Christian poetry

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Christian poetry is any poetry that contains Christian teachings, themes, or references. The influence of Christianity on poetry has been great in any area that Christianity has taken hold. Christian poems often directly reference the Bible, while others provide allegory.

History of Christian poetry[edit]

Early history[edit]

Poetic forms have been used by Christians since the recorded history of the faith begins. The earliest Christian poetry, in fact, appears in the New Testament. Canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which appear in the Gospel of Luke, take the Biblical poetry of the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as their models.[1] Many Biblical scholars also believe that St Paul of Tarsus quotes bits of early Christian hymns in his epistles. Passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 (following) are thought by many Biblical scholars to represent early Christian hymns that were being quoted by the Apostle:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Within the world of classical antiquity, Christian poets often struggled with their relationship to the existing traditions of Greek and Latin poetry, which were of course heavily influenced by paganism. Paul quotes the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides in Acts 17:28: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his offspring.'" Some early Christian poets such as Ausonius continued to include allusions to pagan deities and standard classical figures and allusions continued to appear in his verse. Other Christian poems of the late Roman Empire, such as the Psychomachia of Prudentius, cut back on allusions to Greek mythology, but continue the use of inherited classical forms.

Other early Christian poets were more innovative. The hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus wrote a number of important poems that are still used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Vexilla Regis ("The Royal Standard") and Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis ("Sing, O my tongue, of the glorious struggle"). From a literary and linguistic viewpoint, these hymns represent important innovations; they turn away from Greek prosody and instead seem to have been based on the rhythmic marching songs of the Roman legions.

A related issue concerned the literary quality of Christian scripture. Most of the New Testament was written (or translated from Semitic languages) in a sub-literary variety of koinê Greek, as was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Old Latin Bible added further solecisms to those found in its source texts.

None of the Christian scriptures were written to suit the tastes of those who were educated in classical Greek or Latin rhetoric. Educated pagans, seeing the sub-literary quality of the Christian scriptures, posed a problem for Christian apologists: why did the Holy Ghost write so badly? Some Christian writers flatly rejected classical standards of rhetoric, such as Tertullian, who famously asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

The cultural prestige of classical literary standards was not so easy for other Christians to overcome. St.Jerome, trained in the classical Latin rhetoric of Cicero, observed that dismay over the quality of existing Latin Bible translations was a major motivating factor that induced him to produce the Vulgate, which went on to become the standard Latin Bible, and remained the official Bible translation of the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council. A fuller appreciation of the formal literary virtues of Biblical poetry remained unavailable for European Christians until 1754, when Robert Lowth (later made a bishop in the Church of England), kinder to the Hebrew language than his own, published Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, which identified parallelism as the chief rhetorical device within Hebrew poetry.[citation needed]

In many European vernacular literatures, Christian poetry appears among the earliest monuments of those literatures, and Biblical paraphrases in verse often precede Bible translations. Much Old Irish poetry was the work of Irish monks and is on religious themes. This story is repeated in most European languages.

In Old English poetry, the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on Christ's crucifixion which adapts Germanic heroic imagery and applies it to Jesus, is one of the earliest extant monuments of Old English literature.

In Armenian literature, by far the most important Christian poet is St. Gregory of Narek, who was a priest and monk at Narek Monastery near Lake Van during the 10th century.

The Canticle of the Sun was composed by Saint Francis of Assisi in the Umbrian dialect of the Italian language, but has since been translated into many languages. It is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language rather than in Latin.

Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy represents one of the earliest examples of Italian poetry in the Italian language.

The Renaissance[edit]

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, however, sent many Greek people fleeing to Western Europe as refugees and bringing Ancient Greek books and manuscripts with them that Western Christians had been previously unable to access. As this was during the Gutenberg Revolution, these books were mass produced and gave impetus to the Renaissance, but also caused many intellectuals, writers, and poets to embrace a nostalgia for Classical mythology and an antipathy for Christianity.

At the same time, however, many European poets adapted the conventions of Ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry to retelling of stories from the Christian Bible. The usual practice was to choose the New Testament for a source.

