A textbook I use for my introductory poetry classes, the classic Western Wind, defines sentimentality as “emotion in excess of its object.” Sentimentality is not simply too much emotion, but an imbalance of it, an over-investment of emotion relative to that in which it is invested. I have never put down a poem and complained that it was too moving, too resonant.
Sentimentality is a defect in the quality, not the quantity, of feeling in a poem. But how is a reader to recognize this defect in feeling that we are calling sentimentality? The best guide is wide experience of the art. Reading those poets we have, by an election lasting generations, inducted into the canon, one finds very little that is sentimental. The great tradition is a highly reliable guide in this matter. Millennia before sentimentality was given a name in the eighteenth century and elevated to prominence in popular literature, the imbalance between emotion and its object was resisted in the sober wisdom of Homer and the frank self-evaluation of Donne. Gerard Manley Hopkins, working in an age in which sentimentality enjoyed a great vogue, often approaches the sentimental but stops short of indulging in it, as in the stark and restrained closing lines of the “terrible sonnet” usually referred to as “Carrion Comfort”: “Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod / Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” There is here none of the pharisaical self-righteousness that one finds in so much Christian sentimentality. Rather, Hopkins gives a frank, unflinching, and unexaggerated account of his spiritual struggles. The poet’s restraint puts parentheses around the exclamation, a device that prevents the awe from disproportionately ruling the line. With the emotion in proper proportion, we do not lose sight of the physical reality behind the poem, a reality subtly conveyed in the verb lay. The specificity of the verb gives us a glimpse of a real man passing sleepless nights upon his cot. The poem, though focused on spiritual struggle, is far from abstract sentimentality.
Sentimentality offers us the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of any real human engagement: not too much feeling but too thin an experience. This is what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote:
We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography . . . is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.
Sentimentality is emotional satisfaction without emotional connection, an agreement between the artist and the audience to skip straight to the gratification, which, due to the skipping, is not so gratifying after all—as Shakespeare knowingly suggests in his Sonnet 129 (“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”). The popular painter Thomas Kinkade’s cozy little cottages, for instance, offer all the warmth of home—something I certainly enjoy—but what is the warmth of home without knowing the coldness of the world? What is homecoming without the hard journey? In Hebrews, we read that “these all died in the faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country” (11:13–14). Kinkade’s error is not in depicting the homecoming; it is in ignoring the seeking. That is why, when a student recently told me that she lovingly sends a Kinkade postcard to her grandmother once a month, I blurted, “Stop sending pornography to your grandma!” Art must be truthful in what it says about the world and our sojourn in it. Lying down in green pastures is a great goal for an artist, but he must not attempt to get there without walking through the valley of the shadow of death. If he does, he is a liar.
This tendency toward moral and emotional shortcuts mars much of the work of the prominent and popular American poet Mary Oliver. At its best, Oliver’s work can be finely particular, through the combination of inventive language and focused imagery, surprising readers into spiritual awareness. Too often, however, she is content to settle for the path of least resistance, language and images gathered not from authentic life in the fallen world but from the smooth pandering of liberal mainline sermons. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of a poem from her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings, the very title of which, “On Traveling to Beautiful Places,” starts playing a sentimental tune:
Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
The first line suggests that a struggle might lie ahead, but in the second line we find out how delightfully easy the spiritual life is for the poet. No lamenting psalms or terrible sonnets here, just easy assurance. It is not the expression of hope or faith that makes these lines sentimental; it is the lack of need for hope or faith, the shortcut to the light, that makes them objectionable both as art and as testimony. The shortcut is visible in the lack of particulars: Which dust? Whose flowerbeds? Where an honest artist would labor to give us real dust, flowers, islands, and ice, Oliver has given us only placeholders, emotional signals for feelings unearned in the poem itself. In this way, the feeling of the poem is out of proportion to its object. Its object is not even really there, an actual life looking for God. The reference to “countries of sand” makes the absence of real referent clear. One stops to think of actual countries of sand, which include more than a few particularly violent locales, places where people are not as willing as Mary Oliver to concede the comfy and common received idea of liberal Christianity that we all worship the same deity by “whatever name.” The poem seems to exist only to congratulate the poet and the reader, loading a weight of wonder and faith and yearning onto a flimsy, cardboard version of reality. Surely anyone who did find God in such items wouldn’t render them so blithely in bland and flat images. The whole approach belies the emotions it purports to express.
A similar phoniness ruins the otherwise inventive poem “Green, Green Is My Sister’s House” in the same 2012 collection. The second stanza starts with an arresting personification but quickly descends into yet another self-congratulatory emotional gesture:
But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
I spent endless hours climbing trees when I was a child, yet I never knew a completely welcoming tree. Even the best trees for climbing have rough bark or itchy leaves or, at least, the threat of a limb breaking. Oliver’s sentimentality ignores reality, and so the joy she finds in the tree rings hollow.
