When I became a man, I put away childish things.
—St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13
Most Christians misunderstand the relationship of poetry to their faith. They consider it an admirable but minor aspect of religious practice—elegant verbal decoration in honor of the divine. They recognize poetry’s place in worship. Congregations need hymns, and the Psalms should be recited. A few cultured believers even advocate the spiritual benefits of reading religious verse. But most Christians have a more practical and morally urgent sense of their faith. Who has time for poetry when so many important things need to be done? Art is a luxury, perhaps even a distraction, not a necessity. Gird up thy loins like a grown-up and put away childish things, including the charming frippery of verse. Such attitudes misconstrue both poetry and worship. Christianity may be many things, but it is not prosaic.
Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice. The fact that most Christians would consider that assertion absurd does not invalidate it. Their disagreement only demonstrates how remote the contemporary Church has become from its own origins. It also suggests that sacred poetry is so interwoven into the fabric of Scripture and worship as to become invisible. At the risk of offending most believers, it is necessary to state a simple but unacknowledged truth: It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry.
Why should anyone believe such a claim? Let’s start with Scripture, the universal foundation of Christianity. No believer can ignore the curious fact that one-third of the Bible is written in verse. Sacred poetry is not confined to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations. The prophetic books are written mostly in verse. The wisdom books—Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes—are all poems, each in a different genre. There are also poetic passages in the five books of Moses and the later histories. Prose passages suddenly break into lyric celebrations or lamentations to mark important events.
When David, triumphant in battle, learns that Saul and Jonathan have perished, he mourns his beloved opponents and cries out, “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: How are the mighty fallen!” His lament unfolds into one of the great elegies in the Western canon. The Old Testament is full of such lyric moments, often spoken by women who use poetry to voice their deepest feelings. When the widowed Ruth begs to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi, she expresses herself in words that transform the emotional nature of the narrative. Until now the two women have just been figures in an old story; suddenly they come alive as loving and suffering human beings:
For whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried:
The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
These ancient Hebrew and Aramaic poems remain vividly present in English—and not only for Christians—because the King James Bible had the good fortune to be translated in the age of Shakespeare. Commissioned by James I for the Church of England, the so-called “Authorized Version” was published in 1611. The translators took special care to convey the poetic power of the verse passages. The English Renaissance was not an age of prose. No book has had a more profound effect on English-language poetry, and it still shapes the Christian liturgy, even for Catholics, though they tried to deny it.
There are no books of verse in the New Testament, but poetry is woven into the fabric of both the Gospels and the Epistles. What are the Beatitudes but a poem carefully shaped in the tradition of prophetic verse? The Book of Apocalypse (or Revelation in the Protestant Bible) is a prose poem, full of sound and symbol. Some scholars believe that the original Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer was in verse. In Philippians (2:5–11), when Paul presents Christ as the model for humility and obedience, the Apostle quotes a Greek poem about the Incarnation and Crucifixion.
Given the low esteem in which most Christians hold poetry, we might wonder why there is so much of it in sacred Scripture. Its ubiquity must confuse no-nonsense believers studying the Bible. Why not say things in plain prose? (Certainly most of the New American Bible translators think so; they render the poetic passages as flatly as prose.) After all, Scripture exists to guide the lives of the faithful. Doesn’t poetry make Holy Writ harder to understand? Should we assume that God and his prophets had poor editorial judgment? Did Jesus not know how to give a sermon? The questions may be blasphemous, but they probably express the unspoken frustration that many believers feel.
O taste and see that the Lord is good.
To consider the question of poetry’s relation to Christianity, let’s look at one of the most important episodes in the Gospels—the moment when Mary first shares the news of the Incarnation. Informed by Gabriel that she will be, indeed already is, the mother of the Messiah, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. This “Visitation” is the first time the mystery of the Incarnation is shared with the world. Mary does not report the news in factual terms. She speaks the words of a poem. Her lyric utterance has come to be called the “Magnificat.” In the Book of Common Prayer (1662) it begins:
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall
call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me:
And holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout
He hath shewed strength with his arm:
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of
He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
This passage needs to be considered, and not only for its stately beauty. In the Gospel of Luke, when Mary announces the news of Christ to humanity, she speaks in poetry, not prose. Why do the Virgin—and Luke—do something so preposterous when they could just speak plainly? Because they both know that ordinary language will not suffice. Prose cannot express the extent of Mary’s wonder, joy, and gratitude. Plain statement will not evoke the unique miracle of God’s becoming man. The Incarnation requires an ode, not an email.
