Christian poetry is almost as old as Christianity itself. Early Christian hymns even helped to establish rhyme as a common feature of poetry (much earlier, pre-Christian poetry was unrhymed), and the impact of Christianity on the world of verse has been considerable.
Indeed, the Christian faith has inspired some of the greatest devotional poems and some of the most celebrated epic poems of the last thousand years. In a separate post, we’ve selected ten of the greatest hymns, but in this post, we’ll consider ‘poems’ in the more traditional sense, from brief lyrics to vast epics inspired by the Bible.
1. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy.
Let’s begin our odyssey through the world of great Christian poems with one of the greatest – and longest – of them all.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) composed the three long poems ‘Inferno’, ‘Purgatorio’, and ‘Paradiso’, in the early fourteenth century; it was only later that the title Divine Comedy was attached to them as a kind of ‘trilogy’ (the word ‘comedy’ surprises some readers: in this instance it means that the work is not a tragedy, because it ends happily with salvation and enlightenment).
Written in the terza rima form which would later be used by other Italian poets – and a fair few English poets – Dante’s work sees the poet being guided through hell, purgatory, and finally heaven, with his courtly ideal of woman, the young Beatrice, leading him safely through the various circles of hell (which have since become proverbial) and the limbo of purgatory before he sees the promised land of heaven.
2. John Donne, ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new …
One of the greatest Christian poets of the Renaissance began as one of the great sensual love poets. As a young man in his early twenties, John Donne (1572-1631) had penned metaphysical poems about the joys of physical love, with ‘The Flea’ and ‘The Sun Rising’ being among his most famous.
But later in life, Donne became a churchman and, in time, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (where he was buried). He began writing a series of ‘Holy Sonnets’, of which ‘Batter my heart’ is one of the very best. In the poem, which demonstrates Donne’s continued love of metaphysical conceits, the poet beseeches God to bring his lowly subject back to the fold – forcibly, if that’s what it takes.
What is remarkable about Donne’s Christian poems is how much Donne retained the sensual and physical language from his earlier love poetry. Only this time, the subject and addressee of those poems is not a young woman but God himself.
3. George Herbert, ‘Prayer’.
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 …
We almost lost the poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633) – along with Donne, a great devotional and metaphysical poet – forever. It was only thanks to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, that they were preserved and published, shortly after Herbert’s death in 1633.
Herbert’s The Temple is one of the great works of Christian poetry written in English, often taking simple, ordinary objects found in churches or houses – an altar, a tomb, a collar, a wreath – and weaving elaborate and wonderful conceits from them.
In ‘Prayer’, a sonnet, Herbert comes up with metaphor after metaphor to describe the act of praying to God: it is everything from holy communion (‘the church’s banquet’) to ‘the soul in paraphrase’ (what a phrase!) and much else. In the end, however, he decides that all that need be said is that prayer is ‘something understood’.
4. John Milton, Paradise Lost.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse …
The most famous Christian epic poem in the English language is undoubtedly Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton’s retelling of the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis. Beginning with the casting-out of Satan and his other renegade angels from heaven, the twelve-book epic culminates with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The language of the poem is sometimes dense but frequently majestic, although – amazingly – Milton’s style was the subject of much adverse criticism from various poets and critics, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Since Christopher Ricks’s landmark study Milton’s Grand Style in 1963, however, Milton’s reputation as a great poet – and a great Christian poet – has remained secure.
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 …
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.
This poem 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. 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 perhaps the finest poem Rossetti (1830-94) wrote about religious doubt. She starts by lamenting 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.
But as the poem develops, so does her faith, albeit subtly: she calls on God to ‘smite a rock’ and give her a sign of his divinity so she can banish her doubts.
7. 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 …
Hopkins (1844-89) barely saw any of his poems make it into print, and it would not be until 1918, almost thirty years after his death, that the first edition of his poems would be published.
A Jesuit who later wrestled with doubt, Hopkins is probably the finest Christian poet of the nineteenth century, at least among those poets writing in English. In this sonnet, he laments the fact that, despite God’s power being visible in everything, many people have lost sight of God.
8. T. S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday.
Eliot (1888-1965) converted to Anglo-Catholicism, or High Church Anglicanism, in 1927, and wrote the six-part sequence Ash-Wednesday in the years that followed his conversion. It was published in 1930. This highly allusive poem 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 and at other times, wonderfully rich and vivid. Ash-Wednesday is the great modernist Christian poem.
9. Anne Ridler, ‘Expectans Expectavi’.
Ridler (1912-2001) worked for T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber during the 1930s, and it was Eliot who encouraged her (albeit somewhat tersely) to keep writing. She is perhaps best-known as a modern Christian poet, although her work also reveals a debt to the metaphysical poets, and she is fond of clever extended metaphors in her poems.
This poem is a poem of waiting, set around Christmas time, and Ridler brilliantly evokes, in the poem’s two short stanzas, the biting cold of December and all of the trappings of the Christimas period.
10. Mary Oliver, ‘The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist’.
There are numerous contemporary Christian poets we might offer by way of bringing this selection of the best Christian poems ‘up to date’: Geoffrey Hill, for example, wrote beautifully about Christianity throughout his long career.
The poem we’ve opted for is by one of the most popular American poets of the last few decades: the work of Mary Oliver (1935-2019) is suffused with a love of nature and the value it can impart to our emotional and mental well-being, but she is also a very good poet when writing about Christianity in a way that is both powerful and accessible.
This poem focuses on the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Oliver, it doesn’t matter whether these items ‘become’ the body and blood of Christ, or whether it is merely symbolic and metaphorical. The value of the ceremony lies in ‘oceanic love of God’, as she put it in her note on the poem, which receiving communion brings into being.