Compounding the sentimentality is the Peter Pan syndrome inherent in the scenario of an adult climbing trees. An obvious comparison is to Robert Frost’s magnificent “Birches.” It is too long to quote in full here, but one has only to think of a few of the powerful and particular images that situate the joy of the “swinger of birches” within the real and fallen world: the ice like broken glass, the trees bent by weather, the face that “burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it,” and the eye watering “From a twig’s having lashed across it open.” The speaker in Frost’s poem yearns, as he says, “Toward heaven.” He does not give us the impression that he and I are exactly the kind of people who reach heaven easily, a move too often found at the conclusion of a Mary Oliver poem. Inasmuch as Frost’s poem idealizes childhood—which can be very lonely—it does so only as a paradise lost, something the poet clearly can access now only through memory. Frost’s poem presents a grown person in a real world, not the ever-child of Oliver’s perfectly hospitable nature.
Sentimentality is really a form of that deadly heresy of Gnosticism, which prefers airy spiritualization to God’s actual creation. Christian sentimentality wants to transcend the material reality of the world, gesturing toward it only with stock abstractions—Grandma’s hands, baby feet, home sweet home—that have no correspondence with the actual physical world, in order to get to a prearranged rendezvous of feeling. Like the Gnostic, the sentimentalist denies the incarnation. This denial comes most often in the form of a blindness to the particularity of creation, the same kind of blindness that has burdened so many of our Sunday-school classroom walls with a generalized, handsome, and Teutonic Jesus when in fact our Lord was and is no doubt far more Semitic in his actual appearance. In other words, the problem with poems about “Grandma’s hands” is not the subject matter per se but rather that the creator of such a poem has little regard for the actual hands of the lady in question. The woman’s body parts are turned into cheap vehicles for cheap spiritual gratification, a kind of pornography.
The same is true of poems about “baby feet” and “innocent smiles” and any such stock image. Such poems ignore the state of actual, particular children in the world. Perhaps even worse, they cover up even the existence of particular children, real beings in possession of both the imago Dei and fallen human nature. Any Christian poet caught blathering about “the innocence of childhood” should be forced to read St. Augustine’s Confessions and made to work twenty hours in the church nursery. Anyone caught posting such a poem on the church bulletin board should be assigned to monitor the fourth-grade boys’ Sunday-school class.
Sentimentality abounds in American Christian culture and saturates the reading done by American Christians. Prominent Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Zondervan offer extensive lines of novels in the “Amish romance” genre but little in terms of Christian classics and no poetry in a contemporary vein. Christian bookselling giant Mardel publishes the poetry of Amy Carmichael, whose life and work may inspire but whose verse is flat and sugary, but nothing from contemporary poetry’s most prominent Christian poets, such as Richard Wilbur and Mark Jarman. As Todd Brenneman argues in his recent book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism, sentimentality may be a defining characteristic of religious life for many Americans, and so most readers in the dominant Evangelical culture, outside a few hip and urban churches, are more likely to encounter the treacly poetry of Ruth Bell Graham than the spiritually searing work of R. S. Thomas or T. S. Eliot.
Why are so many Christian writers and readers drawn to sentimentality? Why is it that if one googles the phrase “Christian poetry” one has to wade through pages of results with titles like “Grandma’s Praying Hands” and “Childhood Smiles” before getting to Dante, George Herbert, and Paul Mariani? I suspect it has to do with a misguided interpretation of Philippians 4:8, which says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” This verse is often evoked in admonition to avoid the garbage of popular entertainment, and rightly so. It is, also, alas, taken to mean that we should model our mental and emotional lives on those three monkeys who hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. Forgetting the direction toward honesty, many Christians seem to believe that what Scripture means by “pure” and by “lovely” is merely the pleasant and the naive, the Hallmark Channel, not the reality of a world in need of redemption.
Yet, looked at through the initially disorienting but ultimately corrective lens of Scripture itself, what is more pure and lovely than the Cross? One might answer, “the Resurrection,” but there is no Resurrection without Crucifixion. The Christian sentimentalist wants the bliss of Easter morning without the pain of Good Friday or the sorrow of Holy Saturday, reducing the great joy of Easter to the pleasantness of a sunrise or spring flowers. The sacrifice of our savior is lovely. His blood is pure. If we can look on these things and know they are good, then we, in a deeply Christian art, should not fear looking at the hard realities of our fallen world. The Christian artist who wraps himself in sunbeams and daffodils fails to be Christian at all, producing a bloodless, lifeless art that pleases a middle-class consumerism, not an authentic Christian encounter with a hurting world.