Poetry is the most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words. It is a special way of speaking that shapes the sound and rhythm of words. In the ancient world, most poems were sung or chanted. That musical identity remains central to the art. A poem is speech raised to the level of song; it casts a momentary spell over the listener. People hear it differently from ordinary talk. They become more alert to every level of meaning. Poetry is, to borrow a phrase from Ezra Pound, “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
Mary, Luke, and the prophets spoke in poetry because they understood that some truths require the utmost power of language to carry the full weight of their meaning. It isn’t just intellectual meaning at stake but also emotional, imaginative, and experiential meaning—all of the ways in which humans understand this world and imagine the next. To stir faith in things unseen, poetry evokes a deeper response than do abstract ideas. Angels may be content to speak in prose, but incarnate beings like us require the physicality of poetry.
Sacred poetry is a human universal. Every culture has felt the need to invoke and describe the divine in the most potent language possible. Poetry itself seems to have originated in sacred ritual. Only gradually did the art expand into secular uses. Since the development of poetry as an art predates the invention of writing, the genealogy of sacred verse is lost in prehistory. It is always hard to assign an exact date or occasion to surviving ancient texts. Even the dating of the Old Testament is difficult to establish; the books were composed and compiled across a millennium.
For Christian poetry, however, it is possible to assign its emergence to a specific moment: Mary’s announcement of the Incarnation. Christian poetry begins—quite literally—at the first moment in which Christ is announced to humanity. That origin demonstrates the supreme and inextricable importance of poetry to Christian experience. In Scripture, verse is the idiom for the revelation of mystery.
For most believers, the truths of their faith have become platitudes taught in catechism or Sunday school. The mysteries of faith—those strange events such as the Incarnation, Transfiguration, and Resurrection—have lost their awe and wonder and become replaced by sensible morality and proper reverence. There is nothing wrong with morality or reverence, but pious propriety is a starvation diet for the soul. Modern versions of the Bible, which translate verse passages into prosaic language for the supposed sake of clarity, are mistranslations, since they change the effect of the text.
Christianity is not animated by rules or reverence; it is inspired by supernatural mystery. “Certum est quia impossibile,” said the Church Father Tertullian about Christ’s resurrection. He believed it not because it made sense, but just the opposite: “It is certain because it is impossible.” The truths of Christianity, from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, are mysteries beyond rational explanation. The Trinity is both three and one. Christ is both human and divine. A virgin gave birth to a son. We don’t apprehend the realities of faith through rational arguments; we feel them intuitively through vision and imagination. Faith comes first, reason much later. Theology is necessarily an afterthought; it reasons from the certainties of faith, not toward them.
When Jesus preached, he told stories, spoke poems, and offered proverbs. The Beatitudes are a poem about the merciful Kingdom of God in contrast to the selfish world of mankind. Jesus was not much concerned with theology. He left that to posterity. He did not ask his listeners to think their way to salvation; he wanted them to taste and see the goodness of God. He told them stories in which they could see themselves. He spoke to people as creatures with both a body and soul. He addressed them in the fullness of their fallen humanity, driven by contradictory appetites, emotions, and imagination.
Jesus did not offer a creed composed of ideas. He mostly offered a vision: the Kingdom of God, a divine father who loves his children. In this new covenant, God rules not by laws but by love. Laws are ideas written in prose. (The oldest surviving examples of Near Eastern prose are inevitably legalistic—regulations, financial accounts, political appointments, dispositions of property.) Love is an emotion—the traditional venue of poetry. Theologians still argue about exactly what the “Kingdom” means in conceptual terms, but the appeal of Jesus’s proclamation was to the primal emotions and experience of familial love, not to schoolmaster’s logic. All of the sacraments engage the body and imagination with physical symbols that represent spiritual transformation. They communicate, as poems do, to the full human intelligence—body, mind, and soul—without asking the recipients to divide themselves into anything less than their total identity.The explanation of a sacrament is not only less than the experience of it; the act of explaining, however clarifying, confers no grace.
The early Church understood the necessity of incorporating poetry into worship. The text of the Mass was interwoven with quotations from Hebrew sacred poetry, especially the Psalms. In the Middle Ages, the Church felt that major feast days deserved special celebration beyond the standard order of the Mass. The great Latin sequences—long poems recited or chanted only once a year—were created to help the congregation contemplate the mysteries of faith. These sequences are among the finest poems of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. They were never obligatory parts of the Mass, but they were so popular they became traditional. Pentecost heard Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”), considered so beautiful it was called the “golden sequence.” The feast of Corpus Christi had Lauda Sion (“Praise Sion”), written by Thomas Aquinas. All Souls’ Day had the apocalyptic poem Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), which described the Last Judgment. The Stabat Mater, which depicts Mary witnessing the Crucifixion, was chanted or sung on both Good Friday and the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. These sequences and others were set to music by countless composers.
When the Second Vatican Council dropped these sequences from the Catholic missal, it demonstrated how remote the Church had become from its own traditions. The new Church wanted to reengage the broader world and get rid of the musty traditions of the past. Vatican II wanted to be practical, positive, and modern; its motto was aggiornamento, Italian for “bringing things up to date.” The poetic sequences, which had seemed so splendid to the old Church—rapturous artistic vehicles for the contemplation of divine mysteries—felt too pious, formal, and elaborate for modern worship.
The Vatican II vision, the notion that the future could be created by stripping away the past, is still prevalent in many Christian churches. It resembled the modern architectural theories of the German Bauhaus school, which stripped buildings of all decoration, reducing them to streamlined squares and rectangles made of glass, stone, and steel. “Form follows function,” the Bauhaus architects proclaimed. Their geometric monuments line the business districts of modern cities—massive, anonymous, and inhuman. Beauty proved more difficult to calculate than occupancy and square footage, especially by architects who didn’t understand that its function was not decorative but foundational. Beauty would have integrated humans into the buildings.
Bishops and cardinals are as bad as economists at predicting the future. The aggiornamento of the Catholic Church decided that a good way to embrace the future was to end the requirements for fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays. That gesture proved an ironic bid for popular approval as the general culture turned toward dieting and vegetarianism. In the same way, the Church was embarrassed by the dire vision of the Dies Irae. No one wants to hear about Judgment Day and the Apocalypse. Keep the message positive.
Meanwhile, contemporary popular culture became obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future. Thousands of movies, video games, television series, graphic novels, and songs depicted the horrors waiting at the end of time. The new generation became fascinated with watching the dead rise, especially in what came to be called the Zombie Apocalypse. Medieval poets, it seems, knew more about the dark corners of the human imagination than did the trendy prelates of the 1960s. Promise of perpetual sunshine does not relieve anxieties about nightfall. Relaxing the rules is not as attractive as having the right rules. You can’t envision eternal happiness without understanding the alternative. Old rules and even old poems have their purpose.
This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.
—J. V. Cunningham
What is Christian poetry? No two critics or editors seem to agree. Pick up half a dozen anthologies of Christian verse, and you will find almost entirely different definitions of what belongs in them. This confusion arises from the anxiety even intelligent writers have about the relationship between religion and literature. They wonder whether there is any common ground between faith and poetry.
No one doubts that sacred literature qualifies as Christian poetry. The verse found in Scripture, especially the Old Testament, forms the foundation of Christian literature. Likewise, no one questions the place of devotional verse—hymns, prayers, meditations, and other poems created to inspire spirituality and bring the reader closer to the divine. There has been a continual tradition of devotional verse since Apostolic days. In English it has attracted some of the finest poets in the language, including John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The problems arise when one considers poetry that is not so explicitly religious in subject and style. Literary historians sometimes make the case that any poet who wrote from a predominantly Christian culture should be included. When scholars speak about Islamic poetry, for example, they use the term in a general way to cover all verse written by Muslims, since they assume that even poems on secular subjects will reflect Islamic values and beliefs. Under this definition virtually all English poetry written before 1700 would qualify, since the society in which the poets lived was overwhelmingly Christian in both public and private life. Poetry was written by Christians for their fellow believers. The authors might be notorious sinners and their audience no better, but their worldview and spiritual values were shaped by their common faith. Even the occasional atheist, such as Christopher Marlowe, could dissent only within the existing categories of Christian thought; The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, designed to be shocking and blasphemous, was nonetheless a theologically orthodox play.
The problem with this sociological definition is that we are no longer living in the seventeenth century. Our society, even in the West, is no longer predominantly Christian; contemporary religious practice and opinion are diverse beyond reckoning. Without clear extrinsic criteria, we need to look at qualities intrinsic to each work or the author’s identity.
This situation leaves us with three possible criteria—all of which have been used by modern anthologists and scholars. The first is identity-based: Christian poetry is verse written by professing Christian authors. This theory holds that writers will naturally express their religious visions, overtly or implicitly, in their work. Some critics even claim that any author who was raised Christian qualifies as a Christian author, no matter what his or her current beliefs. There is much to be said for this definition; poets often express their beliefs and values indirectly, and authors are not fully conscious of all the meanings their works contain. This identity-based criterion, however, nonetheless feels extraneous or peripheral, since it focuses on the writer rather than the work. Surely an author’s creed matters, but only insofar as it is reflected in the poems themselves. Shouldn’t the poem itself matter more than its author?
A second theory focuses on the religious content of the poetry. This approach states that Christian poetry is verse that expresses Church dogma or doctrine from the point of view of a believer. The subject must be explicitly religious and its framework orthodox. The tone may vary from reverent to rebellious as long as the work itself is anchored in what Donald Davie in his New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981) called “the distinctive doctrines of the Christian Church.” He listed these as the Incarnation, Redemption, Judgment, the Holy Trinity, the Fall. This definition is clear, relevant, and consistent. The problem is that it feels restrictive. Is a Christian author Christian only when speaking about matters of doctrine? Are poets with unorthodox views, such as William Blake or Emily Dickinson, to be excluded?
A third definition stands in gentle opposition to the orthodox view. This theory holds that Christian poetry is verse that addresses any spiritual theme or religious subject. The author’s views need not be orthodox as long as the topics are treated with authentic engagement. Even the topics don’t need to be specifically Christian as long as they are spiritual. This criterion is the most common position today; it reflects the inclusive and tolerant tendencies of modern Christianity. This is also the approach that Davie rebuffed in his anthology—perhaps because it was the editorial philosophy of his predecessor, Lord David Cecil. In the first Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1940), Cecil didn’t care much about doctrine or dogma; he wanted the sublime expression of “religious emotion.” Piety mattered not at all, though he didn’t object to it. Religious doubt was fine as long as it generated creative energy. Cecil desired literary quality and spiritual vigor.
Such an inclusive and nondoctrinaire approach is attractive. It doesn’t define Christian poetry only as devotional verse. It understands that religious poetry communicates differently than does doctrinal prose; it acknowledges that emotion and evocation are more important than assertion and argumentation. Literary quality matters more than doctrinal purity. What’s not to like? The trouble is that without some boundary this definition becomes so expansive that it can include anything vaguely spiritual.
Each of these theories provides some insight into the idea of Christian verse, but no single approach is satisfactory. An adequate theory needs to be responsive to both the literary and the religious nature of the tradition. Poetic merit and Christian identity are separate qualities, but a meaningful definition of Christian poetry must include both. Without literary quality, religious verse is merely didactic writing. However uplifting to the faithful, verse sermons and moral exhortation are a second-class branch of literature. As T. S. Eliot remarked in “Religion and Literature” (1935), “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.”
If we combine the best features of the various approaches, we might define Christian poetry as verse that explicitly or implicitly addresses religious subjects, written by authors who view existence from a Christian perspective. The poets may demonstrate firm faith, gnawing doubt, or even lapsed childhood practice, but they write from within a shared system of belief. Christian poetry is not a matter of subject matter or personal sanctity. It is the work of writers whose imagination is shaped by the tenets, symbols, and traditions of the faith.
A common religious identity does not make poets artistically constrained or homogeneous. In her historical survey, Christian Poetry (1965), Elizabeth Jennings observed how much artistic diversity and innovation she found in the lineage of Christian poets: “They are all very individual and also possessed of a great sense of liberty.” Reading Donne, Herbert, Milton, Blake, and Hopkins, no one would conclude that faith extinguished their individuality; faith ignited it. The same is true of modern authors. T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and the underrated Jennings do not sound alike. Each has a different sense of the art.
Whether they are devout or skeptical, Christian authors tend to see the world in characteristic ways. This is especially true of the Anglo-Catholic traditions that have been the mainstream of English religious poetry. Christian poets see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They recognize humanity’s imperfection and the temptations of both the flesh and the spirit. Mankind is in need of grace and redemption. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. All creation is charged with divine glory, though God himself remains invisible. Jesus has redeemed humanity through his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Salvation is available to all who follow Christ’s way. The individual life finds meaning in its journey toward death and eternity. Finally, these poets have a double sense of reality; behind the material world, they feel another realm of existence—invisible, eternal, and divine—to which they also belong. One purpose of religious poetry is to make that hidden world tangible.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
—W. B. Yeats
Christianity has been a powerful force in shaping English-language poetry. Although the nature of its influence has changed over time, it has played a significant role in every period, even in the secular modern age. If one compares the canon of English poetry to that of France or Germany—or even to that of Italy after the age of Dante and Petrarch—its Christian character becomes striking. Religious themes and preoccupations have greater importance and continuity. Only Spain has an equally rich and deep tradition. Christianity was not incidental to English poetry; the history of its Christian verse is also a history of its spiritual consciousness. Even when its writers abandoned religious practice, they professed secular versions of Christian ideals.
In the medieval period, nearly all poetry reflected the Catholic culture of England. There were overtly religious poems such as The Dream of the Rood, an Anglo-Saxon work from the eighth century in which the speaker recounts his dream vision of Christ’s cross. Even secular medieval poems express a Catholic worldview. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1400), the greatest work of the English Middle Ages, presents twenty-four poetic tales told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The stories range across different genres, from ribald sketches (“The Miller’s Tale”) to devout fables (“The Parson’s Tale”), but the poem’s religious framework leaves no doubt about the author’s spiritual worldview. Even pagan poems, such as Beowulf, were revised by scribes to incorporate Christian themes.
English Renaissance poetry reflects the influence of Christian humanism from continental authors such as Petrarch and Erasmus, who sought to combine classical wisdom with modern knowledge. As British society grew more commercial, urban, and complex, the literature became more secular in its concerns without losing its underlying religious worldview. “Poetry never, when it is healthy, works in isolation,” observed Elizabeth Jennings. “It always reacts to what is going on around it.”
England’s literature, like its burgeoning maritime economy, grew more international. Aristocratic poets, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, borrowed the sonnet from Italian and put the old Sicilian form to new uses. But even their love poems, like those of Petrarch and Dante, had a theological framework. Meanwhile religion itself became politically divisive, and sometimes violent, as Henry VIII broke from Rome to establish the Church of England. Catholics survived as a persecuted minority, but they soon had little public voice. Some Papists plotted in secret to restore the old order; most worshipped covertly and avoided Anglican services.
William Shakespeare, whose own religious affiliation remains obscure, was nevertheless the product of a recusant milieu. But, if he was a Papist, the Bard of Avon saw no advantage in advertising his dissent. Several of his contemporaries who had participated in religious controversies ended up dead or imprisoned. Shakespeare’s personal goals were not spiritual but artistic and practical; he wanted literary fame and financial success—hardly unusual objectives for an ambitious writer. When he retired from the theater in 1611 at the age of forty-seven, he was recognized as the greatest playwright in England; he was also the most successful theatrical producer in Europe.
Shakespeare kept silent on religion. Yet one finds Christian themes and symbols in his plays. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, the most popular action genre of Elizabethan theater, but the hero’s vengeance is curbed by his religious qualms and moral values. Shakespeare’s comedies include the raucous humor of his age, but they also celebrate the transformative power of love and reconciliation. Most significant in this respect are his final plays, the romances: The Tempest, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles. These fabulous tales of adventure present mysterious dramas of forgiveness and redemption. Indeed, Shakespeare’s notion of romance represents a Christian transfiguration of tragedy. Potentially tragic plots end not in death and violence but in clemency, compassion, and reconciliation—often accomplished by the surprising resurrection of a character presumed dead. The full implication of these magical plays would not be realized until the modern era when Eliot, Auden, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal revived poetic drama.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are more secular in their concerns since they dramatize a complicated romantic triangle, the poet’s anxiety at approaching middle age, and his hunger for literary immortality. Nonetheless they mark a turning point in religious verse. The author’s emotional candor, his acknowledgment of contradictory impulses, his meticulous introspection, and his confession of shameful motivations represent an innovation in lyric poetry beyond anything found in Petrarch or Sidney. Like Hamlet, the sonnets display a level of psychological realism and self-analysis new to European literature. This tendency would develop in British literature, eventually culminating in what F. R. Leavis called the “Great Tradition” of the novel, in the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James.
The profound interiority and moral framework of the sonnets are deeply Christian, though Shakespeare presents himself as a compassionate and charming sinner. Nevertheless, he worries about the spiritual consequences of his actions. He depicts his sexual imbroglio in the traditional religious tableau of a soul caught between a guardian angel and tempting devil:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
Occasionally, the poet breaks out in terror and despair. “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,” Shakespeare exclaims as he contemplates death and judgment. The painful candor and introspective passion of these poems had an enormous impact on the more devout generation of writers that followed him.
By the time Shakespeare died in 1616, the situation of English culture had changed. The Puritans he had satirized in his plays had grown in number and influence. Fierce divisions emerged in the new Church of England. Traditional Protestants struggled to preserve a modified version of Catholic practices, but Puritan reformists sought to cleanse the Anglican Church and the country itself from its Roman past. By 1642 the debate had erupted into a long civil war that eventually led to the execution of Charles I and the foundation of the short-lived Commonwealth ruled by Oliver Cromwell. (The Puritans also closed the theaters as dens of vice in 1642, thereby ending the greatest age of English drama.) The religious battles in the political sphere transformed the country’s literature. The same fervor that fueled the English Civil War ignited the imagination of its writers. To a considerable degree, religious identity became personal identity.
The seventeenth century is the greatest period of religious poetry in English. Indeed, it equals any period of Christian verse in any language. The explosive intellectual energy of the Protestant Reformation found expression in the English poetic imagination. The measure of its spiritual stature is demonstrated not only by the quality and diversity of its major poets—John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Andrew Marvell, John Milton, and John Dryden (as well as English-born Anne Bradstreet); it is also evident in their passionate interest in spiritual matters. As Jennings has observed, “Without exaggeration, one can say that all the best verse of this time is religious in spirit.” The poetry is also innovative in its introspective intensity.
The new generation took the interiority of Shakespeare’s sonnets one step further. It cultivated a mystical sensibility—a spiritual ability to merge human consciousness into the divine, to push beyond the physical senses into a spiritual or metaphysical realm. Donne and Herbert address God in intimate terms. Donne implores, challenges, and quarrels with God. Herbert converses with the Deity as if he were physically present. Vaughan, the purest mystic of them all, loses himself in visions of eternity.
Samuel Johnson nicknamed these writers the “metaphysical poets.” It was not meant as a compliment. Johnson found their style complicated and pretentious, but his label was truer than he intended. These poets actually had a metaphysical sense of reality in which time and eternity, matter and spirit existed side by side, and the diligent soul could catch glimpses of the infinite. Vaughan required no elaborate rhetoric to report the vision afforded by his prayers.
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved . . .
Neither the mystical age of English verse nor the Commonwealth of Lord Protector Cromwell lasted very long. When the Puritan leader died in 1658, his son lost control of the government. The monarchy was restored, and for three years England, Scotland, and Ireland had a Catholic king, James II. It was an untenable political solution. James soon fled to France and was replaced by a Protestant, William III, the ruler of the Dutch Republic. Thereafter the monarchy has remained securely Protestant.
As religious and political fervor cooled, so did British poetry. The eighteenth century is best remembered for its satiric and philosophical poetry. The major figures—John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Gray—were all practicing Christians. (Swift was an ordained minister.) For the most part, however, religious concerns were secondary in their sophisticated and polished work. The ardent religious impulse of the age emerged in poets who wrote hymns. Whereas the previous century had explored the private and mystical side of religious experience, the new age celebrated the public and communal aspects of faith.
The three greatest hymnists of English literature appeared in quick succession: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper. Although their theology was consistent with that of Herbert and Vaughan, their style was radically different. They were not concerned with articulating their private sensibilities; they sought to voice the common aspirations of Christians gathered in worship.
A hymn is no less poetic than a sonnet, but it avoids complex soliloquy. If poetry is language raised to the level of song, a hymn is a poem to be sung in chorus. Great hymns are rarer than great poems because their transparent simplicity reveals any flaw. They must be direct in both meaning and emotion and yet deliver musical and memorable language. Hymns are not meant to survive as texts alone; they live in their musical settings. Nonetheless a few make a joyful noise even on the silent page:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Mystical poets seek to extinguish their individual consciousness by merging with the divine. Few manage this difficult ascent. Hymnists allow the members of a congregation to merge their separate souls into a united body of the gathered church. Mystical poets appear a few times a century; the miracle of hymns occurs each time the faithful gather.
It is only a few steps from William Cowper’s divine mineshaft to the celestial blacksmith shop of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Blake is the transitional figure from the Augustan into the Romantic age. A vibrant and visionary Christian, he developed an idiosyncratic creed that bore little relation to any orthodoxy. He went so far as to write his own sacred and prophetic books. His singular genius, however, found its strongest expression in short poems of apocalyptic power such as “London,” “Holy Thursday,” and “The Tyger.” England had not seen such a visionary poet since the Middle Ages:
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
“The Tyger” has been repeatedly ranked as the most popular poem in English—a statistic that puts to rest the notion that readers enjoy only simple and sentimental poems. Readers are drawn to genuine mystery and wonder.
As the Romantic age progressed, many poets lost interest in religion as a subject. They were more preoccupied with the political, scientific, and philosophical concerns of the Napoleonic age. John Keats was a Platonist and Deist, Percy Bysshe Shelley an outspoken atheist. Lord Byron was orthodox in his beliefs, which were seldom reflected in his verse (or his behavior). William Wordsworth was a religious man who saw the poet’s role as prophetic, but his Christianity expressed itself most eloquently in pantheistic Deism. He grew more devout and conventional in middle age, to the detriment of his verse. His pious Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) marked the lowest point of his career. Read any page of it outdoors—the stupefied bees will stop buzzing and the birds fall senseless from the trees.
Victorian poets made a grand drama of their religious doubt, especially Alfred Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. Tennyson ultimately came down on the side of belief and Arnold chose doubt, but in both cases their emotional and intellectual struggles feel more credible than their conclusions. When Victorian poets write about Christianity, their characteristic tone is elegiac. The Sea of Faith is slipping away while the teary-eyed bard stands helpless on the shore.
