Christians are often derided for their inability to create or appreciate great art. It's a ridiculous proposition—many of the greatest artists throughout history espoused explicit Christian themes in their work and their lives. Among the most admired are the devotional poets, men and women whose poetry was specifically intended to be pious and devout, while retaining its aesthetic appeal.
One of the best was certainly John Donne, whose religious and secular verses made him loved and hated simultaneously in a variety of quarters. George Herbert strayed less from religious themes, as did Christina Rossetti, both of them among the finest poets England produced. Yet one of the best of all the devotional poets was a fairly obscure Scottish Roman Catholic named Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems were marked both for their devotion to God and their incredibly vibrant language.
Hopkins frequently invented new words when old ones wouldn't do, or when there simply wasn't a word to express what he wanted to convey.Instead of making his poems arduous or confusing, however,the context supplies the meaning, and the rhythms he employed keep readers enthralled up to and well beyond the last line.
Consider the first stanza of his brilliant poem Inversnaid: "This darksome burn, horseback brown,/His rollrock highroad roaring down,/In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam/Flutes and low to the lake falls home." Some of the language is unfamiliar, but the sense he conveys of the wild countryside is unmistakable.
Yet, for Hopkins, the countryside is never just the countryside. It represents God's domain, God's creativity, just as poetry represents the poet's creativity. What devotional poets do best is to show us that our love of beauty and our need for prayer are at root indistinguishable, that anything good or desirable is only to be found in God Himself, or in our imitation of Him.
Good devotional poetry is never preachy. It doesn't grab our hair and turn our heads toward heaven, it points with slow finger and waits for us to look up on our own. Sometimes, the only way to see God clearly is to look past ourselves, and sometimes the only way to do that is by close examination, and devotional poetry helps us do that, too.
Don't come to any of these poets looking for a new or better theology. They adhere to the old ways, the historic faith, but they direct our vision places we never thought to look on our own, they make us see things we've gazed at a thousand times as if for the very first, they lead us down paths we'd long ago given up trying to find. This is some of the best poetry ever written, and it steers us ever closer to the best and greatest aim of every human heart.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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