Christian poetry is any poetry that contains Christian teachings, themes, or references. The influence of Christianity on poetry has been great in any area that Christianity has taken hold. Christian poems often directly reference the Bible, while others provide allegory.
History of Christian poetry
Poetic forms have been used by Christians since the recorded history of the faith begins. The earliest Christian poetry, in fact, appears in the New Testament. Canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which appear in the Gospel of Luke, take the Biblical poetry of the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as their models. Many Biblical scholars also believe that St Paul of Tarsus quotes bits of early Christian hymns in his epistles. Passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 (following) are thought by many Biblical scholars to represent early Christian hymns that were being quoted by the Apostle:
- Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (KJV)
Within the world of classical antiquity, Christian poets often struggled with their relationship to the existing traditions of Greek and Latin poetry, which were of course heavily influenced by paganism. Paul quotes the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.'” Some early Christian poets such as Ausonius continued to include allusions to pagan deities and standard classical figures and allusions continued to appear in his verse. Other Christian poems of the late Roman Empire, such as the Psychomachia of Prudentius, cut back on allusions to Greek mythology, but continue the use of inherited classical forms.
Other early Christian poets were more innovative. The hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus wrote a number of important poems that are still used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Vexilla Regis (“The Royal Standard”) and Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis (“Sing, O my tongue, of the glorious struggle”). From a literary and linguistic viewpoint, these hymns represent important innovations; they turn away from Greek prosody and instead seem to have been based on the rhythmic marching songs of Roman armies.
A related issue concerned the literary quality of Christian scripture. Most of the New Testament was written (or translated from a semitic language) in a sub-literary variety of koinê Greek, as was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Old Latin Bible added further solecisms to those found in its source texts. None of the Christian scriptures were written to suit the tastes of those who were educated in classical Greek or Latin rhetoric. Educated pagans, seeing the sub-literary quality of the Christian scriptures, posed a problem for Christian apologists: why did the Holy Ghost write so badly? Some Christian writers such as Tertullian flatly rejected classical standards of rhetoric; “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he asked.
The cultural prestige of classical literary standards was not so easy for other Christians to overcome. St Jerome, trained in the classical Latin rhetoric of Cicero, observed that dismay over the quality of existing Latin Bible translations was a major motivating factor that induced him to produce the Vulgate, which went on to become the standard Latin Bible, and remained the official Bible translation of the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council. A fuller appreciation of the formal literary virtues of Biblical poetry remained unavailable for European Christians until 1754, when Robert Lowth (later made a bishop in the Church of England), kinder to the Hebrew language than his own, published Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, which identified parallelism as the chief rhetorical device within Hebrew poetry.
In many European vernacular literatures, Christian poetry appears among the earliest monuments of those literatures, and Biblical paraphrases in verse often precede Bible translations. In Old English poetry, the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on Christ’s crucifixion which adapts Germanic heroic imagery and applies it to Jesus, is one of the earliest extant monuments of Old English literature. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy represents one of the earliest monuments of Italian vernacular literature. Much Old Irish poetry was the work of Irish monks and is on religious themes. This story is repeated in most European languages.
The Protestant Reformation stimulated hymn writing, e.g. Martin Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg”.
However, the effect of the English Reformation was a shift in English poetry toward secular subjects, which caused poetry to be condemned by members of the ultra-Protestant Puritan Movement.
In response to both Puritan attacks on verse and the secular subjects that inspired most English poetry at the time, Robert Southwell, a clandestine Roman Catholic priest and missionary in Elizabethan England, wrote a collection of poems on religious subjects. As the strict censorship in England made it impossible for him toegally publish his poems, Southwell circulated them clandestinely, in a 16th century version of the samizdat literature that followed the Russian Revolution.
In a forward to his poems, which many scholars believe was addressed to Southwell’s cousin, William Shakespeare, the priest-poet wrote, “Poets by abusing their talent, and making the follies and feignings of love the customary subject of their base endeavors, have so discredited this faculty that a poet, a lover, and a list, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification. But the vanity of men cannot counterpease the authority of God, Who delivering many parts of the scripture in verse, and by His Apostle willing us to exercise our devotion in hymns and spiritual sonnets warranteth the art to be good and the use allowable. And therefore not only among the heathens, whose gods were chiefly canonized by their poets, and their Pagan divinity oracled in verse, but even in the Old and New Testament, it hath been used by men of the greatest piety in matters of most devotion. Christ Himself, by making a hymn the conclusion of His Last Supper and the prologue to the first pageant of His Passion gave His Spouse a method to imitate, as in the office of the Church it appeareth and all men a pattern to know this measured and footed style. But the Devil, as he affecteth deity and seeketh to have all the compliments of Divine honor applied to his service, so hath he among the rest possessed also most poets with his idle fancies. For in lieu of solemn and devout matter, to which in duty they owe their abilities, they now busy themselves in expressing such passions as only serve for testimonies to how unworthy affections they have wedded their Wiles. And because the best the best course to let them see the error of their works is to weave a new web in their own loom; I have here laid a few coarse threads together to invite some skillfuller wits to go forward in the same or to begin some finer piece wherein it may be seen, how well verse and virtue suit together. Blame me not, (good cousin) though I send you a blameworthy present, in which the most that can commend it, is the good will of the writer, neither art not invention giving it any credit. If in me this be a fault, you cannot be dauntless that did importune me to commit it, and therefore you must bear part of the penance, when it shall please sharp censures to impose. In the meantime with many good wishes I send you these few ditties add you the tunes and let the mean I pray be still a part in all your music.”