For example, in 1535, Marco Girolamo Vida, a Bishop of the Catholic Church in Italy and Renaissance Humanist, published the Christiad, an epic poem in six cantos about the life and mission of Jesus Christ, which is modeled upon the poetry of Virgil. According to Watson Kirkconnell, the Christiad, "was one of the most famous poems of the Early Renaissance". Furthermore, according to Kirkconnell, Vida's, "description of the Council in Hell, addressed by Lucifer, in Book I", was, "a feature later to be copied", by Torquato Tasso, Abraham Cowley, and by John Milton in Paradise Lost. The standard English translations, which render Vida's poem into heroic couplets, were published by John Cranwell in 1768 and by Edward Granan in 1771.[2]

Marko Marulić, a Croatian lawyer and Renaissance Humanist, defied the usual practice of Christian epic poetry at the time by choosing to retell stories from the Old Testament instead of the New. In 1517, Marulic finished writing the Davidiad an epic poem in Virgilian Latin in 14 books, which retells the life of King David, whom Marulić depicts, in keeping with Catholic doctrine, as a prototype for Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the Davidiad was long considered to be lost. A manuscript was re-discovered only in 1924, only to be lost again and re-discovered in 1952.

In addition to the small portions that attempt to recall the epics of Homer, The Davidiad is heavily modeled upon Virgil's Aeneid. This is so much the case that Marulić's contemporaries called him the "Christian Virgil from Split." The late Serbian-American philologist Miroslav Marcovich also detected, "the influence of Ovid, Lucan, and Statius" in the work.

Marulić also wrote the epic poem Judita, which retells the events of the Book of Judith. The poem contains 2126 dodecasyllabic lines, with caesurae after the sixth syllable, composed in six books (libars). The linguistic basis of the book is Split Čakavian speech and the Štokavian lexis, and the Glagolitic original of the legend; the work thus foreshadows the unity of Croatian language.


The German Reformation stimulated hymn writing among both Catholics and Protestants, e.g. Martin Luther's Ein Feste Burg, the Calvinist hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen, and the Catholic hymns of Angelus Silesius and Friedrich Spee.

During the French Wars of Religion, both Catholic and Huguenot poets argued their causes in verse. Of these, English poet Keith Bosley has called Huguenot soldier-poet Agrippa d'Aubigné, "the epic poet of the Protestant cause," during the French Wars of Religion. Bosley added, however, that after d'Aubigné's death, he, "was forgotten until the Romantics rediscovered him."[3]

In France in 1573, the Huguenot courtier and poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas published the epic poem l'Uranie ou Muse Celèste, which praises Urania, not as the Muse of Astronomy, as was common practice during the Renaissance, but as the inspirer of sacred poetry and as the revealer of the mysteries of Heaven. According to Watson Kirkconnell, "The chief formative influences on his poetry were Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Ronsard. His reputation was less at home than it was abroad, where he was regarded, especially among Protestants, as one of the great geniuses of poetry". Bartas' influence upon John Milton, "was very extensive."[4]

In 1587, Du Bartas published La Sepmaine ou Création a 7,500 line poem about the creation of the world and the Fall of Man. Despite drawing "his form from Homer, Virgil, and Ariosto", Du Bartas drew his subject-matter chiefly from George of Pisidia, St. Ambrose, and, most of all, from St. Basil the Great. The main English translation, which helped inspire Milton's Paradise Lost, is by Joshua Sylvester.[5]

Also during the French Wars of Religion, the Catholic poet Jean de La Ceppède began using the sonnet, the favored poetic form of the Renaissance for expressing romantic love, to relate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and for using the gods and demigods of Greek and Roman mythology, in the manner later advocated by The Inklings, to point out the greatness of Jesus.[6]

When the first volume of his sonnet sequence Theorems upon the Sacred Mystery of Our Redemption was published in 1613, La Ceppède sent a copy to Saint Francis de Sales, who had been a highly successful Catholic missionary among the Huguenots of the Chablais and who was then the Roman Catholic Bishop of overwhelmingly Calvinist Geneva. In response to La Ceppède's frequent comparison of Jesus Christ to figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the Bishop wrote, "[I am] drawn by that learned piety which so happily makes you transform the Pagan Muses into Christian ones."[7]

When the second volume of the Theorems appeared in 1622, La Ceppède dedicated it to King Louis XIII, in celebration of both the King's recent coming of age and his military victory against an uprising of the Huguenots of Languedoc, which had been led by Henri, Duke of Rohan.[8]

