Prayer has long been a topic for poets, as the following ten classic poems about praying and prayer nicely demonstrate. Ranging over five centuries, these prayer-poems show some of the greatest poets in English getting to grips with prayer as a way of communicating with God, but also with each other as we try to find the meaning and value of prayer, especially in times of hardship and war, or at momentous and significant times in our lives (such as the birth of a son or daughter).
1. Anonymous, ‘A Medieval Morning Prayer’.
How to begin our whistle-stop tour of the best poems about prayer? How about going back to the fifteenth century and to a prayer thanking the Lord for seeing us through the night all right and keeping us away from the Devil:
Jesu Lord, blyssed thou be,
For all this nyght thou hast me kepe
From the fend and his poste,
Whether I wake or that I slepe.
In grete deses and dedly synne,
Many one this nyght fallyn has,
That I my selve schuld have fallyn in,
Hadyst thou not kepyd me with thi grace …
Click on the link above to read the full poem, courtesy of the wonderful A Clerk of Oxford site.
2. George Herbert, ‘Prayer (I)’.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth …
As George Herbert (1593-1633) lay dying, he sent his poems to a friend Nicholas Ferrar with the instruction that his friend should publish them or destroy them, depending on whether he thought they were any good. Herbert is now revered as one of the greatest devotional poets of the Early Modern period.
‘Prayer (I)’ is a sonnet which sees Herbert offering a succession of synonyms or images for prayer, ranging from communion to ‘reversed thunder’ to manna from heaven and even simply ‘something understood’. Can prayer be put into words? This is one of the greatest poems about the act of prayer partly because it acknowledges the fact that there’s something about prayer which escapes or transcends ordinary language.
3. Robert Burns, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.
This poem shows just what a great satirical poet Robert Burns could be. Like John Betjeman’s later poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ – a poem from 1785 – uses the form of a prayer to expose religious hypocrisy and ruthless self-preservation – here, the self-preservation of ‘Holy Willie’, a church elder:
O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!
Click on the link above to read the rest of Willie’s prayer.
4. Anne Brontë, ‘A Prayer’.
My God (oh, let me call Thee mine,
Weak, wretched sinner though I be),
My trembling soul would fain be Thine;
My feeble faith still clings to Thee.
Not only for the Past I grieve,
The Future fills me with dismay;
Unless Thou hasten to relieve,
Thy suppliant is a castaway …
So begins this poem by the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who was also the best religious poet among the Brontë siblings. Anne Brontë calls upon God to take her to Him, describing herself as a ‘castaway’, in a nod to William Cowper’s famous poem of that name (a big influence on the Brontë sisters, especially Anne).
5. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916.
In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred:
May she be granted beauty, and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass; for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness, and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
6. Robert Frost, ‘A Prayer in Spring’.
The title of this poem from the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) succinctly describes it: the poet offers a prayer in springtime, and although his final stanza mentions God, the poem is poised between being a secular and religious prayer.
7. Alfred Noyes, ‘A Prayer in Time of War’.
Written during the First World War, this poem is as much a poem asking God to teach us how to pray as it is a prayer in itself.
8. Sara Teasdale, ‘A Prayer’.
Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet. In ‘A Prayer’ she calls upon God to grant her, in her dying moments, the knowledge and reassurance that she loved life and lived it well, and that despite life’s many hardships, she weathered the storm. Her poem-as-prayer is short enough to be quoted in full here:
When I am dying, let me know
That I loved the blowing snow
Although it stung like whips;
That I loved all lovely things
And I tried to take their stings
With gay unembittered lips;
That I loved with all my strength,
To my soul’s full depth and length,
Careless if my heart must break,
That I sang as children sing
Fitting tunes to everything,
Loving life for its own sake.
9. Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer Before Birth’.
The reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems.
Written during the Second World War, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ considers the kind of uncertain world that an as-yet-unborn child will be brought into. And what will that child grow up to be, given the horrors and atrocities being witnessed every day? One of MacNeice’s most frequently anthologised poems. MacNeice was one of the ‘poets of the thirties’, along with W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Prayer’.
One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most popular and frequently discussed poems, ‘Prayer’ is a Shakespearean sonnet about the various reminders of prayer – heard in the rhythm of a train, or the sound of piano scales, or the familiar routine of the radio shipping forecast – which we experience in our daily lives.
Note the use of ‘Finisterre’ and the Shipping Forecast in the closing line. Many UK-based people of a certain generation will recognise the names of the Shipping Forecast areas which Duffy mentions in that final line. But even those who recognise them as such would probably have difficulty pinpointing them on a map. We know them as names, names associated with the Shipping Forecast and the radio’s daily routine – like a nightly prayer – of pronouncing these mysterious shibboleths: North Utsire, South Utsire, Dogger, German Bight, and so on.
But the specific regions they denote are unknown to most who hear the names. Like a Latin mass in the pre-Reformation age, the names have a mysterious sound – impenetrable yet, we trust, filled with their own significance. This is why it’s so apt that Duffy chooses to end her poem with ‘Finisterre’, given its Latin origin. Like the man recalling his Latin lessons at school, the name is half-remembered, veiling its own meaning, yet carrying a powerful sense of importance and familiarity, despite – perhaps even because of – its enigmatic qualities.