In England, the Dissenting and renewal movements of the 18th century saw a marked increase in the number and publication of new hymns due to the activity of Protestant poets such as Isaac Watts, the father of English hymns, Philip Doddridge, Augustus Toplady, and especially John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism. In the 19th century hymn singing came to be accepted in the Church of England, and numerous books of hymns for that body appeared. In America with the Second Great Awakening, hymn writing flourished from folk hymns and Negro spirituals to more literary texts from the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Women hymn writers gained prominence including Mrs C. f. Alexander, author of “All things bright and beautiful.” Anna B. Warner wrote the poem “Jesus loves me,” which, put to music, many Christian children learn to this day.
Christian poetry figured prominently in the Western literary canon from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. However with the progressive secularization of Western Civilization from about 1500 to the present, Christian poetry was less and less represented in literary and academic writing of the 19th and 20th centuries and scarcely at all in the 21st century.
Modern Christian poetry
Twentieth and 21st century Christian poetry especially suffers from a difficulty of definition. The writings of a Christian poet are not necessarily classified as Christian poetry nor are writings of secular poets dealing with Christian material. The themes of poetry are necessarily hard to pin down, and what some see as a Christian theme or viewpoint may not be seen by others. A number of modern writers are widely considered to have Christian themes in much of their poetry, including G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot. Modern Christian poetry may be found in anthologies and in several Christian magazines such as Commonweal, Christian Century and Sojourners.
Examples of Christian poets
The following list is chronological by birth year.
- Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 — 373)
- Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 310 — 367)
- Gregory of Nazianzus (329 — 389)
- Romanos the Melodist(ca. 490 — 556)
- George Pisida (fl. 7th century)
- Cædmon (657-684)
- Cosmas of Maiuma (ca. 675 — 752)
- John of Damascus (ca. 676— 749)
- Theodulf of Orléans (ca. 750— 821)
- Cynewulf (9th century)
- Theophanes the Confessor (d. ca. 850)
- Gregory of Narek (c.950-c.1003)
- John Mauropous (ca. 1000 — 1070s?)
- Symeon the New Theologian (949 — 1022)
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098 — 1179)
- Francis of Assisi (1181 — 1226)
- Thomas of Celano (1185-1265)
- Clare of Assisi (1193 — 1253)
- Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230 – 1306)
- Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265 – 1321)
- Catherine of Siena (1347 — 1380)
- Teresa of Avila (1515 — 1582)
- John of the Cross (1542 — 1591)
- Jean de La Ceppède (c. 1550-1623)
- Agrippa d’Aubigné (1552-1630)
- Robert Southwell (1561-1595)
- John Donne (1572 – 1631)
- George Herbert (1593 — 1633)
- John Milton (1608 — 1674)
- Anne Bradstreet (1612 — 1672)
- Richard Crashaw (1613-1649)
- Martha Wadsworth Brewster (1710 — c. 1757)
- Henry Vaughan (1621 — 1695)
- Angelus Silesius (1624 — 1677)
- Thomas Traherne (1636? — 1674)
- Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)
- William Blake (1757–1827)
- Ann Griffiths (1776 — 1805)
- Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848)
- John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
- Emily Brontë (1818 — 1848)
- Anna Warner (1827 – 1915)
- Christina Rossetti (1830 — 1894)
- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 — 1889)
- Nectarios of Aegina (1846-1920)
- Kahlil Gibran (1883 — 1931)
- Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (1887-1967)
- Gabriela Mistral (1889 — 1957)
- Ella H Scharring—Hausen (1894 — 1985)
- Roy Campbell (1900-1957)
- Czesław Miłosz (1911 — 2004)
- R. S. Thomas (1913—2000)
- Thomas Merton (1915 — 1968)
- Geoffrey Hill (1932 — 2016)
- Christopher Mwashinga (b. 1965-)
- R.L. Challis (1979 -)
Examples of Christian poems and notable works
- Book of Job – Bible
- Psalms in the Bible ( a collection of prayers, c. 1000 B.C.) – King David
- The Dream of the Rood, a work of Christian epic poetry in Old English believed to date from the 7th century, preserved in the Vercelli Book
- St. Patrick’s Breastplate – Old Irish. 8th century prayer for protection
- Heliand, a 9th century epic poem which tells the life of Jesus Christ in Old Saxon and in alliterative verse
- Old Saxon Genesis
- Piers Plowman (1360 – 1399) – Middle English, an allegory of correct Christian life, written in unrhymed alliterative verse
- The Divine Comedy (1265 – 1321) – Italian. The author, Dante, is guided through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil and through Heaven by Beatrice. Uses complex rhyming (Terza rima). (translation)
- Dies Iræ (13th century) – Thomas of Celano’s celebrated sequence on the Last Judgment (Latin text).
- Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671) – John Milton’s English epics on the fall and salvation of the human race. (texts: Paradise Regained and Paradise Lost) See also: Richard Merrell, Australia http://www.richard-2782.net/poindex.htm and http://www.richard-2782.net/poetry.pdf
- Martin, Ralph (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans’ handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Eerdmans. pp. 122-126. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
- Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney (2007), Robert Southwell: Collected Poems, Fyfield Books. Pages 1-2.
- Andrews, John (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans’ handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Herts: Eerdmans. pp. 426-432, 530–532. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
- Davie, Donald, ed. (1981). The New Oxford book of Christian verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-213426-4.
- Taylor, Charles (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674026766.
- Ramsey, Paul, ed. (1987). Contemporary religious poetry. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-2883-7.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia