By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best religious poems in English literature? Obviously religious faith – and, indeed, religious doubt – has loomed large in English poetry, whether it’s in the devotional lyrics of John Donne and George Herbert or the modern, secular musings of Philip Larkin in ‘Church Going’.
We’ve excluded longer works such as John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, although naturally that’s a must-read work of English religious poetry, just conceived on a different scale from what we have here.
1. Caedmon, Hymn.
Perhaps the oldest poem written in English, Caedmon’s Hymn was composed in the 7th century by a goatherd and takes the form of a short hymn in praise of God.
It was Bede, or ‘the Venerable Bede’ as he is often known, who ensured the survival of Caedmon’s Hymn, when he jotted it down in Latin translation in one of his books. An anonymous scribe then added the Anglo-Saxon form of the hymn in the margins of Bede’s book.
2. William Dunbar, ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’.
Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confoundit hes his force,
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe trivmphall rasit is of the croce.
The diuillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go …
So begins this poem, by the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1465-c. 1530). It boasts one of the finest opening lines in all medieval poetry. The rest of the poem is pretty good, too. It takes as its theme the Resurrection, and casts Christ as a crusading knight, so it’s a hugely exciting piece of sacred poetry.
3. John Donne, ‘A Hymn to God the Father’.
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more …
We could easily have chosen one of Donne’s celebrated Holy Sonnets here, but his ‘Hymn to God the Father’ offers something nicely representative of Donne’s style in his best religious verse. Donne is not aiming to sing God’s praises uncritically: rather, he wishes to ask God about sin and forgiveness, among other things. The to-and-fro of the poem’s rhyme schemes, where its stanzas are rhymed ababab, reinforces this idea of question-and-answer.
The poem is a sort of confessional, containing Donne’s trademark directness and honesty, and sees him seeking forgiveness from God for his sins, while also confessing that he will continue to sin (he cannot help it) and that he fears death – another sin to add to the list. Donne then seeks reassurance from God that he will be forgiven and will reach Heaven.
4. George Herbert, ‘The Collar’.
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it …
George Herbert (1593-1633) is one of the greatest devotional poets in the English language, and ‘The Collar’ one of his finest poems. Herbert’s speaker seeks to reject belief in God, to cast off his ‘collar’ and be free. (The collar refers specifically to the ‘dog collar’ that denotes a Christian priest, with its connotations of ownership and restricted freedom, though it also suggests being bound or restricted more generally. Herbert, we should add, was a priest himself.)
However, as he rants and raves, the speaker comes to realise that God appears to be calling him – and the speaker duly and dutifully replies, the implication being that he has recovered his faith and is happy to bear the ‘collar’ of faith again.
5. Henry Vaughan, ‘They Are All Gone into the World of Light’.
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove …
The Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1621-95) is best known for his 1650 collection, Silex Scintillans (‘Sparks from the Flint’), which established him as one of the great devotional poets in English literature. ‘They Are All Gone into the World of Light’ is about death, God, and the afterlife, and the poet’s desire to pass over into the next life – the ‘World of Light’ – to join those whom he has lost.
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam.
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made …
‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds’. These lines from this long 1850 elegy for Tennyson’s friend – perhaps his finest achievement – strike to the core of the greatness of Tennyson’s poem, which, as T. S. Eliot said, was a great religious poem not because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt. By the end of this long cycle of moving poems, Tennyson has conquered his doubts and his faith in God has been restored.
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘Good Friday’.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved
This poem was published in Christina Rossetti’s 1866 collection The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. The poem is about Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made. Like Tennyson’s In Memoriam above, the poem reflects many Victorians’ difficulties in reconciling Christianity with the new worldview influenced by recent philosophy and scientific discoveries.
8. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Oxen’.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then …
Sometimes a great sacred poem is written by a poet who is not himself religious, and such as the case with ‘The Oxen’. Written in 1915 during WWI, this poem shows a yearning for childhood beliefs which the adult speaker can no longer hold. In other words, it highlights the yearning to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs. (Hardy had lost his religious faith early in life.)
9. T. S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday.
The first long poem Eliot composed after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, the six-part sequence Ash-Wednesday is about Eliot’s struggle to cleanse and purify himself so that he might be renewed and find deeper spiritual fulfilment.
Using Dantean and Biblical tropes of stairwells, gardens, and bones being picked apart by leopards, the poem is at times frustratingly abstract (there is lots of wordplay around ‘the Word’, i.e. the Word of God) and at other times, marvellously vivid. Ash-Wednesday is the great modernist religious poem in English.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’.
A meditation on the role of the church in a secular age, written by a poet who described himself as an ‘Anglican agnostic’, ‘Church Going’ is one of Larkin’s most popular poems from The Less Deceived. In the poem, the speaker of the poem visits a church on one of his bicycle rides and stops to have a look inside – though he isn’t sure why he stopped.
The title carries a double meaning: both going to church (if only to look around, rather than to worship there), and the going or disappearing of churches, and the Church, from British life.
For more classic poetry, see our pick of the best poems about heaven. If you’re in search of a good poetry collection, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.