BY JAKE MORLEY, INTERVIEWED on October 10, 2018
In one of his many essays on Milton, Northrop Frye defines the epic poem as a ‘special kind’ of narrative poem that does more than simply recount a heroic narrative; the epic, he argues, additionally offers an ‘encyclopedic quality, . . . distilling the essence of all the religious, philosophical, political, even scientific learning of its time’. If done well, it will be the ‘definitive poem for its age’. For those interested in the intersection of poetry and theology, not to mention all general lovers of poetry, one of the major publishing events of recent years must surely be the 2018 publication of Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets (Baylor University Press), a work that aspires to fulfill the considerable demands of Frye’s attributes of an epic by offering a sweeping engagement with Western culture’s last five hundred years while it also looks ahead to a heavenly fulfillment that transcends the possibility of any human culture.
O’Siadhail has been a friend of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in St Andrews since he was invited to visit several years ago by co-founder Trevor Hart. On the occasion of his recent visit to St Andrews to give a reading, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with O’Siadhail about his new poems and about poetry in general. In both my conversation with him and my reading of his new book, three aspects of The Five Quintets stand out: intellectual breadth, artistic responsibility, and eschatological generosity. In an era of public discourse that often swings wildly between harsh rhetorical attacks against opponents and an unwillingness to venture any moral discernment, O’Siadhail’s balanced and charitable poetic effort to come to terms with the whole course of Western modernity demonstrates how one may evaluate and critique without at the same time condemning those of a different creed or philosophy. For O’Siadhail, discernment does not inevitably lead to separation, nor must a desire for community lead to relativism.
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