The Meaning of Poetry for the Christian…

Poetry is words arranged in metrical—or rhythmical—patterns called. verses; these may be regular or irregular in number of syllables and stresses. Poetry is also succinct verbal expression of thought and feeling. Often metaphorical and symbolical, its imagery suggests universally meaningful concepts.

Idea presented through poetry (not doggerel or the work of poetasters) is coherent and unified, even if the subject of the poem is ambiguity or chaos. Moreover, the concept embodied in the poem is imaged in an aesthetically pleasing form, in a structure of which we say “That’s good; style suits content. It is appropriate and, as to its function, true.”

But the concept itself may be false—a lie exquisitely framed, a sublimely delineated delusion; for example, Satan rules the cosmos; man is the meaning of the universe; God is directed by man’s choices; the moral law is relative to time and place; Christ was merely a saint; sin is error, but not hellish offense against the holy God. The Christian will inevitably confront vicious and seductive doctrines ill everyday experience and in prose, as well as in poetry.

Sounds, rhythms, and poetic images may embellish, meretriciously, an unholy belief, product of the anti-Christian mind, depraved, rebellious, and hostile toward God. The pagan mind, ancient or modem, provincial or cosmopolitan, represses the truth of God in unrighteousness; God also tells us through Paul, “There is none righteous” ( Romans 1:18 and 3:10).

For an instance of perverse belief recommended in poetry, consider Thomas Hardy’s “Hap,” in which chance controls—or refuses to control-human destiny.

How arrives it joy lies slain, And why unblooms the best hope ever sown? —Crass Casuality obstructs the sun and rain, And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan.

Hardy’s theme is a lie, but his poetic depiction of the lie (with its triple personification; its elliptical inversion: “How arrives it …”; its consonance and assonance: “Crass Casualty” and “dicing Time”; and the poignancy of that apt botanical metaphor: “unblooms”) is an artistically effective formulation of his idea and of his feelings about destiny.

The “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” by Ezra Pound, celebrates the virile humanity of Christ (“No capon priest was the Goodly Fere”), but insidiously denies His divinity:

A son of God was the Goodly Fere That bade us his brothers be.

Yet, the poetic form creates a rousing alliterative rhythm with its anapestic lines. Pound demonstrates the beauty of balanced simplicity and the truth of metrical artistry, but his thematic identification of Christ with man (“A son,” not “The Son”) is damnable and demonic.

In the poem with a lying message no disjunction need exist between manner and matter; for the conceptual falsity of a God-denying poem must also be lucidly and memorably stated in cogent diction and fitting metaphor: that is, the He, to be perspicuous, must be admirably constituted by aesthetic standards of clarity, symmetry, integrity, and emphasis. That the poems of talented infidels satisfy basic aesthetic criteria is God’s favor to poet and reader. To encounter and expose untruth in poetry (and prose), one must have a clear understanding of the definition and implications of the lie being advanced.

“The Flea,” by the early and sensual John Donne, is a consummate poem, superbly harmonizing witty dialectic, sportive tone, and sacramental imagery with the sybaritic proposition to premarital relations. The depravity inheres in the naturalistic ethic, but the apt conjunction of form with content is the poem’s formal beauty and truth. Thus, the lie and the truth may exist together in a poem. Just before his unpersuaded inamorata crushes the flea-symbol of the union he desires, having sucked blood from each of them—Donne’s persona, the overheated suitor, pleads in sacerdotal language,

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, yea, more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet. Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to that, self-murder added be, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Written after his conversion to Christianity, “Batter My Heart” is one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. This poem is also a delightful concord of texture and structure, but no lie is herein preferred. From the impassioned urgency of its initial petition: “Batter my heart, three-personed God… ,” through that magnificent parallelism of four metaphysical comparatives with their four superlatives:

… for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, 0’erthrow me and bend Your force to break, blow, bum and make me new,

and on into the figure of the usurped town, whose governor, Reason, is prisoner of Satan, no spurious beliefs impeach the conceptual essence of the poem. So ends the octave. The sestet shifts from seige imagery to love imagery (another form of enslavement, but one which anticipates a change in authority), which also characterized Donne’s voluptuary poems. But now a difference is evident: human love has become a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. And the persona of penitent sinner necessarily is revealed to be woman through the imagery that concludes the sonnet:

Divorce me, untie or break tltat knot again Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Concluding with a startling, condensed paradox or oxymoron -a favorite device of Donne (note others in the verses from the octave), the maker has crafted a poem that attains the first purpose of poetry: homage to God. Poetry may amuse our melancholy; may inform our intellect; may entertain our leisure; may excite our sympathy; may even provoke our virtue; but, primarily, it must reflect the beauty and truth of our Creator-God, of our Redeemer-Christ, and of our Sanctifier-Spirit. For poetry is a human tribute to God; but the unregenerate can honor God only despite himself. Devoted to idolatry and humanistic ideals, his poetic creations display beauty and truth only because God has graciously permitted him to retain aspects of His image, imperfected as they are by man’s Fall.

Sharing aesthetic standards with the secular pact, the Christian poet has a distinctive, sacred standard transcendent: his work must be approvable by God: hence, truthful and beautiful in form and content -nor will his poetry by its process or tone willfully promulgate a lie. The Christian poet is called to praise, and no aspect of creation exists through which God cannot be worshiped by the poet who sees Him beyond all manifestations of reality and all events of temporality.

Unregenerate man is antithetically opposed to God and His revelation; therefore, nonChristian poetry is a quest for Eden, for perfection without Christ, for patterns of meaning in a cosmos severed from its Creator. Each poem is a symmetrical detail within the larger poetic and philosophic pattern that comprises a poet’s interpretation of reality; therefore, expect no one poem to illustrate unambiguously and completely an entire moral system.

William Butler Yeats, Irish mystic and symbolist poet, was not a Christian, but unless one knows Yeats’s biography and some literary history, the following poem could seem the lyrical expression of a Christian poet:

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true; But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending clown beside the glowing bars Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Aging, memory, love, understanding, misunderstanding, pathos—the emotions and experience even in this one poem are universally appreciable and valuable. For such concerns are the substance of our temporal lives: our meditations, our feelings, our hopes, and our faiths; and as we increasingly realize our humanity, we recognize more acutely our dependence on our Father in heaven, the Original of the image that we bear, the Poet and Maker of all things—whose poetry we are and whom we, distorted metaphors, glorify, as the Holy Spirit reforms our broken rhythms, sanctifies our profane contemplations, and transforms our mundane themes.

In this brief article Prof. Merle Meeter of the Department of English, Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, urges us to consider the significance of poetry, both as to form and content, for the Christian believer. Its relevance for our lives becomes preciously clear in his reminder that we are the “poetry” of “the Poet and Maker of all things.”