Grace Episcopal Church
Book Bites: Devotional Poets
By Cheryl Arnold
Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God.
~ Thomas Merton
Unlike a longer book, a poem can be read in a little pocket of time, in a quiet moment with a cup of tea or coffee. Last week we explored the nature of devotional poetry, why we should read it, and an online resource for weekly lectionary poetry. This week we will look at two well-known Christian poets—one from long ago and one from the present. In reading their poetry you may find, as Thomas Merton says, that their poetry attunes your soul to God.
George Herbert: A Classic Poet
“I love George Herbert from my very soul,” the famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon once said. His wife has told stories of how they would spend Sunday evenings relaxing by a bright fire while she read George Herbert poems aloud to him and he took delight in interpreting them for her. She said, “I read on and on for an hour or more, till the peace of Heaven flows into our souls, and the tired servant of the King of kings loses his sense of fatigue, and rejoices after his toil.”
George Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican priest and poet in England. Herbert wrote his poems in English, Latin, and Greek, and all of his surviving English poems are on religious themes. “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God,” wrote 17th century English Puritan church leader and poet Richard Baxter. “Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”
Herbert added visual beauty to some of his poems by arranging his words in patterns. In The Altar, he used shorter and longer lines to create the shape of an altar. In Easter Wings, the words were printed sideways on two facing pages so that they formed a pair of outspread wings.
The book A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to 52 of His Best Loved Poems by Jim Scott Orrick is a wonderful way to explore his poetry. For each poem, Orrick tells the topic and thesis, then offers his notes on the poem with some questions for reflection. Each poem is annotated to help the reader understand the older language as well as the poetic images. While we cannot sit by a fire with Charles Spurgeon on a Sunday evening to read and interpret Herbert’s poems, we can sit with this book and find delight for our souls.
Malcom Guite: A Contemporary Poet
“It is good to fold poetry into our prayer life,” says Malcolm Guite (b. 1957), an Anglican priest, poet, singer-songwriter, and academic focusing on the intersection of theology and literature including English poets, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. Much of Guite’s poetry is written in sonnet form and is rooted in scripture. Some of his poetry is posted on his blog at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog, and he includes a play button for those who like to hear him read his poems aloud.
His book The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter is a collection of devotional poetry for the Lent and Easter seasons. With Lent approaching on March 2, you might add this book to your Lenten reading. Some of the poems are his own, and others are written by classic poets including Dante, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Herbert, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others. Following each poem, Guite offers a devotional reflection. His themes include pilgrimage, deepening prayer, a companioned journey, honest questioning, and Holy Week. Guite’s hope is that “amid the music of the poetry you will find phrases that feed your soul, images that might become icons, windows into heaven to light your journey and welcome you home.”