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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Haunted by Christ Hilary Davies
Richard Harries, Haunted by Christ, Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith, (SPCK), £19.99

The difficulties with this book begin with its title. The OED defines ‘to be haunted’ as ‘to be subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits… imaginary beings, apparitions, spectres’; the verb also means ‘to frequent a place or person’. Harries’ choices of poets are ‘ones for whom the pull of religion has been fundamental and in whose work we can best see what it is to believe or to protest against belief’. This raises lots of questions: if one rejects faith, does this mean one can still be ‘haunted’ by it? Does Christ bring the grace of the Holy Ghost or is he simply just a ghost, even a spook? Is the opposite of love hate or mere indifference?

The poets are: Emily Dickinson; Gerard Manley Hopkins; Edward Thomas; T.S. Eliot; W.H. Auden; Stevie Smith; R.S. Thomas; Edwin Muir; George Mackay Brown; and Elizabeth Jennings. It’s the full gamut of Christian, indeed lapsed, even atheist, belief: cradle Catholics; Catholic and Anglo-Catholic converts; Anglican priests whose faith has been questioned; Presbyterians, Calvinists, and Calvinist Methodists who have fallen away and not returned to the fold. The list mirrors the fissiparous nature of Christianity since the Reformation, yet these important differences are often elided in Harries’ presentations.

Firstly, let’s be clear about what ‘haunted by Christ’ is not. Edward Thomas is a case in point. His presence here is, frankly, puzzling: although his poetry is ...

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