Sapphics and Uncertainties Summary
Sapphics and Uncertainties is a single-volume reissue of Timothy Steele’s Uncertainties and Rest (1979) and his Sapphics Against Anger, and Other Poems (1986). Steele’s reputation as a poet rests on his facility with formal elements of lyric verse writing such as meter, rhyme, and styles; his clear and powerful poetic diction; and his expertise as a literary critic. In addition to ten books of poetry, Steele has published two books on prosody, a critical edition of the poetry of J. V. Cunningham, and numerous reviews and essays on individual poets and of poetry. Steele’s doctoral thesis, completed at Brandeis University in 1977, was directed by J. V. Cunningham, who took an interest in Steele’s poetry as well. In 1979, Steele published Uncertainties and Rest. In 2006, Steele published his tenth book of poetry, Toward the Winter Solstice, which continues the exploration of Christian thought found in his earlier books.
In Sapphics and Uncertainties, four poems deal directly with religious topics. “The Wartburg, 1521-22” describes Martin Luther’s exile from his teaching position, and “In the King’s Rooms” is spoken by the persona of King David, the great Israeli leader of the Old Testament. “Of Faith,” the middle section of “Three Notes Toward Definitions,” explores manifestations of faith in daily life. “Devotional Sonnet” is an expression of the merits of individual piety.
Other poems in the collection (“Angel”) show nostalgia for Christmas as an important setting from childhood. “The Messenger” may be interpreted as the Holy Spirit in a piece on inspiration in springtime; and the enigmatic “One Morning,” about a beginning and an end, is open to a resurrection-theme reading. “With a Copy of Ronald Firbank” is a tribute to a Catholic satirical novelist. Here the speaker assesses Firbank’s career as a minor novelist obsessed with the rituals of the Catholic Church and who, like Martin Luther, was not afraid to criticize the clergy for veniality.
Matthew chapter 5, which contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, has particular resonance in Steele’s poetry. “Nightpiece” and “Epigram 5: Matthew 5:15” both rely on parts of this scriptural text. In his 1994 poetry collection, The Color Wheel, Steele crafts “Beatitudes While Setting Out the Trash” around the verse “Blessed are the meek” and “Decisions, Decisions” in which the speaker says, “In God alone, intention/ And execution are simultaneous./ In God alone can choice be sure it is choice.” These poems reveal a certitude resulting from the explorations of faith in Sapphics and Uncertainties.
“The Wartburg, 1521-22” describes the exile of Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, who taught explication of the Bible at Wittenberg University from 1512 to 1546. His 1520 attack on Catholic doctrine and on Pope Leo X forced Luther to go into hiding, where he continued to write pamphlets on abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and to translate the Bible. This poem is composed of six sestets (six-line stanzas) rhyming ababcc. Spoken in the third person, the text shows Luther enclosed in the garden and by his beliefs. When he leaves for Wittenberg after the ten months of exile are over on “one gray dawn in early March,” he enters “the modern world” that he helped create.
“In the King’s Rooms” is spoken in the persona of King David in exile in Mahanaim, a city located somewhere along the Jordan River. Mahanaim is first mentioned in Genesis 32:2, and the name translates as either “two camps” or “two armies,” either definition befitting this poem. The poem is based in 2 Samuel 17 and 18, which describes how King David (whose name means “Beloved”) was forced to go to Mahanaim when his son, Absalom, tried to overthrow him. The British poet John Dryden made this incident the subject of his lyric satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681-1862). Steele’s poem in four stanzas of five lines (cinquains) rhymes abaab. The first stanza speaks to King David’s aspiration to “forever dwell in quiet” and to write his Psalms of praise to God. In the second stanza, he reviews his past successes, including how he killed Goliath and earned his reputation with King Saul, who gave David his daughter, Michal, as a reward for his bravery. Soon, though, Saul became jealous of David, and David formed an army to overthrow him. The third stanza captures the irony of David’s situation, as Absalom has rebelled against his father. The fourth stanza captures David’s resignation about Absalom’s certain death, which came at the hands of Joab (Samuel 18), causing David genuine distress. To gain and retain his throne, King David had to revolt, turn loyal men against their king, and continually live on guard against assassination and invasion. In Steele’s poem, the old king is tired and does not appeal to God to aid him, but rather the strength of his own character, demonstrating faith in himself.
Both these poems show the importance of choice, a theme that Steele shared with Cunningham, while “Of Faith” and “Devotional Sonnet” reflect another side of Steele’s appreciation of Cunningham’s verse. Though Cunningham lost his Catholic faith, Steele, in commenting on this in his edition of The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (1997), presents a contrasting idea: “The fact that God can be everything frees us to realize our particular selves” and as his poems show, to see God in all things.
“Of Faith,” in five seven-line stanzas, opens with the elided line “A puzzling topic this.” Framed by “Of Culture” and “Of Friendship,” faith is the center of this three-part poem “Three Notes Toward Definitions.” Here the speaker considers how language is used to describe faith, especially its names, and how it is known or experienced. In the third stanza, the speaker supports a definition of faith as truth, referring parenthetically to a major doctrinal passage from Hebrews 11:1-33 in which faith is defined as “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” He moves on to cite Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620), a major conversion autobiography; Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (1670; Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688; best known as Pensées), the work of the seventeenth century mathematician; and Charles Darwin’s The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, with Original Omissions Restored (1958), intended to invoke the evolution and creationism debates. In the fourth stanza, the speaker considers the French poet Rimbaud and the Italian religious painter Duccio as secularized examples of faith in one’s art.
Finally, “A Devotional Sonnet” presents a speaker separated from those he loves, but not alone, because he has God. The poem describes his room, which is like a monastic cell, but instead of religious objects, it holds books, a bottle of wine, and broken pieces of china. The moment captured in the poem is a meditation as the speaker admits to sin and shows hope in the idea that God “will restrain me if I stray/ Too far from love I both reject and want.” The speaker feels he must ask God to be compassionate toward him. Written as an Elizabethan sonnet, the poem harks to the devotional sonnets of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the modern poet Mark Jarman.
Sources for Further Study
Jarman, Mark. “Poetry and Religion.” In Poetry After Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell. Rev. ed. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998. An essay assessing the contemporary poetry community’s interest in writing on religious themes with examples of modern poets whose work addresses matters of faith.
Steele, Timothy. Interview by Cynthia Haven. The Cortland Review (June, 2000). An interview in which Steele discusses his writing style and his interests as a poet-critic.
Steele, Timothy, ed. The Poems of J. V. Cunningham. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1997. Contains Steele’s critical appraisal of Cunningham’s verse and annotated poetry texts. Close reading of Cunningham and Steele shows similarities between Steele’s “Epigram 5” and Cunningham’s “1 Corinthians 13,” as both are epigrams, and between Cunningham’s “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” and Steele’s “With a Copy of Ronald Firbank.”
Walzer, Kevin. The Ghost of Tradition. Expansive Poetry and Modernism. Ashland, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998. Chapter 5 includes an analysis of Steele’s formalism and reworks part of Walzer’s article “The Poetry of Timothy Steele” previously published in the Tennessee Quarterly.