According to Christopher Blum, "The Theorems is not only poetry, it is a splendid work of erudition, as each sonnet is provided with a commentary linking it to Scriptural and Patristic sources and, especially, to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. The work bears the mark of the Renaissance: the sonnet, that choice mode of expressing romantic love, is here purged and elevated and put in the service of the epic tale of God’s love for man. As La Ceppède put it in his introduction—which can be read in Keith Bosley’s admirable translation of seventy of the sonnets—the harlot Lady Poetry had been unstitched of 'her worldly habits' and shorn of her 'idolatrous, lying and lascivious hair' by the 'two-edged razor of profound meditation on the Passion and death of our Saviour.'"[9]

Like those of d'Aubigné, however, La Ceppède's poetry was consigned to oblivion after his death. It was only in 1915, when they were unearthed by Henri Bremond and appeared in the first volume of his book Histoire littéraire du Sentiment religieux en France, that La Ceppède's poetry has experienced a revival. It has appeared in multiple poetry anthologies and several scholarly works have been written about its author.[10]

However, a temporary effect of the English Reformation was a shift in English poetry toward secular subjects, which caused poetry to be condemned by members of the ultra-Protestant Puritan Movement.

In response to both Puritan attacks on verse and the secular subjects that inspired most English poetry at the time, Robert Southwell, a Roman Catholic priest and clandestine missionary in Elizabethan England, wrote a collection of poems on religious subjects. In his poems, Southwell drew heavily upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and on the new Catholic art-works he had seen while studying for the priesthood at the English College in Rome. As the strict censorship in England made it impossible for him to legally publish his poems, Southwell circulated them clandestinely, in a 16th century version of the samizdat literature that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a forward to his poems, which many scholars believe was addressed to Southwell's cousin, William Shakespeare, the priest-poet wrote, "Poets by abusing their talent, and making the follies and feignings of love the customary subject of their base endeavors, have so discredited this faculty that a poet, a lover, and a liar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification. But the vanity of men cannot counterpease the authority of God, Who delivering many parts of the scripture in verse, and by His Apostle willing us to exercise our devotion in hymns and spiritual sonnets warranteth the art to be good and the use allowable. And therefore not only among the heathens, whose gods were chiefly canonized by their poets, and their Pagan divinity oracled in verse, but even in the Old and New Testament, it hath been used by men of the greatest piety in matters of most devotion. Christ Himself, by making a hymn the conclusion of His Last Supper and the prologue to the first pageant of His Passion gave His Spouse a method to imitate, as in the office of the Church it appeareth and all men a pattern to know this measured and footed style. But the Devil, as he affecteth deity and seeketh to have all the compliments of Divine honor applied to his service, so hath he among the rest possessed also most poets with his idle fancies. For in lieu of solemn and devout matter, to which in duty they owe their abilities, they now busy themselves in expressing such passions as only serve for testimonies to how unworthy affections they have wedded their Wiles. And because the best the best course to let them see the error of their works is to weave a new web in their own loom; I have here laid a few coarse threads together to invite some skillfuller wits to go forward in the same or to begin some finer piece wherein it may be seen, how well verse and virtue suit together. Blame me not, (good cousin) though I send you a blameworthy present, in which the most that can commend it, is the good will of the writer, neither art not invention giving it any credit. If in me this be a fault, you cannot be dauntless that did importune me to commit it, and therefore you must bear part of the penance, when it shall please sharp censures to impose. In the meantime with many good wishes I send you these few ditties add you the tunes and let the mean I pray be still a part in all your music."[11]

Even though Southwell was captured, tortured, convicted of high treason and executed at Tyburn in 1595, the underground priest-poet's illegal poetry helped inspire the Metaphysical poets, such as William Alabaster, John Donne, Richard Crashaw, and George Herbert, to write Christian religious poetry as well.

