Beginning in the pre-Christian era we see how the poets of Athens and Jerusalem prepared the way for the coming of Christ with their creative gifts. Homer invoked his Muse, the divine bestower of the supernatural gift of poesis, to show the ways in which hubris is humbled and the will of Zeus is accomplished. King David sang the praises of God in the Psalms and Solomon sang with wisdom the Song of Songs.
As the Son rose on Christian civilization, the Blessed Virgin emerged as the mother of poetry as she is the Mother of God in the magnificence of the Magnificat, and St. John, her divinely appointed son, is revealed as the progenitor of Christian metaphysical poetry in the opening lines of his Gospel and in the mystical majesty of his apocalyptic vision.
In the earliest days of the English language, the scop or bard praised the newly discovered Christ in poems such as “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and most especially in the revered reverence of “The Dream of the Rood.”
In the high middle ages, inspired by the beauty of Beatrice and the brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante outsoared in aquiline splendor all other poets, before or since, as his mentor, Aquinas, had outsoared all other theologians and philosophers. In mediaeval England, Geoffrey Chaucer defended Christian realism and Catholic orthodoxy against the proto-relativist heterodoxy of nominalism. Apart from Chaucer, many other poets, cloaked by time in the mantle of anonymity, graced the language and culture of the English middle ages with some marvelous Christian verse.
Following the rupture of the Reformation and the rise of the secular humanism of the late Renaissance, Shakespeare’s quill quickened to the defence of traditional Christianity. Meanwhile, in the midst of the dynamism of the Counter-Reformation in Spain, San Juan de la Cruz plumbed the depths of the human soul with the sanity and sanctity that are the fruits of faith and reason.
In England, another saint, the Jesuit martyr St. Robert Southwell wrote with fearless faith in defence of outlawed orthodoxy. His poetry is excellent in its own right, earning him a deserved place amongst the finest English Metaphysical Poets, but is also important as the source and inspiration for some of Shakespeare’s finest lines.
Other metaphysical poetry, singing the praises of Christ in the perilous and electrified atmosphere of post-Reformation England, includes the convoluted contortions of Donne’s apostate musings, the Anglo-Catholicism of Herbert’s high Anglicanism, and the baroque ecstasies of Crashaw’s recusant and exiled Catholicism.
Dante’s divine vision of paradise is lost in Milton’s puritanical and anti-Trinitarian epic, which would spawn, unwittingly, the satanic musings of Shelley and later generations of egocentric Romantics. Soon after Milton had floundered theologically in his heterodox masterpiece, John Dryden would recover the Catholic vision in the brilliant satire of “The Hind and the Panther,” in which Dryden, newly converted to Catholicism, exposes the errors and heresies of Anglicanism and affirms the truth and authority of the Church.
Throughout most of the eighteenth century, the cold and deadly grip of the so-called Enlightenment threatened to strangle the life out of the poetry of praise. In the midst of this faithless and frigid period, the solitary voice of Alexander Pope sounded forth as a champion of the theocentric vision of Man.
By the end of the eighteenth century, it might have seemed as though cold empiricism had triumphed, heralding the utopia of utilitarianism and the end of the age of faith. Just as the poetry of praise was pronounced as being dead and buried, however, it was resurrected in the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge. This regenerative influence would create the cultural climate in which the seeds of the Catholic literary revival would germinate, sprout, and flower.
The Blessed John Henry Newman, father of the Catholic revival, was himself a poet of considerable merit, a fact that is often overlooked, overshadowed as it is by his achievement as a theologian, philosopher, preacher, and prose stylist. “The Dream of Gerontius,” probably his greatest poem and certainly his most ambitious, offers a vision of the purgatorial life of the soul after death. Other fine poems of praise by the inimitable Newman include “The Golden Prison,” “The Pilgrim Queen,” and “The Sign of the Cross.”
In 1866, Newman received a young man named Gerard Manley Hopkins into the Church. Hopkins would become a Jesuit priest and also one of the most important and influential poets of the following century. “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hopkins’ highest achievement in verse, is perhaps the finest poem of the Victorian age.
As the Victorian period drew to a close, the Decadent period produced many converts to Catholicism who enriched the culture with a poetry of praise infused with a penitential spirit. Most notable among the fin de siècle Decadent convert poets were Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson, all of whom were following in the footsteps of their French Decadent forebear, Paul Verlaine.
In defiance of those prophets of modernist doom who predict that society is “progressing” beyond faith to a “post-Christian” future, the most recent century has produced an abundance of first-rate Christian poetry. Great Christian poets of the twentieth century include Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring, Alfred Noyes, T.S. Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Sitwell, Roy Campbell, and R.S. Thomas.
Obviously, this panoramic overview of the poetry of praise throughout almost three millennia of civilization is far from being a presentation of the whole triumphantly resplendent picture. It contains many sins of omission and its focus is too Anglo-centric. It serves, nonetheless, as a fitting, if inadequate, summary of the Trinitarian heart of great poetry, which reflects the goodness, truth, and beauty of the cosmos in the spirit of faith, hope and love.
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin’s Review (May/June 2012).