Correspondence theory & Updike’s “Seven Stanzas of Easter”

“Christianity and Literature” Cover

When considering the correspondence theory of truth in Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice (Christian Worldview Integration Series. InterVarsity Press. 2011), David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet refer to John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter (1960).* Enjoy this excerpt from a “bold, wonderfully learned manifesto … [which] breathes a prophetic passion — bracing, salutary and sometimes uncomfortable — that transcends mere academic discussion and leaves the reader interrogated as well as taught.” (Dennis Danielson, Professor of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Accessed 4/19/2011 at http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/review/code=2817).

Historically, the predominant way of looking at truth is the one that occurs first to common sense.  According to the correspondence theory of truth, a verbal claim is true only if it corresponds to pertinent fact or external reality.20 If there is no correspondence (e.g., if I claim that the sky is falling and some of my students run outside to check and confirm, sensibly, this it is not), the claim is evidently false at the literal level.  On this view, if a speaker or writer claims that the earth is flat or that it will come to a catastrophic end in Y2K (A.D. 200) or that drinking a certain beverage will make us irresistible to the opposite sex, there are ways to investigate the veracity of each claim.

Even when we account for variance in the way people see things, this theory tends to apply to most situations quite serviceably.  In each case of this sort, actuality (or as we might say, reality) takes precedence and is indispensable to the claims made regarding it, as well as the plausibility of inferences that may be drawn or actions recommended in consequence.  In a famous example from the New Testament, St. Paul insists that if Christ did not literally rise from the dead, then all discussions of the event and our faith in it are meaningless and a waste of time (1 Cor 15:12-20). The poetic commentary of John Updike in his “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (1960) is thus historically and logically on the mark when he says

if he rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle
the Church will fall.21

Updike is in this poem uncompromisingly biblical in his insistence on a correspondence theory of truth; no soft metaphorizing of the resurrection, given the explicit factual claims of Scripture and the church, can be other than a lie –especially if created, as Updike says, “for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty.”  Updike was in this poem reacting to common liberal theological platitudes and, in the fashion recommended by Paul to Titus, giving such revisionary constructions a stiff rebuke.  To turn the essential truth given in historical event into an evasive and naturalistic trope is here to pervert the proper business even of poetry, especially for the poet who wants to think like a Christian.

Not incidentally, for a poet thinking as a Christian, beauty properly understood is not, any more than truth, simply subjective — construed as merely and impression in the eye of the beholder.  Beauty in the ultimate Christian sense does not depend any more than does truth upon our taste for it:  remarking on the habit of scholastic philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas to use words such as splendor and claritas to describe beauty, Jacques Maritain observes that “it is a Cartesian error to reduce absolute beauty to beauty for us. Such an error,” he continues, “produces academicism in art and condemns us to such a poor kind of beauty as can give only the meanest of pleasures to the soul.”22 To this we may add that a just appreciation of beauty is  certainly not to be had by means of eliding beauty and truth, any more than by failing to refer the beauty of creational variety to its Source (cf. Eccles 3:11).  This is a point clarified in a Christian way by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his well-known poem “Pied Beauty” (1877):

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him23 (47 – 48).

21George Englebretsen, Bare Facts and Naked Truth:  A New Correspondence Theory of Truth (Aldershot, U.K., and burlington, VT.: Ashgate, 2006) is a reliable guide and comprehensive standard worthy of a serious student’s acquaintance.
21John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” Telephone Poles and Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), pp.72-73.
22Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed & Ward, 1930), p.23.
23Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p.69.

*A few minutes with Updike’s “Seven Stanzas of Easter” (Thomas B. Grosh IV. ESN Blog. 4/21/2011).

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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2 Comments

  • Robertstone commented on June 4, 2014 Reply

    We seek originality in new presentations of Shakespeare (I suppose) in order to confirm our belief that, somehow, there is more flexibility built into his plays than into the work of most other dramatists. So when we see Lady Macbeth take a chocolate cake out of a refrigerator to serve it to Duncan, or see Macbeth blow a kiss at Ross after scolding him at dinner, we allow ourselves both a smile and a period of reflection.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/

  • sapna commented on June 12, 2014 Reply

    These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2013/09/remarks-on-don-delillo-at-ala.html#.UyN3Gz9dXxA

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