Growing in Christ - Meditation

Christian Poetry Presentation

Meditation 97 - Shared during Outreach Canada Retreat (May, 2016)


Webster’s defines poetry partially as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound and rhythm.[1]  This is a good definition, but what does it mean?

Why should Christians take an interest in poetry?  One reason is that parts of the Bible are considered to be written, and intended to be understood, as poetry. In Louis Untermeyer’s extensive anthology of English poetry, the first sixty pages are all extracts from the Bible.[2] He includes many of the Psalms, of course, as well as parts of the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Matthew, John and others. The Bible, accepted as God’s word by the faithful, also serves as a foundation for much English literature and poetry throughout the centuries. 

There is the matter of hymnody, as well.  Many hymns have been composed over the years, which certainly are poetical and which serve the purposes of both praising the Lord and lifting the spirits of the faithful. We Christians are, it seems, immersed in poetry.

As familiar as we might be with the poetry of the Bible, we may not be as interested in fellow Christians and seekers who have struggled to express themselves through poetry. It would be a shame to deny ourselves the enjoyment and the wisdom of such writers as Chaucer, Blake, Wordsworth and Thomas.

Without further ado, let’s look at a few examples:

Ballad of Good Counsel

(Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400))

Flee from the crowd and dwell with truthfulness:

Suffice thee with thy goods though they be small:

To hoard brings hate, to climb brings giddiness;

The crowd has envy, and success blinds all;

Desire no more than to thy lot may fall;

Work well thyself to counsel others clear,

And Truth shall make thee free, there is no fear!

(Modern version by Henry van Dyke).[3]

This ballad, intended to be understandable to a broad audience, is of course all about John 8:32: “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (ESV).

Skipping ahead a few hundred years, we might enjoy reading a poem by William Blake, which asks questions about a beautiful animal and implies wonderful answers:

The Tyger

(William Blake, 1757-1827)

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand seize the fire?


And what shoulder, and what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? And what dread feet?


What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?


When the stars threw down their spears

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?[4]

Nature is filled with “fearful symmetries”—what greater encouragement is there to contemplation of God’s creative grandeur and to faith?

We might consider next William Wordsworth. He led a complicated life, it appears, which included the blessing of an illegitimate daughter. How much did he love this daughter?  Judge for yourself, picturing a man writing a poem as he watches his ten-year old daughter walk along the beach:

On the Beach at Calais

(William Wordsworth, 1770-1850)

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;

The holy time is quiet as a nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility;

The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:

Listen! The mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder—everlastingly.

Dear child! dear girl! that walkest with me here,

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year,

And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,

God being with thee when we know it not.[5]

This is a man expressing complete confidence in the love of God for his daughter.  Society’s judgments might be cruel, but God’s graceful love is eternal.

Dylan Thomas was no preacher, but had an imagination well-informed by the Bible. In one of his poems he combines a reference to Romans 6:9 (“We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”  ESV) and Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them . . . “).

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

(Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953)

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost, love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.[6]

The poem goes on in a rough, even violent way, yet is undoubtedly affirmative of the greatness of God and the hope of faith. It is a personal attempt to imagine the unimaginable.

Sometimes a flash of Christian faith comes forth from a place or a person we might least expect. E.E. Cummings, an innovative twentieth-century poet who insisted on lower case letters when using his name, offers the following poem to those of us seeking a Christian note:

i thank You God for this most amazing day

e.e. cummings (1894-1962)

i  thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes


(i who have died am alive again today,

And this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)


how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any—lifted from the no

of all nothing—human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?


(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)[7]

We sense joy in this poem; unrestrained joy—the kind that Christians understand as the joy of rebirth. We observe that while e.e. cummings insists on small letters for his own name, he does not fail to capitalize the word “God.” We also observe the obvious reference to Matthew 11:15: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This has been a brief introduction to the wealth of inspiration in the great historic body of English poetry. Should we take an interest in the way poetry explores the expressive power of language? Can we use poetry as a springboard to new avenues of thoughtfulness about God? I would suggest affirmative answers to these questions. May the reader be blessed and God be glorified.

In faith and fellowship,

Patrick McKitrick

Outreach Canada Ministries - more...

Suggestion for further reading:

Mary Batchelor, ed., The Lion Christian Poetry Collection (Oxford: Lion Publishing) 1995.

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Chicago: Merriam-Webster Inc.)1981, p. 1749.

[2] Louis Untermeyer ed., A Treasury of Great Poems (New York: Galahad) 1955.

[3] Unterman, pp 120-121.  Stanza  1.

[4] Unterman, p.603.

[5] Unterman, p.635.

[6] R. Charlesworth and D.Lee, An Anthology of Verse (Toronto:Oxford)1964, p.302, Stanza 1.

[7] Gary Geddes, ed. Twentieth-Century Poetry and Poetics 4th ed. (Toronto: Oxford) 1996 ,p.92.