Poetry for Christmas
I am much attracted to Ignatian spirituality and its emphasis on both doing everything for the glory of God and finding God in all things. I am also an avid fan of poetry – I love its musicality and the way the lines capture good thoughts which can linger in your mind for hours. So how do these two loves combine? Well, poetry, like art and music, is one of those art forms which can and has been composed for the glory of God, and can also be a means of encounter with the divine for those who read or listen to it.
There has been no lack of poets who have written poetry for the greater glory of God. Amongst English-speaking Catholic poets, we have St Robert Southwell S.J., St John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, G. K. Chesterton, Alice Meynell, Robert Hugh Benson, Siegfried Sassoon, John O’Brien, and Roy Campbell. This list is by no means exhaustive however as Catholic poetry has a long and rich history; the list is even longer when you open it up to Christian poetry in general. Non-Catholic poets you might want to read include Edmund Spenser, Robert Herrick, John Milton, John Donne, John Dryden, George Herbert, Christina Rossetti, and John Betjeman. You might even find something that feeds your love for God in a poem that is not even explicitly religious (finding God in all things, remember!).
It is now approaching Christmas and last year writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, writing in The Spectator, suggested that we all learn a poem by Christmas which we can then share with friends and family round the Christmas tree. I suggest we all do the same again this year, but this time might I also suggest that we choose a poem which in some way (however subtle) gives glory to God.
So pick a poem, memorise it, and share it with others. Perhaps you can perform it at home after Christmas dinner in front of your family or to a loved one? Or perhaps you can share your favourite poems with each other via Skype or Zoom? Or maybe you could go through a series of faith-related poems discussing one at a time over the course of a few weeks? Anyhow, sharing and discussing poetry with each other is a good way of keeping in touch with each other during these Covid times. Furthermore, reading a poem out loud to another person creates a bond between reader and listener. The lines of the poem you share with another person may give them consolation and inspiration, and the discussion which follows may be a very fruitful one in growing together in faith and fraternal charity. Indeed, it is amazing how often we find our own questions, thoughts, doubts, hope, fears, and other emotions (which we might have thought unique to us) expressed in poetry written long ago by people we may have thought we shared very little in common with.
So how do you get the most out of a poem? Firstly, get into the habit of reading poetry out loud because poetry is chiefly an oral art. Secondly, poetry is supposed to be read slowly and meditatively, much like Scripture. Savour it much as you would a glass of fine wine, mull over it, reflect over every line and word, read it repeatedly. If prayer is lifting the heart and mind to God, you will find that reading a religious poem can very easily turn into prayer without us realising it. Spend a week with one poem, perhaps taking it to bed with you every night. Perhaps copy it out onto a piece of paper which you can take with you and read over whenever you have a spare moment. Reading it in this way will not only make the memorisation process much easier, but will also increase your enjoyment of the poem as you will start to notice things you had missed when you read the poem the first time. The meaning of the poem will become clearer and new meanings may also start to reveal themselves.
If you end up reading a lot of poetry you might want to keep a record of the poems which have meant something to you and that you would like to return to. I keep a notebook full of my favourite poems – a personal anthology from which I can draw nourishment both for myself and from which I can choose a poem to share with others whenever an occasion to do so arises. Many of these poems have resonated with me on a deep personal level and have encouraged me in my journey with God. This anthology, therefore, is to some degree a spiritual journal as it records through the means of favourite poems the way that God has been speaking to my heart over the years. As I have been avidly reading poetry for some years now, I do not have the space or time to share all my personal favourites with you here. But as it is approaching Christmas let me share with you a seasonal poem from the great Jesuit martyr and poet, St Robert Southwell S.J.:
The Nativity of Christ
Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.
Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man alter'd was by sin from man to beast;
Beast's food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!