The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse
Chosen and Introduced by Edward Short. Foreword by Dana Gioia.
Paperback, 412 pages, $25.
Reviewed by David G. Bonagura, Jr.
In a technocratic and materialist age, an individual or institution’s attitude toward poetry is an unnoticed indicator of a broader disposition toward the Permanent Things. Increasingly focused on politics and contemporary frameworks, driven by utility and profit margins, divorced from both nature and the supernatural, many institutions of culture—with schools and universities chief among them—have forgotten that what poetry seeks to express is the reason for their existence. Christians, too, from the Protestant mainline’s absorption into progressive politics to the Catholic Church’s practice of reaching souls via the lowest possible aesthetic bar, act as if poetry has no place within their evangelical efforts.
For Christians, indifference to poetry, argues Dana Gioia in his stirring apologia for art in his foreword to The Saint Mary’s Book of Verse, overlooks a constitutive element of their faith: one-third of the Bible is expressed in verse. Yet the role of poetry is not merely literary, writes Gioia. Poetry also carries a theological role that stretches “into the experience, understanding, and expression of our faith.” In the Bible “verse is the idiom for the revelation of mystery,” for mere prose or plain statements cannot suffice to express the ineffable. The announcement of the incarnation, the ultimate mystery of faith, “requires an ode, not an email.” “To stir faith in things unseen, poetry evokes a deeper response than do abstract ideas…. We are grateful for an explanation, but we crave inspiration, communion, rapture, epiphany.”
Despite constant predictions of its eradication, Christianity, Gioia contends, has survived into the twenty-first century with its head and heart intact. Its problem “is that it has lost its senses, all five of them…. Contemporary Christianity speaks mostly in ideas. Potent ideas, to be sure, but colorless and hackneyed in their expression.” What Christianity needs is “a change in attitude—a conviction that perfunctory and platitudinous language will not suffice, and awareness that the goal of liturgy, homily, and education is not to condescend but to enliven and elevate.”
To hasten this change in attitude Edward Short has compiled The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, a noble anthology of poems ranging from the late seventh century to the twenty-first, from Caedmon to James Matthew Wilson, with a poem (or two or more) from nearly every major English and American poet whose verse could be described as Christian. Short’s goal, stated in his introduction, is simple: that the poems demonstrate to high school students in particular, and Catholic readers more generally, “how splendidly their Catholic faith is reflected in some of the best poetry ever written.”
Both Gioia and Short muse over what exactly constitutes “Christian verse.” They reject the notion that it consists of themes only religious in nature and penned by devout believers in favor of a more catholic—meaning universal—sense. In this volume Christian verse encompasses religious themes addressed “explicitly or implicitly” by poets, whether practicing or lapsed, “whose imagination is shaped by the tenets, symbols, and traditions of the faith.” Because religion mediates between the human and divine realms, a score of themes that some may call religious are equally prevalent in the secular sphere and are explored by a wide variety of poets in this volume: nature, friendship, birth, aging, virtue, love, marriage, death, mourning. We even find a few that verge beyond the eternal to the quotidian: Swift’s “Stella’s Birthday, March 13, 1727,” Blake’s “The Tyger,” and Walter de la Mare’s “Incomprehensible” on the subject of newspapers.
The best work of over one hundred poets, arranged in chronological order, illuminates the pages of this anthology. The pillars of the English tradition are all present: Shakespeare, Donne, Dryden, Johnson, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, Auden. So, too, are poets less well known today, such as the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, Mary Alcock, and George Mackay Brown. Americans Phyllis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wilbur also make the grade.
The collection of poets is as “diverse” as contemporary champions of the term could desire. In fact, Protestant poets vastly outnumber Catholic ones, which makes the targeting of a specifically Catholic audience unnecessarily limiting. While the anonymous “Christ was the Word that spake it” sings of Catholic transubstantiation in four short lines, other than John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” the theology of these poems expresses a “mere Christianity.” The selections included from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Sir Thomas Browne, and Robert Lowell, for instance, bear no trace of sectarian theology. The anthology would be more precisely cast as ecumenical in the best sense of the term, a reality embodied by including poems from both the Anglican and Catholic periods of the great John Henry Newman.
The ecumenical theology that spans a millennium and straddles an ocean grew from a common source: the Bible, with most of these poets raised on the soaring verse of the King James edition. The Word made flesh inspires all subsequent words that seek to capture a glimpse of eternity for a fleeting moment in time. That the poems in this anthology have transcended their particular ages testifies to the brilliance with which they have expressed the greatest mysteries of human life.
The Saint Mary’s Book of Verse is a perfect poetry anthology for students in Christian and Catholic schools in the United States and Great Britain. Gioia’s foreword, itself worthy of the book’s price, will rouse students from their utilitarian slumbers while also providing them an overview of how English poetry developed through the centuries. This anthology can accompany students through all their middle and high school years for units on poetry by historical period, by author, or by theme. In the hands of a skilled teacher these poems can serve as examples of the poetic arts, inspiration for the start of a class meeting, celebrations of feasts from St. Cecilia’s Day to Christmas to Holy Thursday to Easter, insights into perennial demands made by love, loss, sin, and redemption. Short is right: “the best Christian poetry helps us to eschew false and bear true witness: it is our most elemental cri de coeur.”
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is the religion editor of The University Bookman. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith and Staying with the Catholic Church.
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