The history of Christianity has had more than its fair share of poets. Indeed, the Christian religion can be found weaved through the vast majority of the poetry of the Western world, for better or for worse. Here, I wish to concentrate on the specifically Christian poets who stand out amongst the last 2000 years - no doubt, there will be favorites missing (I can already here many criticisms coming my way about one in particular!). Enjoy (and remember, the list is in no particular order).
"Do thou, O Christ, our slumbers wake:
Do thou the chains of darkness break."1
Prudentius is a name not often heard these days. Born about the middle of the 4th century A.D., Prudentius' career as a poet seems to have flourished, at least if the amount of writings he has left us bear any witness at all. His poetry is an important element of the early Church, especially his corpus of writings on the martyrs entitled . He is spoken of in The Catholic Encyclopedia as being "The superior of many pagan poets, among the Christian he is the greatest and the most truly poetic."2
2. St. Robert Southwell
"O sacred Fire come show thy force on me
That sacrifice to Christ I may return
If withered wood for fuel fittest be
If stones and dust if flesh and blood will burn
I withered am and stoney to all good.
A sack of dust a mass of flesh and blood."3
St. Robert Southwell was a famous Jesuit priest and martyr during the English Reformation. In a time of intense persecution of Catholics, St. Robert sought to minister to the needs of Catholics when priests were outlawed. He was arrested, tortured for a period of three years, and finally martyred. St. Robert's poetry is astoundingly complex, incredibly vivid, and steeped in devotional piety. Oftentimes, it is heart-wrenching - witness his excellent poem, "Christ's Bloody Sweat".
"If, O Christ, while you are crucified, your garments are legacies of your enemies, not of your friends, as custom demands, what will you bequeath to your friends? Yourself."4
Of the metaphysical poets of the 16th and 17th centuries, John Donne seems to reign supreme, especially as far as Christian poets are concerned. As for myself, after spending some time in study of Donne's work, I could not bring myself to take him quite as seriously as his poetry seemed to wish me to. Much of it was tainted with a kind of tongue-in-cheek nature, cloaked by all the vivid content of the writing, but still there all the same.
For myself, I find the poetry of George Herbert, an Anglican, to be far more worthy of admiration. Herbert's poetry lacks the wild intricacies of Donne's, at least on first inspection. But its devotional character is far richer - here the writing is almost all of a religious character. It is Herbert's piety in his poetry that inspires me most, and though he was an Anglican of the lower-church persuasion, much of it sounds entirely Catholic to me.
"As the provision for my journey I have taken Thee,
Oh Thou Son of God!
And when I am hungry I will eat of Thee,
Thou Saviour of the world!"5
Arguably the greatest poet of the early Church, St. Ephrem the Syrian's hymns functioned in a myriad of ways - as devout intructions, as hymns of praise and adoration, and as polemical attacks against the various heresies of his day. He is an important witness to the early Church's veneration of the Blessed Virgin, and to this day one of the greatest of the Syrian saints.
5. Gerhard Tersteegen
"My body and the world are a strange dwelling place for me.
I think: Let it go; you soon will be leaving.
He who lives here as a citizen busies himself with great matters;
He calls me wretched and stupid, but is himself a fool."6
Gerhard Tersteegen is not a well-known name. Linked with the Pietist movement that swept the Protestant world in the 17th and 18th centuries, Tersteegen is a strange anomaly. His poetry is similar to that of Angelus Silesius, comprised of small poems espousing deeply mystical concepts, and seems steeped in the German mysticism that predated him in such writers as Meister Eckhart, Bl. Henry Suso and John Tauler. To read The Spiritual Flower Garden is to come into contact with some of the finest poetry penned in Christendom.
"I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow."7
To be sure, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is no easy read, despite his being well-known in the literary world. At times exceedingly difficult, choppy, sometimes abstract and outlandish, but always beautiful, otherworldly, and memorable, Hopkins is to this day considered one of the foremost poets of the English language.
"To be considered mad for the love of Christ is the highest wisdom."8
Associated with the Franciscan Spirituals movement that reacted harshly against the reforms of the way of life instituted by St. Francis of Assisi, Bl. Jacopone represents one of the most edifying of the Western "fools-for-Christ". His poetry contained in the famed Lauds depicts to the world a man so madly in love with Christ that he seems to have forgotten all sense of the world around him. Careening between harsh and sublime, his poetry cannot afford to be missed.
8. Dante Alighieri
"The Rose in which the Word of God became flesh grows within that garden; there - the lilies whose fragrance let men find the righteous way."9
Dante should need no introduction - his Divine Comedy, especially the first part entitled the Inferno, have had an incalculable influence on all of literature since. In my mind, he stands as a towering giant in the literary world, dwarfing countless multitudes in terms of sheer genius, literary skill, and profound content. When I first read the Inferno, I was riveted, terrified, and lost within its pages; so much of his work has influenced me to this day. To encounter Dante's monolithic Divine Comedy is to encounter one of the greatest literary works of all time by one of the greatest Christian poets of all time.
9. John Milton
"Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven."10
Where the Catholic Dante wrote an epic poem on Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven and everything in between, the Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem on the fall of Satan. He is in some respects, the Protestant Dante - sweeping, grand, and packed with unforgettable imagery.
Interestingly enough, the work appealed to me more as an anti-Christian in my youth, than as a Christian now; its portrayal of Satan in a humanistic and sympathetic fashion influenced me for some time. Nonetheless, Milton's work remains one of the greatest poems in the English language.
"Reveal thyself, I cry,
Yea, though the beauty of thy presence kill,
For sick with love am I,
And naught can cure my ill
Save only if of thee I have my fill."11
For Catholics, St. John of the Cross should need no introduction. He is the mystic of mystics, the greatest doctor of mystical theology in the West, at once a profound poet and theologian. If anyone truly understood the Song of Songs, it was this saint. His poetry reveals the aching longing of the soul for God, depicting the restlessness described by St. Augustine, but also the fiery love and desire that the soul in love with God experiences.
1 - "The Winged Herald of the Day"
2 - From here.
3 - "Christ's Blood Sweat"
4 - "In Vestes Divisas"
5 - "Christ the Companion of the Disembodied Soul"
6 - Spiritual Flower Garden, "Pilgrim's Thought"
7 - "Heaven Haven"
8 - Lauds, 84
9 - Divine Comedy, Paradiso: Canto XXIII
10 - Paradise Lost
11 - Spiritual Canticle