolute negativity. Hegel sees irony as a total emancipation from the objective good and as the supreme exaltation of subjectivity which he describes as hypocrisy in its universal essence. (Larouche-Tanguay, 269) In a similar vein, the contemporary French philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that irony is the negative, agressive alter ego of humour characterised by spite and animosity. (Comte-Sponville, 279) According to him, irony is not a virtue but a weapon turned almost always against others. (282) He differentiates humour from irony as humour heals where irony hurts and destroys; irony seeks to dominate where humour gives freedom, irony is merciless but humour is merciful. (290) The American poet Charles Bernstein admits that he prefers humour over irony as he sees irony merely as a negation of affirmation, a dissembler, a deceiver, a “set-up in which the ‘real’ meaning is the opposite of the surface meaning.” (Aji, 351) Bernstein gives the example of Jastrow’s drawing of the duck and the rabbit as an archetype of irony to show its ambiguity but one can argue, of course, that reading a drawing of a duck as that of a rabbit is not just a binary question of interpretation or a “way of seeing”, as Wittgenstein argues about Jastrow’s drawing, but that by being both creative and ambiguous it can be an opening to various possibilities instead of an exclusion of meaning by narrowing down interpretation. Indeed, if the idea of deceiving and dissembling is certainly implicit in the Greek etymology of the word irony, it is also essentially a questioning with, therefore, a more positive slant which William Dow describes as “an awareness of the discrepancy between reality and appearance”. (Dow, 179) He relies on Lilian Furst’s description of the ironist as being “often conscious of a choice between several possibilities, none of which has complete validity and all of which are exposed to question. After exploring every possibility, he may well find himself (and, incidentally place us) in a labyrinth of doubts”. (Furst, 11)

6 This last definition opens a positive perspective that would seem to be more in keeping with the religious poetry of Gwyneth Lewis. Finally, Sören Kierkegaard considers, in On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (CI), that irony can be a “stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute.” (CI, 121) Kierkegaard also emphasises the importance of doubt which he compares to irony and deems vital for man. What is interesting for the study of Gwyneth Lewis’s poetry and her use of irony is that according to Kierkegaard, “irony always involves a contradiction (or opposition) between the external and the internal, between the ironist’s inner state and his outward behavior.” (Cross, 127) Schlegel even defines irony as the “form of paradox” (Larouche-Tanguay 275) and one of the paradoxes of a poet using irony lies in the fact that “irony is in the process of isolating itself; it does not wish to be generally understood.” (CI, 248-9) Kierkegaard describes the freedom inherent in irony in that when one is saying what he means and is understood by another person then one is bound by what has been said: “I am also bound with respect to myself and cannot free myself any time I wish. If, however, what I said is not my meaning or the opposite of my meaning, then I am free in relation to others and to myself.” (247-248) He considers then that Socrates “stood ironically above every relationship”. (182) Kierkegaard understands the cogito in relation to irony: “The phrase ‘know yourself’ means: separate yourself from the other.” (177) In that sense it is also a liberating answer to any kind of exclusion as the subject voluntarily becomes separate, denying others the power to exclude him. This is why he comes to call irony the “awakening of subjectivity” as the subject comes to realise one’s separateness and independence from the outside world, from other human beings and from history itself.

7 However, Kierkegaard admits that the “ironist’s freedom is merely ‘negative’: it is the freedom from the constraints of immediacy, but not the positive freedom that would consist in realizing a life that is genuinely his own”. (Cross, 138) As Kierkegaard puts it: “In irony, the subject is continually retreating, taking every phenomenon out of its reality in order to save itself – that is, in order to preserve itself in negative independence of everything” (CI, 257). The problem for the ironist becomes thus his position towards his own irony; if he does not include himself in his irony then he is not comprehensive and therefore not entirely coherent, if on the other hand he takes an ironic posture towards himself he loses the one aspect that is essential to his irony: the sense of his own difference and even superiority. Kierkegaard resolves this question by drawing an analogy with religious devotion:

