In her marvelous essay “The Wetfooted Understory,” written for the collection The Joy of Secularism, Rebecca Stott examines the idea of “transcendence” and how to approach it from a secular perspective. A key passage:
[I suspect] that the idea of transcendence is kin to that fundamentalist prioritizing of “up there” above “down here,” that it might be cousin to that expectation of uplift, the longing to be raised up and out of a world we can no longer bear. It is almost impossible to resist metaphors of transcendence; they are, after all, deeply ingrained in our patterns of thought and in our language and metaphors, in the way we talk about the sublime in terms of spiritual revelation: when we hear Mozart’s Requiem or a blackbird sing at dawn, or watch the setting sun stain a mountain peak red, we say we are exalted and uplifted; we describe the feeling as rapturous. How do we find a way to describe the often cleaving and searing epiphanies of everyday life when we no longer believe those moments to be god-cloven or god-searing? What words do we use to articulate the new-seeing that comes to us in those moments when epiphanies make us glance not heavenward with wonder and awe but rather earthward with wonder and awe? It is a perpetual struggle for all poets and writers whose business is with the sublime.
What follows is a fascinating exploration of, among other things, Charles Darwin’s troubled relationship with poetry, Walt Whitman’s contradictory thoughts on Darwin, and the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s self-identification with Darwin and her preference for his writing over that of her own literary peers. (The essay, and the collection, are worth seeking out and reading in full.)
Stott ends with another poet, Amy Clampitt, whose piece “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” crystallizes Stott’s central epiphany: that for the secularist, the atheist, the humanist, “transcendence” isn’t located beyond the fabric of reality, but within it; a secular poetics does not lift us out of the world but immerses us in the world. This is the experience of poetic atheism, of the marriage of science and poetry, beautifully expressed:
[Clampitt’s] poems are exquisite expressions of what we might call the Darwinian sublime or the poetics of immersion. In this extraordinary poem she asks us to imagine stepping into a bog full of sundews, the bog a metaphor for the lives we lead. She reminds us that we will be swallowed up, that we will not get out of here. But there is so much to see, she says, so much light, so much of the sublime. If we look properly, she writes, once we begin to see the sublime beauty here in this Darwinian underworld, in this wetfooted understory, we will begin to fall upward.
Here is the poem.
The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews
by Amy Clampitt
An ingenuity too astonishing
to be quite fortuitous is
this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lines and shaped like a teacup.
down and you’re into it; a
wilderness swallows you up:
ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-
to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted
understory, an overhead
spruce-tamarack horizon hinting
you’ll never get out of here.
But the sun
among the sundews, down there,
is so bright, an underfoot
webwork of carnivorous rubies,
a star-swarm thick as the gnats
they’re set to catch, delectable
double-faced cockleburs, each
hair-tip a sticky mirror
afire with sunlight, a million
of them and again a million,
each mirror a trap set to
a First Cause said once, ‘Let there
be sundews,’ and there were, or they’ve
made their way here unaided
other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
But the sun
underfoot is so dazzling
down there among the sundews,
there is so much light
in that cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.
(Image via The Conservation Report)