A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable
“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.
By Janice Harayda
As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.
Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?
Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …
“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”
In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
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© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.