Insofar as irony ... pronounces the same thesis as the pious mentality [that is, that immediate existence is “vanity” and is not to be identified with], irony might seem to be a kind of religious devotion. If I may put it this way, in religious devotion the lower actuality, that is, the relationships with the world, loses its validity, but this occurs only insofar as the relationships with God simultaneously affirm their absolute reality. The devout mind also declares that all is vanity, but this is only insofar as through this negation all disturbing factors are set aside and the eternally existing order comes into view. Add to this the fact that if the devout mind finds everything to be vanity, it makes no exception of its own person... In irony, however, since everything is shown to be vanity, the subject becomes free. The more vain everything becomes, all the lighter, emptier, and more volatilized the subject becomes. And while everything is in the process of becoming vanity, the ironic subject does not become vain in his own eyes but rescues his own vanity.” (257-258)

8If at first the use of irony for a religious poet can seem paradoxical as it can appear as a kind of dishonesty or even hypocrisy, Kierkegaard’s definition of irony establishes an interesting bridge between irony and faith, irony and devotion, irony and praise, of particular interest in regard to the poetry of Gwyneth Lewis.

9 Verbal irony is the favoured trope in the first poem of the book ‘Pentecost’, (CA, 10) so much so that the reader cannot be sure that Gwyneth Lewis is not actually deriding the church and religion in general. The incipit is both humourous and ironic: “The Lord wants me to go to Florida” as she likens herself to Moses when asked to stand up and go wherever the Lord would lead him as a sign of faith. She seems to be mocking charismatic Christians, especially pentecostals who tend to receive direct words of knowledge from God and easily say that God has told them to do something. Of course the destination here – Florida – is not the usual destination for missionaries who usually feel compelled to go to places such as China, Africa or the Middle East and not sunny and comfortable Florida, the home of holiday makers and retirees. She announces then that she “shall cross the border with the mercury thieves” playing on the double-entendre of “mercury” as God of thieves and as a synonym of quicksilver which describes something that changes quickly and is difficult to contain. In the third line of the poem: “as foretold in the faxes and prophecies”, she alludes to her future sequence – the eponymous title of her first book of poems: Parables & Faxes. Here the word “prophecies” replaces the word “parables” as it is central to Pentecostal churches which rely heavily on prophecies and revelations passed on by the Holy Spirit.

10 The title of the poem refers to that particular prostestant denomination but also to the particular event in Church history when the Holy Spirit comes down on the first Christians assembled on the Jewish feast of Pentecost – one of the three pilgrimage festivals required in the law of Moses – fifty days after Passover. (Acts 2:1-4) In her poem, Lewis refers to this passage which, according to the apostle Peter in his address to the crowd in Acts 2, is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 that God will send his Spirit and that the “sons and daughters shall prophesy”. Lewis claims with irony that her “glossolalia / shall be [her] passport”. Her irony verges on the blasphemy as she mixes Biblical language with common lingo: “I shall taste the tang / of travel in the atlas of my tongue” and “all men in the Spirit shall understand / that, in His wisdom, the Lord has sent / a slip of a girl to save great Florida.” Glossolalia is the technical term for speaking in tongues which in Pentecostal churches is considered a direct manifestation of the Holy Spirit and is called the language of angels.

11 Lewis manages to use irony on several planes as she mixes literal with figurative meanings and metaphors with puns recalling the conceits of the metaphysical poets. Of course this Welsh “slip of a girl” literally speaks in tongues as she is bilingual and has also learnt to speak French and Italian; the slip is also the slip of the tongue as well as a reminder of the Fall and the tang is not only a strong sensation on the tongue but the distinctiveness of the Welsh girl as well as the extension of the blade into the handle as though to infer that this girl has indeed a sharp tongue. The Middle English etymology of tang also denotes a snake’s tongue underlying in the consonance and alliteration in “s” starting in the second stanza with “glossolalia”, “passport”, “taste”, “atlas”, “salt”, “sour”, “sweet”, “Spirit”, “sent”, “slip” and “save”. Irony is present in the adjective “great” that qualifies Florida and draws attention to the fact that it is usually the great America that sends men to “save” the rest of the world from the one “s” word absent in the poem: sin. But as one might expect with Lewis by now, “save” is also linked to the passages in Acts and in Joel that talk about salvation for those who call on the Lord and if in Lewis’ poem “in Sofia / thousands converted and hundred slain / In the Holy Spirit along the Seine”, in Acts 2:41, “the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”

