It’s been a long time since I browsed in a Christian bookstore. They’re exceptionally rare here in Maine, but on one of my last excursions, I inquired about the poetry section hoping to lay hands on something by Luci Shaw or Marjorie Maddox. Alas, it was not to be on this day.
“We don’t carry poetry,” I was informed, in a tone that somehow made a virtue out of the omission, and given the disappointing nature of the Christian poetry that has found its way onto greeting cards and into cheerfully vapid collections over the years, maybe it’s just as well to save shelf space for more substantial material. Of course, the tragedy is that poorly written inspirational verse has inoculated the church against the rich treasury of devotional poetry that is part of our heritage and our history. Taking the religious life as its subject, devotional poetry shows rather than tells, suggests rather than argues, and has the lovely effect of prompting “us to think about God and spiritual truth.” (14)
Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years, has done us the tremendous favor of sorting through the endless possibilities of great works and narrowing the field down to a manageable representative collection that begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and works its way up through modern times. The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems provides helpful commentary on each work, beginning with explanation of unfamiliar or archaic terms and then moving on to enhance the reader’s understanding of artistry and content while noting specific devotional aspects of the poem.
Ryken’s contributors include all the Johns (Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden) and the Williams (Draper, Shakespeare, Wordsworth) along with a multitude of well-loved names including George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti, Anne Bradstreet, and the Brontë Sisters. Perhaps the greatest treasure, however, is his inclusion of lesser known poets who wrote with great depth of soul. Exercising considerable restraint, I will share a few favorite excerpts along with insights from the commentary that have added to my contemplation of their deep theological truth and have enhanced my understanding of the rich mode of expression used by skillful poets throughout history.
On the Incarnation:
“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God would be made like man, much more.” (78)
“It is commonplace in Christian thinking that God made man in his own image. John Donne reverses that fact in a thought that is so unexpected that it can be considered a paradox: it is even more noteworthy that in the incarnation God was made in the image of man. [These] lines are an aphorism (a succinct and striking statement that we remember.)” (80)
On Human Restlessness:
“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.” (92)
In these words put in God’s mouth by George Herbert, “we are given the reason why God created people to be restless in the world. The poet imagines that God created people with a built-in ‘pulley’ that draws them to God.” (93)
On the Key to a Meaningful Life:
I confess to finding Milton’s writing to be beyond challenging — inscrutable, even — without assistance, but with the insights from Ryken’s notes alongside a slow and careful read, this excerpt in Adam’s words from the epic poem Paradise Lost are a road map for life in a fallen world:
“Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend.” (133)
On the Place of Lament in the Life of a Believer:
Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House” renders tragedy in verse without trivializing it. “The pitfall that a poet needs to avoid in a poem like this is allowing the consolation to come across as facile (too easily achieved and glibly stated). Bradstreet meets the challenge by fully acknowledging the human and earthly loss that she has sustained.” (137)
“My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit . . .
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on moldering dust,
The arm of flesh dist make thy trust?” (136)
By her example, we may carve out our own faithful living of lament and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.
The Soul in Paraphrase as a title has been lifted from a poem by George Herbert:
“Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth.” (8)
Herbert is referring to prayer, the ability to live in God’s presence as angels live, but Ryken argues that devotional poetry serves the soul in the same way, rendering and representing our souls in words that we might have come up with ourselves— if only we had the skill.
Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
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