More recently, the posthumous 1873 publication of Southwell's translation into Elizabethan English of Fray Diego de Estella's Meditaciónes devotíssimas del amor de Dios ("A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God") helped inspire Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins to write the poem The Windhover.[12]

During the Reformation in Wales, Queen Elizabeth I of England commanded that Welsh poets be examined and licensed by officials of the Crown, who had alleged that those whom they considered genuine Bards were, "much discouraged to travail in the exercise and practice of their knowledge and also not a little hindered in their living and preferments."[13] Unlicensed Bards, according to Hywel Teifi Edwards, "would be put to some honest work." Although Edwards has compared the unlicensed Bards of the era with, "today's abusers of the Social Security system," [14] historian Philip Caraman quotes a 1575 "Report on Wales" that reveals an additional reason for the decree. During the Queen's ongoing religious persecution of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, many Welsh poets were, according to the report, acting as the secret emissaries of Recusants in the Welsh nobility and were helping those nobles spread the news about secret Catholic Masses and religious pilgrimages.[15]

This was no idle claim. When unlicensed bard Richard Gwyn was put on trial for high treason before a panel headed by the Chief Justice of Chester, Sir George Bromley, at Wrexham in 1523, Gwyn stood accused not only of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and of involvement in the local Catholic underground, but also of reciting, "certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers." Gwyn was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was carried out in the Beast Market in Wrexham on 15 October 1584. Richard Gwyn was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated on 17 October. Six works of Welsh poetry by Richard Gwyn, five carols and a funeral ode, have been discovered and published.[16]

In Spain, which was experiencing what is still called the Spanish Golden Age, poets such as Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross composed verse that remains an immortal part of the canon of Spanish poetry. Also, the Augustinian friar Luis de León also wrote many immortal works of Christian religious poetry in Spanish.

The Age of Reason and after[edit]

In England, the Dissenting and renewal movements of the 18th century saw a marked increase in the number and publication of new hymns due to the activity of Protestant poets such as Isaac Watts, the father of English hymns, Philip Doddridge, Augustus Toplady, and especially John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism.[17] In the 19th century hymn singing came to be accepted in the Church of England, and numerous books of hymns for that body appeared.

In 1704, when The Philippines was still the capital of the Spanish East Indies, Gaspar Aquino de Belén authored the Pasyon: a famous work of narrative poetry in the Tagalog language about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The uninterrupted recitation or Pabasa of the whole epic is a popular Filipino Catholic devotion during the Lenten season, and particularly during Holy Week.

In 2011, the performing art was cited by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Philippines under the performing arts category that the government may nominate in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.[18]

In America with the Second Great Awakening, hymn writing flourished from folk hymns and Negro spirituals to more literary texts from the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Women hymn writers gained prominence including Anglo-Irish hymn-writer Mrs C. F. Alexander, the author of All things bright and beautiful. Anna B. Warner wrote the poem "Jesus loves me," which, put to music, many Christian children learn to this day.

During an 1893 Welsh eisteddfod held as part of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago,[19] Rev. Evan Reese, a Calvinistic Methodist minister from Puncheston, Pembrokeshire, and author of Welsh poetry whose Bardic name was Dyfed, won the Bardic Chair and the $500 prize money offered for a 2,000 line awdl on the set subject Iesu o Nazareth ("Jesus of Nazareth").[20] Rev. Reese went on to become the Archdruid of the Gorsedd Cymru and to announce the posthumous victory of Hedd Wyn at the infamous 1917 "Eisteddfod of the Black Chair."[21]

Christian poetry figured prominently in the Western literary canon from the Middle Ages through the 18th century.[22]

However with the progressive secularization of Western Civilization from about 1500 until the present,[23] Christian poetry was less and less represented in literary and academic writing of the 19th and 20th centuries and scarcely at all in the 21st century.

Modern Christian poetry[edit]

Twentieth and 21st century Christian poetry especially suffers from a difficulty of definition. The writings of a Christian poet are not necessarily classified as Christian poetry nor are writings of secular poets dealing with Christian material. The themes of poetry are necessarily hard to pin down, and what some see as a Christian theme or viewpoint may not be seen by others. A number of modern writers are widely considered to have Christian themes in much of their poetry, including G. K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Jennings.

In 1976, P. C. Devassia, an Eastern Rite Catholic poet from the Syro-Malabar Church of India, published, as part of the Sanskrit revival, the Kristubhagavatam, a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ based on the Gospels, but according to the ancient traditions of Sanskrit poetry and with many mentions of the gods and heroes of Hinduism and even of Mohandas K. Gandhi in order, like The Inklings and Jean de La Ceppède, to point out the greatness of Jesus.