12 In the last stanza, she jeers ironically at the idea of revelation (“All this was revealed”) as used in Pentecostal churches and after having played on the vocabulary of these churches (“standing flame”, “slain in the Holy Spirit”, “revived”) she closes with two more references to the Bible: “Atlantic closes” as did the Red Sea on the Egyptians and “the sheet of time is rent” recalling the veil of the temple which rent from top to bottom just after Christ’s death. Lewis’ poem is of course not just an ironic statement on Pentecostals as it tackles the question of interpretation – of languages, signs, prophecies and literary texts as well as sacred ones. Even the form of the poem seems to be questioning poetic form in general as the poem consists of six sestets with a regular rhyme scheme (abbacc), though all the rhymes are only partial, with the rhyme in “a” being reproduced all through the poem (Florida, glossolalia, America, Torah). Finally the irony, as in Comte-Sponville’s definition, becomes almost spiteful as Lewis seems to be attacking America’s syncretism of religion with materialism: “O Florida / revived, look forward to your past, / and prepare your perpetual Pentecost / of golf course and freeway, shopping mall and car”.

13 The allusion to golf courses leads the reader to another poem full of ironic religious connotations: ‘A Golf-Course Resurrection’, (CA, 27) a title that cannot be read without a smile. As in the title of the book Parables & Faxes, Lewis surprises the reader with her use of anachronisms. Her analogy of a golf-course with Golgotha (“high on a mountain”) and of golfers with penitents is achieved through puns and allusions. The fact that the “greens are kind as mercy” recalls one of God’s attributes: “the Lord thy God is a merciful God” (Deuteronomy 4:31) as well as the link between God’s mercy and Christ’s resurrection: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3) And if “the course [is] / an airy, open paradox” so is the nature of Christ both human and divine. Golfers seem to be a favourite target of the poet as they represent an affluent society at play but in her simile she also scoffs at penitents mutilating themselves in a possibly erroneous interpretation of Matthew 16:24: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Once again, Lewis uses mainly puns related to the vocabulary of golf and conceit to support her irony: “The golfers move like penitents, / shouldering bags and counting strokes / towards the justices of handicap and par.” Their golf bags and the strokes that they play become the physical burden and the self-imposed stigmata that will come back at the end of the poem in the “albatross” they manage to score (three strokes under par) reminiscent of Coleridge’s “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung” with its play on Christian symbolism. The resurrection in Lewis’ poem is that of an old phurnacite plant and tips turned into a golf course, grimed men “working the furnace” into “primary colours and leisurewear”. The Welsh wind “as sharp as blessing” acts as the Holy Spirit and “brings its own tears”. So many of Lewis’ words can be distorted to fit into the golf lexicon or the religious one, “the mess below” reminds one of the mass, the “angles” that the golfers analyse recall the angels that inhabit her later sequence, these men dressed in white are the “chosen ones” of a different kind, the “bunkers” are “their own despair” from which they can finally be redeemed thanks to the “albatross”. The religious metaphor running through the poem is rather incongruous and one is not sure whether the poet turns her irony only towards golfers or whether she includes Christianity in her derision. The final irony is to be found in the form of the poem which follows an original pattern composed of two octaves, one quatrain and one thirteen line stanza for a total of thirty-three lines summoning up the presumed age of Christ on his death and resurrection.

14 It seems already possible after only two poems to suggest that Lewis’s irony apparently confirms Jankélévitch’s definition of irony as “the power to play, to fly in the air, to juggle with contents; either to negate them or to re-create them.” (Jankélévitch, 17-18) If one is still hesitant to call her poetry religious because the religious themes seem to be undermined by her irony, the sequence ‘Parables and Faxes’ might help the reader to understand her meaning. In an interview with Ian Gregson, Gwyneth Lewis explains how she came to the idea of a sequence called ‘Parables and Faxes’:

I had noticed two strands merging from my writing. One was the straight “I” poems, in which a poetic self was the protagonist, poems which look autobiographical (but which may not be) and a more indirect way of conveying one experience in terms of another. This looks like a parable but can be a more accurate way of describing autobiography in code than the “I” narratives. What I discovered is that neither mode of exploring reality is watertight and that both bleed into each other so that at the end of the sequence I could no longer tell whether any individual poem was a “fax” (a direct copy of my personal experience) or a parable (reality described in the third person). (Gregson, 54-55)

15The parable seems therefore to be the perfect place for a distanciation from the self and thus for the poet to exercise her irony as in ‘Oxford Booklicker’ (CA, 58) where she starts with a take-off of Ezekiel 3 where God asks the prophet to eat the scroll of the Scriptures. In the poem the “I” is “voracious / for the Word”, literally, as it licks “the fat from all the books” and feasts “on spaghetti sentences”. Nerys Williams considers that this poem is a perfect example of how Lewis uses humour to help her “celebrate the multiple identities that different cultural models exert” instead of “berating this cultural confusion, or privileging one model above another”. (Williams, 25) This is why according to Williams “humour is always an alluring strategy for a poet. It allows one to examine in Lewis’s words, painful or even taboo subjects in a shared space.” (24) Williams thus distinguishes humour from irony that she sees as an “armour against articulating meaning” when humour “may be seen as a more generous gesture.” (23) If it is true that Lewis uses humour maybe even more than she uses irony, ‘Oxford Booklicker’ (CA, 58) finishes nonetheless on a sharp note of irony. Despite feeding on books, the “I” of the poem confesses that there are “still – no prophecies.” Yet the “I” would like to be a messenger, a prophet speaking God’s words: “I am the fruit / of God’s expressiveness to man”, so that finally the “I” can say: “When I am ripe / I shall know and then you’ll see the caravans, / processions, fleets, parades come from my mouth [...] when I’m empty I shall open wide / and out will come fountains for the chosen few / to bathe in.” Glossolalia precedes the redeeming waters of the fountain of life as though the persona’s words could substitute themselves to the Word.

16‘Siege’ (CA, 62), the twelth poem of the sequence, is a fax, yet even her faxes cannot be taken too literally as the poem starts humourously and ironically: “My God! in the hands of a lunatic / and taken hostage!” until the ironic voice of the poem seems to have dried out and through its distanciation and liberation managed to become more vulnerable, more honest and even moving – which irony, generally refuses to be:

They say I love him
but it’s only fear

of life without him, all on my own,
without the excitement
or the charm of a gun
to my head, feeling wanted, part of a ‘we’,
not perched on a lonely
column of I. (‘Siege’, CA, 62)

17In poem XIII of the sequence, a parable, Lewis refers with irony to the Old Testament battles when “the Angel of the Lord” was with the people of Israel and enabled them to win battles and kill their enemies: “Killing two thousands – the Angel of the Lord / was with us, bless this deadly Lord / and his fatal Angel”. (CA, 63) Yet once again the poet’s irony turns into what can be read as a confession of faith, however ironic it may also seem: “those who win / are those who lose the fight with him”, referring to Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord and being blessed whilst having his hip dislocated – the ultimate example of the possibly paradoxical relationship with God made up of struggle and surrender. With these poems Lewis is clearly moving from an ironic approach of religious themes to what she describes as “an unusually masochistic degree of self-revelation or, even, exhibitionism” when discussing the similarities between the joke and the poem. (Lewis 1998, 17)

