One cold wintry evening in 1817, Benjamin Robert Haydon invited four of his friends for dinner in order to bring together the greatest literary men of his generation. You may not recognize Haydon, a painter of biblical and classical scenes, but you most assuredly recognize three of his dinner guests: John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb. This meeting would begin to change the course of Keat’s thought (he would be dead and gone three years later), which , in turn, would change the history of English poetry.
In his book The Truth and the Beauty, Andrew Klavan describes this “Immortal Evening” in great detail. Haydon would paint Keats and Wordsworth into the now famous Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem which was exhibited in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. London. Haydon also painted Sir Isaac Newton and Voltaire into the crowd scene. He would write of this night as “A night worthy of the Elizabethan age”(The Truth 41).
This is just one of the fascinating true events that Klavan includes in The Truth. The purpose of his book is in the subtitle: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus. Klavan “believed what he read in the Gospels, but he often struggled to understand what Jesus really meant” (jacket). So, he began a journey of reading the words of Jesus through the life and work of writers such as Wordsworth, Keats, Mary Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. My father-in-law recommended this book to me after watching an interview with Klavan his podcast on the Daily Wire [see link].
Klavan compares our present age with the age of the English Romantics, from 1770-around 1850. In this time, following the French Revolution, a conservative political reaction set in but could not “stop the revolution of minds. New science was undermining old beliefs and new ideas were breaking down traditions” (13). The beliefs in religion had become conflated with the ignorant superstitions of past centuries—science undermined religious thought (see Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776).
The English Romantics, in contrast, set aside these religious precepts and traditions in order to see things anew. According to Klavan, “these genius poets, in ways often unintentional,… blazed a literary trail back from the ruins of old faith toward the original vision that Christ delivered not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in all works and words”(17).
Some highlights of The Truth and the Beauty:
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Klavan gives the background of Shelley’s journey of meeting Byron and in writing Frankenstein. He states that “the greatness of the story, the horror of the story, and the threat to humanity the story portrays lie in the fact that Frankenstein has usurped the power not of God but of women. He made a man without a mother. His science has eliminated the principle of femininity from the creation of human life” (76),
- John Milton composed Paradise Lost, the epic retelling of Genesis,after he had gone blind. He taught his daughters to read to him in his blindness (107)
- In his drive to become the new Milton, Wordsworth wrote a poem in which the course of heaven and hell are in the mind of man (111).
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge would collaborate with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads with a Few Other Poems soon after. His inspiration can be seen in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mary Shelley sprinkles references to Mariner throughout Frankenstein, including a direct quote spoken by Victor Frankenstein. (122)
- The accomplishment of Wordsworth and Coleridge was to answer the question that opens Hamlet: “Who’s there?” by the infinite “I Am—an agent of the one great mind…creator and receiver both, working but in alliance with the works which it beholds (140)”
- The main themes of Truth and Beauty culminate in Chapter 7 with a look at“A Romantic Meditation on the Gospels”. Kavan continues to illustrate scriptures from the Gospels through the literature of Shakespeare (Hamlet), Keats, Coleridge (The Rime), and C.S. Lewis, through the following themes: Jesus versus Unbelief; Jesus, Humanity and the Eternal Feminine; Jesus versus Scientific Materialism; Jesus versus Radical Politics; and Jesus and the Soul
Truth and Beauty offers an intimate account of one man’s struggle to understand the Gospels in all their strangeness and to find his way to a life that is the most creative, the most joyful, and surely the most true”. Klavan wrote Truth and Beauty for those who were “seeking to find renewed meaning in the words of Jesus and for those who are striving for belief in a materialistic world” (jacket).
Klavan, Andrew. (2022) The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.