The Spiritual Value of Christian Poetry and Christian Poets You Should Read
Summer is a season that invites you to pick up a book. The longer daylight provides more hours for reading, the break from school opens up schedules and frees from the demands of syllabi, and vacations to the mountains or the beach beckon us to leisure away our time while nestled in a good book. While many people reach for the latest bestsellers, classic works of literature, or (as is likely for many of our readers) for theological treatises, I urge you to delve into some Christian poetry as part of your summer reading.
Why Christian poetry? As Hans Urs von Balthasar argued, the aesthetic guides the believer and non-believer alike to the divine. Balthasar wrote, “The One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, these are what we call the transcendental attributes of Being, because they surpass all the limits of essences and are coextensive with Being. If there is an insurmountable distance between God and his creature, but if there is also an analogy between them which cannot be resolved in any form of identity, there must also exist an analogy between the transcendentals–between those of the creature and those in God.” Thus beauty of earthly things provides an analogy for the beauty of God. An encounter with beauty, whether through art, poetry, or music, is an encounter with the divine, since it is through beauty that God in part reveals his love to humanity.
Arguably, poetry surpasses fiction, treatises, biographies, and essays as the most aesthetic form of writing. Poetry arranges words in such a rhythmic and pleasing manner that they come to posses the power to uplift the mind from the mundane and enrapture it with beauty. This is why the Psalms are recited in each day’s lectionary, because of the power of poetry to direct our minds to the divine, the good, the true, and the beautiful. The works of the great Christian poets similarly affect their readers, urging them to contemplate and worship God.
Who are the great Christian poets whom you should sample this summer? Let this following list guide you.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th-century English poet who converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood in the Jesuit order. Hopkins deviated from the conventional metric style that dominated modern English poetry and found the inspiration for his “sprung rhythm” in early Anglo-Saxon poetry, particularly Beowulf. Hopkins’ poetry marvels at the wonders of nature and acclaims hymn-like praises to God.
“Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy might glow.” – “Thee, God, I Come From”
While Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, evokes the acedia of the post-WWI generation, his Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday poems reflect his Anglo-Catholic beliefs. Four Quartets, which is comprised of four smaller and connected poems, received the Nobel Prize for Literature and provides a theological contemplation of the paradox of time and eternity, the human need for redemption, and mysteriousness of grace and is rich with allusions to the sacramental life. It’s one of the most beautifully written poems of the 20th century and deserves to be read at least twice through.
“This dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” – “East Coker”
Like Manley and Eliot, Auden converted to Christianity in his adult years. Auden’s devout Anglican beliefs are subtly woven into his poetry, including his emphasis on prayer as listening to God, his emphasis on personal religious commitment, and his rejection of any form of pride. Many of his poems use characters of Roman and Greek mythology to symbolize Christian teachings and themes, thus demanding the reader to exercise some theological imagination.
“Approachable as you seem,
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them
Nor can I see a reason why you should.” – “A Homage to Clio”
John Donne epitomizes the metaphysical poetry that characterized 17th-century lyrical poetry in England. Metaphysical poetry employs metaphysical conceits, which are far-fetching metaphors that unite two very distinct ideas into one image. If you love theological paradoxes, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Donne’s poems. Even those who do not frequently read poetry will appreciate Donne, whose meters resemble casual speech rather than the heightened meter of 16th- and 17th-century poetry.
“O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.” – “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”
Can a list of Christian poets be made without mentioning Dante? While it may seem platitudinous to include Dante or John Milton on any list of Christian poets, Dante is well worth his prestige. His poetry encapsulates the emphasis on mysticism in late medieval Christian spirituality. No matter how many times you have read The Divine Comedy, there is always something new, whether you pick up on an allusion to the politics of 14th-century Italy, come to appreciate its role in the rise of vernacular literature, or you find spiritual rejuvenation in his depiction of heaven.
“Such keenness from the living ray I met,
That, if mine eyes had turn’d away, methinks,
I had been lost; but, so embolden’d, on
I pass’d, as I remember, till my view
Hover’d the brink of dread infinitude.” – Paradiso, Canto XXXIII
Of course, there are many more Christian poets worth reading, from the Eucharistic poetry of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the timeless epic poetry of John Milton to the verses from the Christian environmentalist Wendell Berry. Don’t forget to also peruse the poetry published here on Conciliar Post! Tolle, lege.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “A Resume of My Thought.” Trans. Kelly Hamilton. Communio 15 (1988). http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/hub_resumethought_mar05.asp
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mortal Beauty, God’s Grace: Major Poems and Spiritual Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. (Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2003). 48
 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, (Harcourt, 1971), 30.
 Edward Mendelson, “Auden and God.” The New York Review of Books. Dec. 6, 2007. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/dec/06/auden-and-god/.
 W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, (Vintage International, 2007) 242.