We see sentimentality even in attempts to make the Cross agreeable and respectable. This is the domestication of the scandal of God’s death for us, accomplished by the fad of sticking the Cross onto handbags and the back pockets of jeans. The tendency is at least as old as John Greenleaf Whittier, whose “The Crucifixion” makes much of seeing “the suffering son of God” but never shows us any concrete bodily suffering. Whittier begins with a postcard from the holy land:
Sunlight upon Judaea’s hills!
And on the waves of Galilee;
On Jordan’s stream, and on the rills
That feed the dead and sleeping sea!
Most freshly from the green wood springs
The light breeze on its scented wings;
And gayly quiver in the sun
The cedar tops of Lebanon!
A lively opening, yes, but unfortunately, the poem maintains the postcard-picturesque tone throughout. It insists on the dramatic difference made by the Crucifixion but fails to notice the actual man on the cross. Instead, we have abstract gestures toward it in phrases such as “That Sacrifice!—the death of Him,— / The Christ of God, the holy One!” The lack of concrete reality is implicitly admitted by the exclamation marks. This is a plastic crucifixion aimed to elicit an instant emotional response, which produces in readers self-satisfaction as they arrive at it.
The failure of Whittier’s exclamation marks shows most clearly by contrast with wholly unsentimental treatments of the same thing. Consider John Poch’s “The Cross” from his 2009 collection, Dolls. The poem begins with images of the body:
You can make one with your fingers,
your hands, your whole body.
A common tattoo.
A corkscrew gone through itself,
away from the wine and into the hand.
By moving the piercing of the hand out of the expected context and thus removing the conventional emotional cues, Poch makes the pain seem real again. One can’t read the lines without thinking about the pierced hand as a real hand really pierced. One thinks of one’s own hands along with the hands of Christ. The difference between Whittier’s version and Poch’s version is not the subject matter, which is nearly identical, nor is it the amount of emotion, but rather the authenticity of the feeling, a freshness achieved by avoiding anything like automatic emotion evoked by conventional signs for “insert appropriate feeling here.” It is an authenticity achieved by a willingness to imagine the particular, the unique, the real, the actual body of our savior and—as later in the poem he calls our attention to “a million potential splinters”—the actual cross of wood on which he hanged.
In my introductory poetry workshop, I find I need to discourage half the class from writing about puppies, rainbows, and Grandmother’s praying hands, but another kind of sentimentality also threatens. It turns away from Hallmark naivete, yes, but then cultivates the gritty irony of the urban dweller. These students, raised on The Hunger Games and postmodern hip, fill their poems with broken glass and the smell of urine in alleyways. Surprisingly, there is really very little difference between the two tones; both are shortcuts and generalizations. Neither version, one a stock sentimentality and the other its snit-sentimental mirror image, is truly incarnational; both are comprised of commonplace images only seemingly aimed at the actual world. Given the choice, I suppose I would rather read a student’s version of Baudelaire rather than one of Swinburne, but both are failures of art, failures at creation. The writer, especially the Christian, is today as obligated to avoid the sentimental anti-sentimentality of the edgy as he is to avoid puppies and Pollyanna. Both reflect shoddy workmanship. It is cheap goods made cheaply.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Ted Kooser, who argues in his excellent Poetry Home Repair Manual that it is far better to risk being sentimental than it is to accept a dry, emotionless kind of poetry. I sometimes think, in fact, that the closer one gets to sentimentality without actually giving in to it, the better. Or to put that in terms more in tune with what I have been arguing, it is a great accomplishment in a poem to take content that is very close to a common emotional experience that can easily be sentimentalized but render it with a depth of feeling and attention to the particular that is entirely unsentimental.
I can immediately think of two great poems that do just that. The first is Robert Hayden’s classic “Those Winter Sundays,” a portrait of an emotionally distant father, but which starts
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
It ends, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” This poem could easily have focused on the coziness of the fire, or painted an unmixed and all-admiring portrait of the father. Alternately, it could have railed like a cardboard Sylvia Plath against the evils of patriarchy. But instead, Hayden took the tougher road of telling us about his particular father and their relationship, and in that particularity there is a power to impart universal truth about the complexity of family relationships, something no sentimental poem can achieve.
The other poem that springs to mind is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall.” The images are fresh and striking in their particularity: “Goldengrove unleaving” and “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” (The fantastic sound certainly doesn’t hurt either.)
Once the Christian reader has dined on poetic fare as rich as this, how could he be satisfied with the thin gruel of sentimentality or with the hard biscuit of the cynical? Once we have known the sacred touch of real love, two made one flesh, both gift from God and image of his love for us, how could we ever again be content with poetic pornography?
Benjamin Myers is Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature at Oklahoma Baptist University and the 2015–2016 Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?