Conversion and redemption are both important aspects of religion, and these terms can also be useful in other, more secular realms. What does it mean to be redeemed? How can religion, or some other force, offer us a second chance?
The following poems explore the issues of conversion and redemption in different ways, dating from the ninth century right through to the twentieth.
1. Anonymous, ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
The word ‘rood’ is the Anglo-Saxon for ‘cross’, and survives in the term rood-screen, found in churches. And this poem dates from before the Norman Conquest of 1066: lines from the poem are literally inscribed, runically, on a giant cross at Ruthwell in Scotland, dating from the eighth century (don’t worry: we’ve linked to a modern translation above).
In the poem, 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. When the Rood speaks to him, he learns that it is a symbol of salvation and redemption, through which mankind can be saved.
2. John Donne, ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’.
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face …
We move on more than half a millennium from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to our next poem about religious conversion and the power of redemption, though we’re still dealing with the significance of Easter here. Donne (1572-1631) was one of the first ‘metaphysical poets’, whose work used sometimes tortuous and ingenious metaphors and conceits to explore big themes including religion, in the seventeenth century.
Using ideas about the duality of the soul and body, Donne explores his own conversion as he acknowledges the need for God to redeem him.
3. George Herbert, ‘Redemption’.
In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession …
Along with Donne, George Herbert (1593-1633) was the most outstanding devotional poet of the early seventeenth century writing in English. He was also fond of elaborate conceits to help him explore and explain complex religious ideas. His poetry is only known to us thanks to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, who was the recipient of Herbert’s poems. Herbert, as he lay dying, sent Ferrar the manuscript for his poetry and left it up to Ferrar whether they should be published or not. Thankfully, Ferrar saw their worth and published them!
This is another Easter poem about redemption, though in this case it’s less obvious because the Crucifixion is alluded to only obliquely, in the sonnet’s final couplet.
4. Christopher Smart, ‘Conversion of St. Paul’.
To wash internal blackness white,
To call the worse than dead to light;
To make the fruitless soil to hold
Ten thousand times ten thousand fold.
To turn a servant of the times
From modish and ambitious crimes;
To pour down a resistless blaze,
‘Go, persecutor, preach and praise …’
Christopher Smart (1722-71) spent a number of years incarcerated in St. Luke’s Hospital, Bethnal Green, London. He was deemed to be mad, although Samuel Johnson famously questioned the reasons behind Smart’s confinement. He is best-known for his poem about his cat, Jeoffry.
It was while he was confined in St. Luke’s that Smart wrote much of his poetry. This poem is, like much of Smart’s output, religious verse, the fourth of a series of hymns he wrote: this one is, as the title makes clear, about Paul’s conversion to Christianity while on the road to Damascus.
5. 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?
So begins this poem is about Christina Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made.
Rossetti regrets the fact that when she stands and looks up at a depiction of Jesus Christ being crucified, the sight does not move her to tears. Rossetti concludes ‘Good Friday’ by entreating Jesus Christ to continue to try to reach her with the power of his sacrifice, likening him to a shepherd who needs to find her, one of his lost sheep.
6. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Conversion’.
But now I know that a good God reigneth,
Generous-hearted, and kind and true;
Since unto a worm like me he deigneth
To send so royal a gift as you.
Bright as a star you gleam on my bosom,
Sweet as a rose that the wild bee sips;
And I know, my own, my beautiful blossom,
That none but a God could mould such lips …
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) has often been ridiculed – she features in Nicholas T. Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse – but she wrote well about God in clear, simple language designed to connect with ordinary readers. This conversion poem is a good example of how effective she could be.
7. G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Convert’.
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead …
Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the leading Catholic writers working in English in the first few decades of the twentieth century. ‘The Convert’ is about the epiphany that led to his conversion to Catholicism as an adult. Chesterton likens his conversion to Lazarus being brought back to life by Jesus.
8. T. E. Hulme, ‘Conversion’.
Light-hearted I walked into the valley wood
In the time of hyacinths,
Till beauty like a scented cloth
Cast over, stifled me, I was bound
Motionless and faint of breath …
‘Conversion’ is not quite as famous as several of Hulme’s other poems, but it was one of the six poems he allowed Ezra Pound to reprint in the facetiously titled ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme’, at the end of Pound’s 1912 volume Ripostes.
In the poem, the speaker is drugged with beauty – indeed, by beauty – as though beauty were chloroform or, more sinister still, a kidnapper; he is then bundled into a sack and thrown into the river, like a litter of kittens to be drowned. Is this a poem about the violence of religious conversion, or the power art (or beauty) can have over us?
9. Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Redemption’.
Sassoon (1886-1967) was one of the leading poets of the First World War, and after Wilfred Owen he is probably the most widely studied and read. ‘Redemption’ is a later poem written long after the end of the war, and published in Common Chords in 1950. Dwelling upon a ‘host of souls redeemed’, the poet reflects upon his own lack of belief, in a manner which recalls Thomas Hardy.
10. T. S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday.
T. S. Eliot’s long poem from 1930 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.