Within New Formalism, a literary movement in American poetry, there are several authors of Christian poetry. They include Dana Gioia, Frederick Turner, David Middleton, and James Matthew Wilson.

When asked by William Baer about his decision to write Christian poetry, English-American New Formalist Frederick Turner said, "In the 20th century, it became more and more frowned on to advertise your religious views. Partly it was a reaction against the 'tolerant hypocrisy' of the Victorians, but the primary reason, of course, was the intellectual fashion of the death of God. You really couldn't be a respectable thinker unless you made an act of faith that there is nothing but matter in the world. We now know, of course, from countless scientific discoveries, that matter itself has a relatively late appearance in the universe, and if the universe looks like anything, it looks like a gigantic thought, which Eddington claimed a long time ago. The best metaphor for the universe is not a gigantic machine, but rather a thought, which from a theological point of view is perfectly reasonable. But there's still a lot of pressure to conform in the arts and academia, and it also has professional ramifications. People could certainly lose their jobs for expressing themselves like Hopkins, Dickinson, or Milton – or they wouldn't get those jobs in the first place."[24]

Modern Christian poetry may be found in anthologies and in several Christian magazines such as Commonweal, Christian Century and Sojourners.[25] Poetry by a new generation of Catholic poets appears in St. Austin Review, Dappled Things, and First Things.

Examples of Christian poets[edit]

The following list is chronological by birth year.

Examples of Christian poems and notable works[edit]


  1. ^ Martin, Ralph (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans' handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Eerdmans. pp. 122-126. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
  2. ^ Watson Kirkconnell (1952), The Celestial Cycle: The Theme of Paradise Lost in World Literature with Translations of the Major Analogues, University of Toronto Press. Page 546.
  3. ^ Keith Bosley (1983), From the Theorems of Master Jean de La Ceppède: LXX Sonnets, page 4.
  4. ^ Watson Kirkconnell (1952), The Celestial Cycle: The Theme of Paradise Lost in World Literature with Translations of the Major Analogues, University of Toronto Press. Pages 569-570.
  5. ^ Watson Kirkconnell (1952), The Celestial Cycle: The Theme of Paradise Lost in World Literature with Translations of the Major Analogues, University of Toronto Press. Page 570-571.
  6. ^ A Poet of the Passion of Christ by Christopher O. Blum. Crisis Magazine, April 2, 2012.
  7. ^ Bosley (1983), From The Theorems of Master Jean de La Ceppède, page 5.
  8. ^ Bosley (1983), page 5.
  9. ^ A Poet of the Passion of Christ by Christopher O. Blum, Crisis Magazine, April 2, 2012.
  10. ^ Bosley (1983), pages 3-5.
  11. ^ Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney (2007), Robert Southwell: Collected Poems, Fyfield Books. Pages 1-2.
  12. ^ Gary M. Bouchard (2018), Southwell's Sphere: The Influence of England's Secret Poet, St. Augustine's Press. Pages 187-210.
  13. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2010), The Eisteddfod, pages 10.
  14. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2010), The Eisteddfod, pages 8-10.
  15. ^ Philip Caraman, The Other Face: Catholic Life under Elizabeth I, Longman, Green and Co Ltd. Page 53.
  16. ^ Burton, Edwin. 'The Venerable Richard White', Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 15, p. 612 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912)Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  17. ^ Andrews, John (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans' handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Herts: Eerdmans. pp. 426-432, 530–532. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
  18. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-08-19. Retrieved 2021-07-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ Nicholls, David (1998-11-19). The Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521454292.
  20. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2016), The Eiseddfod, University of Wales Press. Page 31.
  21. ^ Alan Llwyd (2009), Stori Hedd Wyn, Bardd y Gadair Ddu (The Story of Hedd Wyn, the Poet of the Black Chair), page 13.
  22. ^ Davie, Donald, ed. (1981). The New Oxford book of Christian verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-213426-4.
  23. ^ Taylor, Charles (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674026766.
  24. ^ William Baer (2016), Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, page 197.
  25. ^ Ramsey, Paul, ed. (1987). Contemporary religious poetry. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-2883-7.