In the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads, considered a central work of Romantic literary theory, William Wordsworth offered his famous definition of poetry. According to the great poet poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Poetry compresses human feeling and emotion into the account of whatever experience or thought the poet is conveying. It is a heightened form of language, obviously more artistic, and more concise. I have often used as an example of this the lovely line in Anna Waring’s superb hymn, “Father I Know That All My Life.” In asking for the grace of godliness the poet requests “a mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at thy side.” It would take paragraphs of prose to explain what every earnest Christian immediately understands by that single line and the prose paragraphs wouldn’t move us or help us nearly as much as Waring’s single line of poetry! In his introduction to the poetry of the Old Testament, Professor Jack Collins, known to many of us, writes that “poetry deals not simply with information, but with our experience of it.” It appeals to the mind as prose does, but in different ways. Obviously, poetry must be a very important, even essential means of human communication because there is so much of it in the Word of God. Certain subjects require it, or, at least, only poetry can do them full justice.
The artistry of poetry is conveyed, of course, by a great many techniques which vary from culture to culture and literary period to literary period. All forms of poetry typically make heavy use of imagery. The sound of words is also of great importance. But, for example, Hebrew poetry has no rhyme. English poetry does not depend upon the device of parallelism that is the distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry. The meter of poems varies widely within specific traditions and from tradition to tradition. Some techniques work better than others. The studied ambiguity of modern poetry (like modern painting) – quite unlike the accessibility that made older forms of poetry popular even among the unlettered – is the characteristic by which professors of literature in our universities and colleges, together with the poets themselves, have nearly managed almost entirely to remove poetry from the life of even educated society for the first time in the history of the modern West. Hardly any of you is likely to have purchased a volume of poetry by a modern writer. Perhaps a Homer or a Vergil, a Shakespeare or a Milton will rise again but it would appear that we are living in a day of poetry’s decline. John Betjeman was a modern poet (he died in 1984), but his “Christmas” is not a “modern” poem.
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.
There have, to be sure, been many fine poems written by Christians of the modern period. Think of G.K. Chesterton or Amy Carmichael. No doubt there is valuable poetry being written today, though I confess that not much crosses my desk.
The origins of poetry are found very early in human life. Man was made to be poetic and was from his beginnings. The first words of recorded human speech in Holy Scripture are a poem, Adam’s verse in celebration of his wife Eve (Gen. 2:23). And, as any reader of the Bible knows, great poems fill its pages, from Hannah to Mary, from the Psalms of David to the songs of praise sung by the saints and angels in heaven in the Book of Revelation. Built upon the fact that so much of the Bible is in poetic form, though more of a tradition in English and Scottish preaching than in American, since the 18th century sermons have often included poetry, so much so that wags used to describe the contents of a well-ordered sermon as “three points and a poem.” There is, of course, an immense amount of splendid poetry in the hymnody of the church, but many of our hymn writers wrote fine poetry that was never intended for singing. Cowper, Toplady, George Matheson, Christina Rossetti and others come immediately to mind.
But Christians, learning their way of life from the Bible, should also have an appreciation for the best poetry of the Christian tradition and should profit from the power and beauty of it. We should all have at least some familiarity with Dante’s Divine Comedy. There are wonderful and powerful lessons waiting for you if you have never worked your way through the Inferno or traveled up with the poet until he was face to face with the divine glory at the end of Paradiso! Milton’s Paradise Lost can be hard going for someone without a classical background, but at a number of points will leave you with thoughts and images that will stick in your mind for the rest of your life. Have you read any of the poems of John Donne? Start with “Death Be Not Proud.” Or what of George Herbert?
Teach me, my God and King
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.
That is a very simple Herbert verse; there is so much more! And not just the poems of Christians. Every believer should know Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” or Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Burns’ “Cotter’s Saturday Night.” There is so much more to recommend and so much more to read and get to know. But surely we should make the effort. Good poetry has the power to retain the truth in our minds and to retain it together with its proper feeling. And is that not what we all need more of: feelingly to remember the force of truth? Who can forget Charles Kingsley once read and what Christian wants to!
God! Fight we not within a curséd world,
Whose very air teems thick with leaguéd fiends –
Each word we speak has infinite effects –
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest, mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.