Charles Taylor is a distinguished retired professor of philosophy. The second paragraph of the preface of his new book, Cosmic Connections: Poetry in the Age of Disenchantment, outlines his goal:

[T]he book is about (what I see as) the human need for cosmic connection; by “connection” I mean not just awareness of the surrounding world, but one shot through with joy, significance, inspiration. My hypothesis is that the desire for this connection is a human constant, felt by (at least some) people in all ages and phases of human history, but that the forms this desire takes have been very different in the succeeding phases and stages of this history. 

His goal is ambitious, so it is unsurprising that his book falls far short of its own ambitions.

Cosmic Connections begins with a subject about which Taylor is passionate: the rise of Romanticism in German philosophy (Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel) and German poetry (Schiller, Hölderlin, Novalis, and the Schlegels) in the 1790s. Taylor also discusses major figures who rejected the label “Romantic,” particularly Goethe and Kant.

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It does not take long to conclude that this book is in need of substantial editing—a task that, sadly, major commercial and academic publishers have largely abandoned with their scholarly books (the author, who seems like a gracious person, did not have an editor to thank in his acknowledgments). For example, pages five and six include a list of five “themes and notions” that Taylor believes characterize German Romanticism, but they are magisterial pronouncements untethered to any previous or subsequent analysis of German poetry. The first quoted poem comes more than ten pages later—and it is Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” not a German poem. There is no quotation from a German poem until page sixty-seven, and that one is a short passage from Goethe, one of the poets whom Taylor cites as rejecting Romanticism. By the time the book returns to German Romantic poetry on page ninety-seven for hit-and-run discussions of Hölderlin’s “Der Rhein” and “Der Archipelagus,” the author has moved on to other subjects with apparent confidence that he need not provide analysis to support the premises of his sweeping framework for German Romantic poetry.  

At this point in the book, Taylor’s language has lost precision; the reader must slog through incomplete sentences (particularly ones misusing or overusing the word “but”), unclear referents, verbs in the passive voice (e.g. “But this is not felt as an arbitrarily selected and imposed ordering but as a unity inherent in the reality itself”), and non sequiturs. He tacks appendices onto chapters instead of integrating them into his analyses. Almost none of the discussion about the individual poems substantiates the arguments that Taylor lays out early in the book, and he leaps from idea to idea like an overexcited golden retriever puppy.

About a quarter of the way through the book’s 600 pages, it becomes clear that the author awkwardly fused two books. The first would have made an argument about the philosophical content of Romantic poetry as well as the influence of German philosophy of that era on that poetry. The second book would have been a book of essays with every observation the author wanted to make about Romanticism that did not fit into the first book. 

By the time the reader reaches a long chapter mischaracterized as “History of Ethical Growth,” it is clear that Taylor wanted to write a third very different book as well. After finally coming to the indisputably true statement that “it should be clear that ethical human growth is not simply linear, or additive, with higher stages building on earlier, lower ones,” our Canadian author descends into an ill-informed rant about American politics in which his main target is Mitt Romney, of all people:

This slide is a catastrophe for various reasons. It’s a catastrophe because it deeply divides, hampers, and paralyzes the democratic society, dividing us into first- and second-class citizens. But it is also a catastrophe in another way because it builds on the deprivations imposed on nonelites by the spread of a Romney-type moralistic outlook among the rich and powerful. In many Western democracies, this has brought about a frustration caused by a great Downgrade in the living standards of workers, who, as a result, feel that the system is stacked against them, that they can’t affect it, and that their citizen efficacy is virtually nonexistent. They are ready for a program which would liberate the demos or give the demos power again, against the elites.

Only the demos has now been redescribed—either in a moralist, or ethnic, or historical-precedence way that excludes many people—which has the double disadvantage that it deeply divides the society, and this second disadvantage, that it does not meet the actual problems and challenges of the Downgrade. 

The first paragraph is facile and irrelevant to the rest of the book. The second paragraph descends into jargon-ridden incoherence.

Taylor’s intense interest in contemporary politics does not foreshadow an interest in contemporary poetry. He begins his discussion of twentieth-century poets with some competent remarks on T. S. Eliot, albeit remarks that ignore the expectations created by his own opening chapter. He then races through a series of hit-and-run analyses of Eliot’s major poems in which he tosses off a sentence or so for every few lines of the poems. His analysis of the work of Czesław Miłosz is even more superficial and digressive.

Despite the grand promises implicit in the title of the closing chapter (“Cosmic Connection Today—And Perennially”), the chapters on Eliot and Miłosz are all that Taylor has to say about contemporary poetry. In fact, the closing chapter does not even mention Eliot or Miłosz, yet somehow spends time discussing fiction writer Annie Dillard for no apparent reason other than that Taylor likes her work and sees it as having a spiritual dimension.

One cannot help but mourn the lost opportunity. There is no discussion of the greatest religious poets of the past fifty years—Elizabeth Jennings, Dana Gioia, or Christian Wiman, to name just a few. There is no discussion of Dylan Thomas, whose use of language to attain transcendence displays many of the characteristics that Taylor rightly sees in Gerard Manley Hopkins. There is no discussion of poets who reject religion but who nonetheless reach for the supernatural, such as James Merrill.

One often gets the sense from Cosmic Connections that the magisterial generalizations about poetry extend to the poetry of the present day, and that is unfortunate. It is just not true that the vast majority of contemporary poets relate to the world in the ways of the poets discussed in this book. In fact, today’s MFA-driven literary complex has done a stunningly efficient job of rooting out religion and spirituality from poetry. These gatekeepers relentlessly focus the attention of poets on the body, a small set of ideological grievances, and the superiority of certain genetic heritages; they dismiss the craft that Taylor values, and they show little interest in the “joy, significance, [and] inspiration” that he values. Poetry reminiscent of Eliot, Hopkins, or Rilke has great difficulty finding a home these days, but that sad fact does not seem to interest him. Taylor appears to have no response for, or even an interest in, contemporary poetry’s rejection of the aspirations of Romanticism.

Cosmic Connections has intermittent charms—it did make me want to read Hölderin again after thirty-five years. It also made me think harder about the worldviews of several other poets. Those blessings were not sufficient, however, to justify the time and effort necessary to read the book.

Image by Andrzej Solnica and licensed via Adobe Stock.