The Note of Failure in the Symphony of Grace: Reading Evelyn Underhill’s Theophanies

by Kathleen Henderson Staudt

A modern reader coming to Theophanies is bound to be put off by the Edwardian conventionality of rhythm and music and by the tendentiousness of those poems on explicitly spiritual—especially neo-platonic—themes. But buried among these unsatisfactory efforts are flashes of genuine and original insights, where we see Underhill testing and using her gift for imaging, in homely terms, what she perceived as the presence and pull of God’s love in the world.

For example, the poem entitled “In the Train” constrasts the ardor and excitement of her own vision with the blindness of those around her. Beginning “O Train full of blind eyes, rushing through the world,” it goes on to sketch out in vivid, positively sensual imagery the poet’s imaginative communion with the meadow outside—”it and I, close locked in passionate embrace”

And the moist ridged field gives itself up to me, all the life of it…
I know the supple curves of resilient bramble
The obstinate plait of the thicket…”

The identity between this union and the experience of prayer becomes more explicit, less satisfyingly poetic, as the poem goes on. But these opening images offer a glimpse into the passionate soul of this writer at this early stage of her spiritual development, beginning to test and own her particular gift of visionary perception.

Other such personal glimpses come in poems that seem to have grown out of holidays with Hubert Stuart Moore and with her family. For example in “Continuous Voyage,” inspired by her many yachting holidays with them, we get a feel for Underhill’s simple openness to pleasure and her buried spiritual passions. It begins

At twilight, when I lean the gunwale o’er
And watch the water turning from the bow,
I sometimes think the best is here and now,
The voyage all, and nought the hidden shore.

Though the blank verse forms of “In the Train” may seem more congenial to our post-modernist ears, the orderly rhymes and meter here provide an appropriate form for this tranquil appreciation of the beauty of a moment on a yacht at twilight. But the form becomes more irregular as the poem develops the image of the boat sailing before the wind as a reflection of the poet’s longing to surrender to the rushing wind of the Divine love. The poet’s Romantic longing for what the poem calls “the steep, great billow of (God’s) love” strains against the tranquility of the opening lines, much as Underhill’s own inner ardor must have strained against the social obligations and responsibilities imposed by those early years of her married life and growing professional success.

The sea recurs in Theophanies to image states of spiritual receptiveness and dryness. “High Tide” begins with the longing prayer, “Flood thou my soul with thy great quietness…” and goes on to develop an analogy between the waiting soul and tidal pools that come quietly to life as the rising tide flows into them. This longing for invasion by the distant sea of divine love—an image Underhill took from her study of the mystic tradition and made her own—is vividly expressed in the ending stanza of “Thought’s a Strange Land,” one of the better poems in this volume:

There’s news to be had in the marshes—
A salted wind, sharp taste of the hidden wave:
There on the fringes of thought when the night is falling
I’ll wait the invading tide.

Most of Underhill’s poems prove disappointing because they begin with a concrete image and then wander from there into more or less explicit versified meditations on spiritual principles. The gems are those few that stay with a single image and so develop and communicate Underhill’s special gift of seeing, for example, her appreciation of a blooming snowdrop in “Forest Epiphany” or the homely image of divine nurture explored in “The Thrush.” Anyone in search of fresh feminine images of God—especially images with roots in the a long tradition—can do far worse than the simple quatrain that Underhill entitles “NIHIL LONGE DEO” (nothing is far from God):

As sleeping infants in their dream despair,
We range, and grope they breast;
But wake to find that haven everywhere
And we already blest.

Theophanies closes with a poem entitled “Invocation,” which laments the inadequacies of the poet’s gifts. Although this sort of lament is a familiar convention of love poetry and sometimes of devotional poetry, we can also see it in Underhill’s own real awareness of the inadequacy of her gifts as a poetic artist. “Invocation” offers a rueful self-critique by acknowledging this disparity between vision and skill: “Though every sense cry out thy Name/My song may not declare the same.” Yet the glimpse into this highly original imagination offered by some of the poems in Theophanies answers the closing prayer of “Invocation,”—also the closing words of this volume, and of Underhill’s career as a poet.

Within they mighty metric span
My faltering son do thou enfold:
That in thy symphony of grace
The note of failure find its place.

Kathleen Henderson Staudt teaches at Wesley Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary and is author of a book on the English Catholic poet David Jones.