Poems about God, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we offered some classic religious poems; now, we’re thinking specifically about God and Jesus. The following classic poems are all about God, but they span over a thousand years of English literature and range from narrative poems to short lyrics to meditations and dream-visions. We hope you enjoy them!
Anonymous, ‘The Dream of the Rood’. This is one of the gems of Anglo-Saxon poetry. ‘Rood’ is an Old English word for ‘Cross’, and poem tells of a pious man’s encounter with a talking crucifix; it’s the first great Christian dream-vision poem in English literature. The poet dreams one midnight that the Cross on which Jesus was crucified appears and speaks to him. Initially, when the Cross or Rood appears to him, it is covered with gems, but then the poet sees it also has blood on it from the Crucifixion. The Cross then speaks to the poet, and recounts the story of the Crucifixion, telling of how it was originally a tree that was cut down and fashioned into a cross, which was then put in the ground before Christ was brought and nailed to it. The Cross recounts its own suffering alongside that of Jesus Christ, and how Jesus’ body was taken down after his death and the Cross was then salvaged by Jesus’ followers and covered with the gems it now bears.
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 …
As the Donne scholar P. M. Oliver observed, what makes this poem about God so unusual and innovative is that Donne has written a hymn that does not set out to praise God so much as engage him in a debate – in that refreshingly direct style that Donne (1572-1631) made his own.
John Milton, Paradise Lost. Any pick of classic poems about God should contain this poem, even if Satan is the ‘star’ of the poem. However, Milton’s great epic poem, completed in 1667 long after he had gone blind, takes in the big questions of theology, concerning sin and temptation and salvation:
The chief were those who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek their prey on earth, durst fix
Their Seats long after next the Seat of God,
Their Altars by his Altar, Gods ador’d
Among the Nations round, and durst abide
Jehovah thundring out of Sion, thron’d
Between the Cherubim …
William Cowper, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’. This 1773 poem by the co-author of the Olney Hymns is, fittingly, a hymn. The phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ (or some variation of it) has become famous, and that opening line neatly sums up the meaning of the hymn:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm …
Anne Brontë, ‘My God! O Let Me Call Thee Mine!’
My God! O 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,
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,
I know my heart will fall away,
I know my heart will fall away …
Of the three literary Brontë sisters, Anne was the most religious, and she wrote a series of pious, devotional poems about God. This is one of them, a heartfelt lyric addressed directly to God which acknowledges that doubt is an integral part of faith.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church’. This poem turns the idea of ‘going to church’ on a Sunday right on its head: Dickinson recreates the ‘church’ within her own home, with a ‘Bobolink’ (a bird) as the chorister, and God as the ultimate ‘Clergyman’ leading the service:
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along …
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod …
So begins this marvellous poem by one of Victorian literature’s greatest innovators. Hopkins writes that the grandeur and greatness of God can be found in everything – a view that is very much associated with the Romantic poets and their pantheistic view that there is divinity in every rock, plant, tree, lake, or flower. But modern man has lost touch with God in nature…
T. S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday. T. S. Eliot’s 1930 poem Ash-Wednesday needs to be viewed as part of the shift in Eliot’s writing towards a more devotional aspect, a shift that would culminate in Four Quartets (1943). In six sections, this long modernist poem of meditation sees Eliot trying to come to terms with the power of religious conversion, and the need for God to make him anew. The theme of Ash-Wednesday is the turning away from the world and towards God.
Ivor Gurney, ‘To God’. Ivor Gurney is a relatively little-known poet of the First World War. Born in Gloucester in 1890, he served in the War from 1915 until 1917; he would spend most of his final years in the City of London Mental Hospital, dying in 1937. ‘To God’ was written after Gurney’s experiences in the First World War, and during his confinement, as the ‘four walls’ suggest in the poem’s second line. Gurney, who is now recognised to have had bipolar disorder, offers an impassioned and desperate plea to God to help him escape from his depression:
Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls, where I am able
Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible
Only by annoying an attendant …
James Fenton, ‘God, A Poem’. Fenton (b. 1949) is one of the wittiest poets writing in English today, and this poem about God shows his love of paradox and sense of fun. The speaker of the poem is cheesed off about God, but God responds by speaking back…
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.