Canadian Modernist Poetry and the Rise of Personal Religions
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In 1902, the American philosopher and psychologist William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience, an enormously influential text in which he famously states his preference for “personal” or non-doctrinal over “institutional” forms of religion. This dissertation considers how the gradual diffusion and evolution of this notion of personal religion served as a catalyst for subsequent discussions of religious experience and expression in twentieth-century Canadian poetry. I argue that James not only encapsulated the religious concerns of his own age, but that he also predicted—and in many instances directly inspired—the kinds of anti-doctrinal and anti-institutional religious sentiments that began to emerge in the postwar period. Accordingly, I examine the formation of unorthodox, syncretistic, and pluralistic varieties of religious expression in mid-century Canadian modernist poetry, challenging what has been referred to as the secularization thesis (that is, the contention that modernization inevitably results in the decline of religion). More specifically, I discuss the notion of personal religion as it manifests variously in the published and unpublished writings of four poets, E.J. Pratt, Margaret Avison, Louis Dudek, and P.K. Page, situating their work in relation to relevant religious or socio-cultural contexts—such as the ascent of theological modernism and the increasing relegation of religion to the private sphere in the first half of the century, or the proliferation of pluralistic rhetoric in the second. After a brief introduction to the notion of personal religion, I offer a series of case studies, which, taken together, provide a new narrative of literary modernism in Canada—one which accounts for Pratt’s syncretistic merger of Christianity and spiritualism, Avison’s non-denominational, intimate Christianity, Dudek’s atomist philosophy and transcendental-realist utopianism, and Page’s esoteric, perennialist Sufism as related but distinct responses to the problems and possibilities of modern life. In the process, I repeatedly invite reconsiderations of critical narratives of literary modernism that exclude or otherwise fail to address its continued and diverse engagements with religion, its continued aesthetic development in the second half of the twentieth century, and its articulation outside of dominant Anglo-American frameworks.