18In poem XXIV, ‘Chernobyl Icon’, (CA, 74) still another parable as if to prove that the distanciation possible through parables is closely linked to irony, the persona of the poem starts with a tautology that is humourous despite the serious and even dramatic subject matter: “I saw a vision”. The false prophet – for no prophet would start with such a pleonasm – travels time starting from the Chernobyl catastrophe, blending scientific language with spiritual metaphor: “the showers’ rods / failed to restore / innocence / to the reactor’s core.” Once again she uses religiously connotated vocabulary to add a metaphysical perspective to a physical, atomic disaster. Emulating Hopkins’ depiction of another tragedy in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Lewis succeeds in moving the reader thanks to a beautiful danse macabre and despite the terrible sense of monotony that the banalisation resulting from constant media attention produces: “while men in lead / joined in the dancing, / already dead.” She then moves back in time recalling Judas, Christ and Elijah and then, even further back to the time of Creation just after the original chaos: “at the edge of time / Christ is baptised / in a gentle stream / and fish come to nibble, / the stars to see / God become one / with the burning flesh / that falls from men’s bones / at the blinding flash.” Irony once again appears to be one of Lewis’s preferred modes to address “painful or taboo” themes perhaps in order to counteract a possible negative response from the secular reader.

19In the eponymous epilogue to ‘Parables and Faxes’, poem XXV, a saint from the west, Parable, meets his counterpart from the east, Fax. Parable is dazzled by the sun as he:

                                             used his eyes

to squint and focus, distance and transform

hints from nature into another order

which his imagination could explain. (CA, 75)

20Fax on the contrary uses “straight observation, / simple facts lit from afar, / seen in themselves by long attention / and strict devotion to things as they are”. But despite their contrasting methods they both come to the same conclusion:

And then they knew they were bound to fail

and once they knew this they were suddenly full

of a better emptiness, wordless and wide, (CA, 76)

21In a typical Christian act of humility and abandonment they are transformed and redeemed as they accept their failures which are transcended by their God to whom they can finally return with a renewed vision and desire to praise:

And they knew this was right by the quenching thirst

which turned them – one with his face to the sun,

the other his neck – and sent them home

to do what they could with provisional praise

and their partial vision, both overcome

by a conversation they’d scarely begun. (CA, 76)

22If praise allows parable and fax to transcend their failures it also seems to allow Lewis to transcend her irony or her doubts as the angels of dog smells and of roundabouts in ‘Minimal Angel’ (CA, 184) come to a similar conclusion: “You were made for this – prayer.” Lewis acknowledges the importance of praise in an interview with Richard Poole where she dispels the remaining doubts about her faith:

Faith is a gift, which I enjoy to the full when I have it, and I do think that praise is perhaps the most important stance a poet can take, because it puts the rest of the world into perspective [...] The big leap forward came for me when I realised that I was primarily a religious poet. This was a tremendous liberation in relation to language because it means that the values which are most important to me reside not in any one language, but beyond language itself. To me language is only a servant in the project of praising God, and can never be an end in itself. Of course I delight in language endlessly, but if you regard it as a wonderful carriage that can only take you part of the way towards expressing what you want, then you don’t get too attached to it or too annoyed when you finally have to get out and walk. (Poole, 26-27)

23Lewis’s paradoxical position is visible throughout the twelve sonnets contained in the sequence Chaotic Angels that closes her book. In the first poem ‘Pagan Angel’ (CA, 180) she offers the answer of the immanent, omnipresent God to the ironic question that opens the poem and therefore the sequence: “You ask me how it is we know / God’s talking, not us.” This time it is the person she is addressing who takes the position of the ironist and her answer at the end of the poem is emblematic of another Welsh religious poet, R. S. Thomas: “You ask me again: / ‘Where’s the angel acoustic?’ / My dear, the curlew. The quickening rain.”

24In ‘Angel of Depression’ (CA, 185) she allows her irony to deal with the suffering of the soul as a poet who has experienced herself depression despite her faith; yet she does not want to offer cheap, easy answers to suffering: “Don’t say it’s an honour to have fought / with depression’s angel.” The conclusion is typical of irony as the reader can take her final words in two opposite ways: “Oh yes, I’m broken but my limp / is the best part of me. And the way I hurt.” In its counterpart poem ‘Angel of Healing’ (CA, 189), Lewis suggests that the way to healing is to realise that this suffering whether useful or not reminds one of an essential truth, the evanescence of life as opposed to a vision of eternity:

Every disease is a work of art

if you play it rightly. Of course, it hurts

like hell, but can be used

as a reminder that your mind

is not on its business, which is ‘now’,

however painful. (CA, 189)

25Once again, praise instead of irony seems to have become the advocated response, but not just any praise, the praise of a poet working through form and restrictions as a symbol of life’s meandering and suffering:

By this he meant: whatever the form

imposed by arthritis, or by gout,

your job’s to compose yourself round about

its formal restrictions, and make that sing,

even to death. (CA, 189)

26Lewis’s pun on the verb “to compose” reminds one of another poet who can be called religious and whose use of humour, irony and puns is possibly unequalled in contemporary poetry – Geoffrey Hill in the conclusion of his poem ‘Men Are a Mockery of Angels’ (Hill, 78): “But we are commanded / To rise, when, in silence, / I would compose my voice”.

27 As she closes her series of twelve sonnets all divided into two equal seven-line stanzas she establishes one more link between irony and religion in her penultimate sonnet, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Complex’ (CA, 190): “The Complex orders know what chaos is for – / that’s self-forgetting – and, greatest of all, / is the Angel of Not Knowing a Thing Any More.” Indeed, if irony is a kind of faked ignorance, Lewis depicts here the last and foremost angel – before depicting Christ the ultimate angel in the last poem – and this angel is the one that helps in acknowledging one’s ignorance, simplicity, lack and need as in the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) as opposed to the spiritually proud and self-sufficient.

28 The twelfth sonnet which concludes the sequence but also the whole collection is entitled ‘Christ as Angel of the Will of God’ (CA, 191); it is the only sonnet of the sequence composed of an octave and a sestet as though to restore one of the original forms of the sonnet. It is clearly a poem of resolution and yet it does not prevent Lewis from using irony one last time: “What would it be to move beyond / our need for angels? Just to relax / might take us a century. To like / that sensation, longer.” She longs for perfect understanding, perfect expression that would make angels disposable: “Not to need messages about / but to be, instead, a literal place / we have a map for?” But would that not then make her an angel herself? Yet the ultimate angel can maybe reconcile all opposites, all paradoxes in his own suffering which, according to Galatians 5, brings freedom from bondage:

To be free

to gather bouquets of nettles? to be

those passionate kisses? that hot pain?

Not to mind hurting because you see /

Christ bringing cool dock leaves of mercy. (CA, 191)

29Not unlike R. S. Thomas, her predecessor as Wales’s foremost religious poet, Lewis does not avoid the pain and suffering inherent in life but finishes with a note of Christian hope that counterbalances the irony which she uses to keep some distance with her subject. But if Lewis concludes with the image of the soothing leaves generally applied on the sting made by nettles it is because she longs for the freedom to gather these bouquets of nettles rather than avoid the pain that she describes earlier as “a work of art”. If she concludes with Christ and puts aside irony it is also because she does not want to be like the woman in ‘Ménage à Trois’ (CA, 118) who could have been her alter ego: “Considered anodyne / in social circles, this spinster soul / was slowly dying of irony / like a consumption.”

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1  Chaotic Angels refers to the book published in 2005 whereas ‘Chaotic Angels’ refers to the sequence published in Keeping Mum (2003), likewise Parables & Faxes refers to the book published in 1995 whereas ‘Parables and Faxes’ refers to the sequence at the end of that book.

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Daniel SZABO, « Feminine Irony in the Religious Poetry of Gwyneth Lewis »E-rea [En ligne], 6.1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2008, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Daniel SZABO

Université de Paris VII

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