Confession

What is the purpose of a poet’s confession of his or her life? As an extension of the poet’s subjectivity, many contemporary writers, following the "confessional" movement of the sixties and seventies, have assumed that poetry will be personally revealing in order to be poetic.

The genre of the confession is age-old in Western literature. Its two greatest practitioners, Augustine and Rousseau, remind us that as a form of self-representation, it has two radically different assumptions concerning human nature and experience. Both Augustine and Rousseau share the belief that to confess is to uncover truth, but they differ in the source of that truth and in the way in which it is uncovered. For Augustine, the truth that is uncovered in the soul is the work of God on the human person. The person enters the realm of memory in order to receive enlightenment, and that enlightenment ultimately shines forth from Christ the Logos. As we recount the past, we recall what has happened and learn how God has been speaking into those events. In his Confessions, Augustine reflects that memory leads one to reflect on God’s higher being:

Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. [. . .] But I never reach the end. So great is the power of memory, so great is the force of life in a human being whose life is mortal. What then ought I to do, my God? You are my true life. I will transcend even this my power which is called memory. I will rise beyond it to move towards you, sweet light. (10.17. 26)

For Rousseau, the human self is its greatest own expression, and its experience is at the heart of personal freedom. Indeed, the truth found there is found in the expression of the self alone. The focus is personal creativity rather than God's creation. Rousseau has essentially removed God from the equation. His famous opening to his Confessions is worth quoting here:

I have begun on a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.

I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read.

I will present myself, whenever the last trumpet shall sound, before the Sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, "Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood. Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous, and sublime; even as Thou hast read my inmost soul: Power Eternal! assemble round Thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and if he dare, aver, I was better than that man." (1)

For Rousseau, one’s life is a text, a text unique yet no better or worse than any other text, any other life. It’s meaning and importance are in its very existence and expression. Both approaches, Augustine’s and Rousseau’s, find value in personal revelations; both see confession as a way of owning up to what is true. And both Augustine and Rousseau can be said to be the intellectual ancestors of the modern confessional practice, be it revelatory autobiographies, Jerry Springer-themed insipidness, or confessional poetry. The question still remains as to what better explains the inherent value in confesses a life. Consider, for example, a portion of Robert Lowell’s "Skunk Hour." What makes this poet’s confession worthwhile?


One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
I watched for love-cars.  Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare. (25-48)

Lowell’s speaker must own up to his disturbed and distorted state. He is "hell;" his "mind’s not right;" he is disturbed and reduced before his sexual desire as he looks on those who tryst in "love cars." Confession, whether made to God or to the world about the self, is the revelation of our identity. Or at least we hope so. By confessing our experience we attest to the worth that is there. We count our talents and our faults as highly meaningful. Lowell’s confession is poetically powerful, not only in his fine choice of language and imagery, but for it brutal honesty. It is a story we cannot escape, for it speaks of ourselves. If we are honest, we all know the darkness of craving alone something forbidden.

Confession is a kind of hermeneutical gesture; it is an interpretive move. By owning up to what we have done, we seek to know truly who we are. We also seek to let others know what we have found, and perhaps to speak with a direct voice to the reader, to establish a communing of souls. It longs to understand but also to be understood. In John Berryman’s "Vespers" from his sequence, Opus Dei, he confesses his lustful and prideful state. He struggles with the impact that loving one’s enemy and loving God with one’s mind would really have on a person, and after more inner struggle, he eventually comes to concede God’s beauty and terrible glory:

Vanity! hog-vanity, ape-lust
slimed half my blue day, interspersed
solely almost with conversation feared,
difficult, dear, leaned forward toward & savoured,

survivaling between. I have not done well.
Contempt — if even the man be judged sincere —
verging on horror, top a proper portion,
of the poor man in paracme, greeding still.

That's nothing, nothing! For his great commands have reached me here — to love my enemy
as I love me — which is quite out of the question!
and worse still, to love You with my whole mind

insufferable & creative addition to Deuteronomy 6 —

[. . . .]

With so great power bitter, so marvellous mild even mercy?
It's not conformable. It must be so,
but I am lost in it, dire Friend. Only I remember
of Solomon's cherubim 'their faces were inward.'

And thro' that veil of blue, & crimson, & linen,
& blue, You brood across forgiveness and
the house fills with a cloud, so that the priests
cannot stand to minister by reason of the cloud. (1-13, 26-35)

Berryman’s self-knowledge is in the light of God-knowledge. John Navone observes, "Conversion is both an event and a lifelong process that manifests the beauty of God’s true goodness in making the world beautiful" (8). In this sense, the Christian perspective is more expansive than the expressivism of someone like Rousseau. It tells us why that human expression is valuable, why it is lovely. None of this is to deny that some forms of confession can be self-serving, voyeuristic, and even damaging to others.

Understanding one’s confession in and before God gives a frame to the search for meaning, and it imparts a direction to the journey. It also allows for our own difficulty in explicating our desires, wishes, and motives. For confession as self-understanding may be less than perfect. The Psalter, like Lowell or Berryman, is full of human confessions of guilt, anger, self-assurance, gratefulness, bitterness, joy, and worship. In each psalm, we are reminded that our pilgrimage in all its full-orbed ease and difficulty is the stuff of prayer and the stuff of art. No emotion is unacceptable, as it is spoken (or sung) before God. Our confession is assured, for we are perfectly understood by God. However, the poet is also addressing the reader, and it is worth remembering that poetry must succeed as poetry not as confession. A poorly crafted confession, one without a sense of narrative pacing, may still succeed as repentance or as self-revelation, but not be art. To be the later, it must pay attention to matters of form.

Back ] Next ]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding