In his Introduction to “The Oxford Book of Christian Verse,” Lord David Cecil writes that “Religious emotion is the most sublime known to man,” but in the same paragraph adds that “a large proportion of religious verse is poor stuff” and that “those poets who have invoked both the sacred and the profane must have, with some striking exceptions, found themselves more comfortable with the profane.”
Some might offer as a rebuttal that, in all the realm of rhyme and rhythm, we find many more huts and shacks made of words than castles. Yet, Lord Cecil has a point. Much of what we might call religious verse is secondhand in its quality, fit for a greeting card perhaps, but forgotten as soon as it’s read.
And so, before considering the work of some devotional poets, let’s take a quick look at the obstacles faced by poets in attempting the communication of divine truth and beauty through verse.
The Things of This World
Lord Cecil himself briefly undertakes this investigation. He writes, for instance, that few poets possess the power of a William Blake to “forge new and living symbols for the cosmic mysteries of spiritual experience.”
Lord Cecil compares the “spontaneous expression of the spirit” of the Hebrew psalmists to our own age, when a writer, rather than saying what he really feels about God and faith, puts down on paper “what he thinks he ought to feel; and he speaks not in his own voice but in the solemn tones that seem fitting to his solemn subject.”
In other words, sophistication stands between modern poets and the faith they seek to express.
Moreover, since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has turned away from theology in favor of more materialistic philosophies. These schools of thought range from the pragmatism of William James to the communism of Karl Marx, a spectrum leaving little room for religious faith.
Poets reflected this shift in their own work, expounding on nature and concrete realities. As Alexander Pope wrote nearly 300 years ago: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/ The proper study of mankind is man.”
The Things of the Next World
Nonetheless, the English language boasts poetic works with subjects and themes derived from that same faith which produced cathedrals and universities, mystics and Puritans.
For example, the anonymous 14th-century author of the dream-vision poem “Pearl” beautifully renders the death of a child and her father’s dream of heaven. Geoffrey Chaucer gave us a panorama of the people, mindset, and heart of that same century, as in “The Prioress’s Tale,” in its religious devotion. John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” his epic covering Lucifer’s fall from heaven and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden, is accounted one of the great works of world literature.
Even in more recent times, when the candles of religious fervor have guttered, English-speaking poets have produced verses based on faith, scripture, and theology. Critics in the 20th century heaped praise on T.S. Eliot’s song of despair, “The Waste Land,” but Eliot himself believed that his exploration of faith and spirit in “Four Quartets” was his highest achievement. And William Baer, in his fine collection “Formal Salutations” includes some selections from a previous volume, “Psalter,” in which he weaves modern sensibilities into stories from Scripture.
Some Voices in the Choir
Some composers of verse have written so deeply and prolifically of their spiritual beliefs that critics and readers have since identified them as religious poets. Most anthologies describe George Herbert in this fashion, and rightly so, and the metaphysical poet John Donne, whom Lord Cecil describes as taking “first place among English Christian poets,” stands alongside him.
Then there is that far more numerous company who, though less remarked on for their religious verse, nonetheless display a keen sensibility toward the divine. “Because I could not stop for Death,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “He kindly stopped for me;/ The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”
In “L’Envoi,” Rudyard Kipling, bard of the barracks, war, and empire, wrote of heaven as being a sort of grand atelier:
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for the fame;
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!
Christina Rossetti, a favorite of mine, is noted both for her religious poetry and for her verses for children. Particularly lovely for its rhythm and subtlety is “Uphill,” in which she describes, in question-and-answer fashion, a journey to heaven. Here are the beginning and ending stanzas of this simple, sweet poem:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
And often, of course, the passage of time and fashion conceal or erase some commendable religious poems. In the now out-of-print “Masterpieces of Religious Verse, 2020 Poems by 900 Poets,” which I obtained from the public library before beginning this article, I stumbled across Marguerite Wilkinson’s “Guilty.” I’d never heard of Wilkinson or her poem, but what she wrote hit home with me. Here’s the piece in its entirety:
I never cut my neighbor’s throat;
My neighbor’s gold I never stole;
I never spoiled his house and land;
But God have mercy on my soul!
For I am haunted night and day
By all the deeds I have not done;
O unattempted loveliness!
O costly valor never won!
Great work? Probably not. Sentimental? Definitely. Yet, for me Wilkinson connected, and in poetry that is absolutely crucial.
Academics and social commentators assert that we in the West are living in a post-Christian culture. That assertion is only partially true. We no longer tell time by church bells, as did our medieval ancestors; we have ceased as a society to care much about religious strictures, unless we deem them threats to our politically correct niceties; and church attendance has declined for decades.
In fact, churches themselves have contributed to this demise. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, for example, the government deemed places of worship as nonessential. Nearly all churches went along with this argument without protest, closing their doors and thereby rendering themselves “nonessential.”
But “post-Christian culture” is a sloppy and careless description. The West may be a post-Christian society, but culture has no place in that equation. The roots of our culture are found in the soil of antiquity, in the tribe of Abraham and Moses, the Athens of Socrates, and the Rome of Cicero.
The trunk and branches of that tree grew and flourished in the sunlight and waters of Christianity. Cut down that tree, and the only culture left will be a dead stump and the sawdust in the grass. And so far, despite the efforts of some, the tree of culture still has resisted the axes and chainsaws of radicals.
Our Christian-Haunted Culture
Those who declare that Western civilization is dead, as some have said of God, put me in mind of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” in which a man is pursued by “I am He Whom thou seekest!” Here are the opening lines:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; …
Culture pursues us in the same way. We can deny it, seek to destroy 4,000 years of history, run from it—but real escape is impossible. The poets cited here, and a thousand more, pay homage, however subtly, to a Christian culture, and they are only the tip of the iceberg of our Western heritage.
We don’t need to profess a creed, attend church, or even be a person of faith to acknowledge and appreciate that historical reality. When we read the classic religious verse of the West, just as when we marvel at the Book of Kells, Handel’s “Messiah,” Chartres Cathedral, or the paintings of the Sistine Chapel, we immerse ourselves in the beauty and mystery of art that belongs not just to a particular faith or civilization, but to the entire world.
‘The Oxford Book of Christian Verse’
By Lord David Cecil
Oxford University Press, 1940
Hardcover: 594 pages