America had been the destination of the dissenting sects, unwilling to join the Church of England. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and Anglicans set up their churches in a free market of religious belief. They were joined by German Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Catholics, and Jews. This situation gave the American colonies exceptional religious diversity. There was neither an established church nor an accepted orthodoxy. The freedom was reflected in the individuality of the major poets.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow followed the Transcendentalist Zeitgeist into Unitarianism. Longfellow (like Tennyson) kept a residual reverence for Christ; but for Emerson, Jesus was no more divine than any other person. “Dare to love God without a mediator,” he declared. Jesus still had reality for Emily Dickinson, but he was a comforter of her own making, in no way central to the pantheism and deism that animated her poetry. Other writers left Christianity entirely. Edgar Allan Poe professed an aesthetic idealism. Walt Whitman found divinity in every human being and nearly everything else in the world. The Protestant literary imagination had fragmented Christianity into the individual consciences of its believers and its doubters. In the process, Christ had mostly disappeared.
Orthodoxy returned with the theologically confident Catholic poets who emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with the Oxford Movement, led by the charismatic John Henry Newman, a theologian and poet. Newman had left the Church of England in 1845 to become a Roman Catholic. He attracted many followers among the Anglican intelligentsia. After three centuries of marginalization, the revival of English Catholic letters unfolded slowly—initially through highly educated converts rather than the working poor who populated the new British parishes. These writers still faced social and professional discrimination, but they made faith central to their literary vision. The Victorian literary converts included Coventry Patmore, Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, and preeminently Gerard Manley Hopkins, though his remarkably original poetry remained unknown until the twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century another convert appeared—G. K. Chesterton, who became the chief apologist and provocateur for the Roman literary revival. He was joined by Hilaire Belloc, an Anglo-French cradle Catholic. Minor poets with major minds, Chesterton and Belloc were smart, brash, and wickedly funny. Unintimidated by their intellectual foes, they swaggered when others would have taken cover. For the first time since the Elizabethan Age, there was an outspoken Catholic presence in English verse. The revival was soon felt in Ireland, still under British rule, but it took another fifty years to manifest itself in America. The U.S. Catholic population mostly consisted of poor immigrants, many of whom did not speak English as a native language. Only in the aftermath of World War II did a new generation of American Catholics, the first to receive advanced education, become an influential part of the literary world.
Although the Modernist period is usually characterized as a secular age, it is more accurately seen as a divided one. Many poets embraced a scientific or materialistic worldview. Others adopted politics as a substitute for faith. In both cases Christianity was seen as an anachronism. Nonetheless Christianity continued and its poetry enjoyed a surprising resurgence. For the new religious writers, so many of them converts, faith was not a passive inheritance; it was a new spiritual identity. Modern Christian poets are too numerous to list, but two major poets—T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden—serve as representative figures.
Eliot was raised as a Unitarian, Auden as an Anglo-Catholic; both lapsed. Then in early middle age, both poets returned to Christianity. (Though Auden’s homosexuality could have complicated his return, he refused to see it as an impediment.) Each poet articulated a nuanced, existential Anglo-Catholicism, informed by modern philosophical perspectives. Their ideas resonated in a newly revitalized religious culture guided by persuasive critics such as C. S. Lewis, Allen Tate, Helen Gardner, Jacques Maritain, and Kathleen Raine. Eliot and Auden no longer wrote for a coherent Christian society, as had Donne and Herbert, but they helped validate faith as a legitimate response to the modern situation, the task that had seemed impossible to so many Victorian intellectuals.
This brief and inadequate historical survey is offered to demonstrate the powerful continuity of Christian poetry in English. Our literary canon is suffused with religious consciousness, which has expressed itself in ways beyond the imagination of theology and apologetics. Milton boasted that his Paradise Lost would “justify the ways of God to men,” but his masterpiece was only one of countless poems that engaged, enlarged, and refined the spirituality of the English-speaking world. Christianity went so deeply into the collective soul of the culture that its impact continues even in our secular age.
This poetry also continues to have cultural presence. Every poet mentioned in this account is still read, studied, and quoted—even ones you think you don’t know, such as Ernest Dowson. Meanwhile the inspirational prose of the same periods has been mostly forgotten, even by specialists. If that seems unfair, remember that the goddess Memory was the mother of the Muses. Poetry is language designed to be remembered. As Robert Frost observed, “it is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” Christians are enriched by studying their own past, especially poetry that allows them to see and feel it from the inside.
I gotta use words when I talk to you.
—T. S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes
Christianity has survived into the twenty-first century, but it has not come through unscathed. It has kept its head and its heart—the clarity of its beliefs and its compassionate mission. The problem is that it has lost its senses, all five of them. Great is the harvest, and greater still the hunger it must feed, but its call into the world has become faint and abstract. Contemporary Christianity speaks mostly in ideas. Potent ideas, to be sure, but colorless and hackneyed in their expression. Christian principles are validated by the living example of millions dedicated to service and good works, though those works are often ignored or misrepresented by the secular world. The head and the heart are strong, but they don’t constitute a complete language or engage the fullness of human intelligence.
A major challenge of Christianity today is to recover the language of the senses and to recapture faith’s natural relationship with beauty. There is much conversation nowadays about beauty among theologians and clergy. They seem to consider it a philosophical problem to be solved by analysis and apologetics. Those are the tools they have. Their relation to beauty is passive rather than creative. Even the clearest thinking can’t close the gap between how people experience their existence—a holistic mix of sensory data, emotions, memories, ideas, and imagination—and how the Church explains it—moral and spiritual concepts organized in a rational system. The theology isn’t wrong; it’s just not right for most occasions. It offers a laser when a lamp is what’s needed.
These things matter because we are incarnate beings. We see the shape and feel the texture of things. We instinctively know that the form of a thing is part of its meaning. We are drawn to beauty, not logic. Our experience of the divine is not primarily intellectual. We feel it with our bodies. We picture it in our imaginations. We hear it as a voice inside us. We are grateful for an explanation, but we crave inspiration, communion, rapture, epiphany.
Christianity has lost its traditional connection to the arts. It no longer understands at a visceral level that beauty is the most direct and potent way to communicate the divine. Whatever commitment there is to art is mostly retrospective—to preserve what the Church inherited from the past. No one is likely to turn St. Peter’s into a shopping mall or make Chartres into time-shares. But there is almost no meaningful creative engagement with the arts and artists of today. Christians and atheists agree on at least one thing: No one now associates the Church with the arts.
The reasons for the detachment of Christianity from artistic culture are too complicated to examine here. There are huge cultural, sociological, and economic barriers. No one has a solution for renewing faith’s relationship with the arts, except perhaps to pray. There is, however, a reasonable case for restoring the presence of poetry in the Church. The project will not seem important to many. “Why would it matter?” the practical believer might ask. It matters because we use words to worship, preach, and pray. It matters because Christianity is based on the words of Scripture. Words have more than mundane meaning in a faith that celebrates the Word-made-flesh.
It takes a century and several fortunes to build a cathedral; by comparison, poetry is cheap, quick, and—unlike St. John the Divine—it’s portable. It doesn’t require blocks of marble or a construction crew. Schoolchildren can manage it (and until recently they did). It’s even eco-friendly—a renewable resource that can be recycled from speaker to listener. It leaves no carbon footprint; the only feet are metrical.
All that is necessary to revive Christian poetry is a change in attitude—a conviction that perfunctory and platitudinous language will not suffice, an awareness that the goal of liturgy, homily, and education is not to condescend but to enliven and elevate. We need to recognize the power of language and use it in ways that engage both the sense and the senses of believers.
This change in attitude will require a sort of Great Awakening. If we lose the capacity to articulate our faith, we are diminished both individually and collectively. We will have no living language commensurate with our feelings and experience, no words to describe the glory of creation. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Let’s not describe it with bromides and clichés that barely suffice as slogans on the church marquee.
There is another reason why Christian poetry can be easily revived: It never entirely went away. Although its role in worship and education was curtailed and its music flattened by well-meaning but tone-deaf translators, there was simply too much of it to vanish. Poetry is too intimately connected to Christian identity. The words of old hymns still stir the hearts of congregations, especially coming after mouthing the banalities of pop worship tunes. The poetry of Job still electrifies readers, even in prosaic translation. They still hear the voice in the whirlwind command, “Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.”
We may not be able to give the horse his strength and clothe his neck with thunder, give goodly wings unto the peacock or number the clouds in wisdom. Such divine endowments are beyond human skill. But we can try to employ language that participates in that glory. We can use it in liturgy, weave it into homilies, strengthen our hymnody, and teach it in our schools. We might even craft new poems and songs that can stand beside the old. Ancient truths do not require worn-out language. Let the heathen rage and say vain things in workaday prose. We need language as radiant as our miracles and mysteries. We have to use words to speak to one another, to ourselves, and to God. Why not speak our truths with joy and splendor?
Dana Gioia is the former poet laureate of California. He is the author of Can Poetry Matter? and The Catholic Writer Today.
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