Entries tagged with “Poetry”.

Donne's death shroudLast week a post of mine on the poets John Donne and George Herbert went up at First Things (entitled “In Praise of Dead Poets”). It begins by referencing a fascinating article by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in The Guardian, where she attributes her conversion to Christianity to the poetry of Herbert. I use her experience as a launching pad for a discussion of my own university encounters with Donne—with a particular focus on one class in which we read his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

The book was interesting, to be sure, but I wondered what my classmates would make of it. This was not poetry, even if it was poetic. Would they even consider it literature? I confess that as I went to class that day, I did not expect much. I had convinced myself that discussion of the book would be, at best, limited.

I was shocked to discover the opposite. My classmates were engaged—extremely engaged—by this centuries-old reflection on sickness and death. And this wasn’t merely academic reflection on the book; students were sharing their own griefs and fears about death. This was personal confrontation with Donne’s subject, deeply felt.

This is truly the point of poetry like Donne’s and Herbert’s—not merely to appreciate it, but to converse with it. To be changed by it. Indeed, as I go on to explain, this was Herbert’s own hope for his poetry.

Though it is but a “poore paper,” in Herbert’s own assessment, he nevertheless hopes that God might work through it to transform its readers. “How happie were my part,” he writes, “If some kinde man would thrust his heart / Into these lines.” Herbert wants them to make the words their own, and to likewise offer their lives and wills to God—recognizing that he has already purchased them by his “death and bloud.”

I wind up as follows:

Threlfall-Holmes’ article in the Guardian suggests that Herbert’s poetry continues to do just that: introduce others to faith. And such writing serves not only as an introduction; it further offers life-long encouragement and comfort to the faithful. The lesson we learn from Herbert and Donne and countless others then is that the voices of the dead are not silent. No, they are powerful and effective even now.

May God continue so to use dead poets.

Check out the whole thing at First Things. And thanks to Gene Veith for sharing the article with his readers.


Today was the first snowfall of the winter in Regina. We’ve had about ten cms of snow, coupled with bitter winds of 70 km/h. The precise meteorological term for what we’ve “enjoyed” today is “weather bomb.” All in all, a somewhat miserable day in the Queen City. And the snow just keeps falling and the winds just keep howling.

Still, the fact that it is the first snowfall of the winter reminds me of one of my favourite poems: “St. Agnes’ Eve” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I cannot help but recall his line about the “first snowdrop of the year,” even if the winter day Tennyson depicts is far more idyllic than the one which visited Regina today. Yet perhaps the contrast between Tennyson’s snowdrop and ours serves to make his words all the more beautiful. Our dreary day makes his seem all the more heavenly. And, indeed, perhaps the heaven to which Tennyson points in this poem is made all the more beautiful by our current annoyances, as we anticipate that celestial paradise where such annoyances will finally pass away. As Tennyson himself demonstrates in the poem, recognition of the imperfectness of this world can be the impetus for greater hope in the state of perfection to come.

For your enjoyment:

St. Agnes’ Eve

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.

As these white robes are soil’d and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper’s earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro’ all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The sabbaths of Eternity,
One sabbath deep and wide–
A light upon the shining sea–
The bridegroom with his bride!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Do you remember when pages had purpose?
     Bought with a price,
          Used sparingly, with great intent and planning?

How monks toiled!
     Candlelit caverns with countless copyists
          Producing manuscripts in unending silence
               (Save the scritch-scritch-scratch of pen on velum).
They quiet themselves that others might speak:
     Ancient texts, preserved for posterity.
A Homer here.
     An Augustine there.
Or greater still, an Illuminated Scripture;
     God’s very breath upon a page!
          The Word made flesh made Word again.

This morning, I sit at the kitchen table,
     Thumbing through the daily mail,
          Picking out the trash.
A flyer here.
     A credit-card offer there.
Pages of words
     and words
          and words
               with trivial purpose and vacuous meaning.

Do you remember when pages had purpose?
     Bought with a price?
          Used sparingly, with great inte

– – –

The poet frowns;
     It had been unnecessary to repeat the third line.
Sighing, he rips the marred sheet from his notebook,
     Crumples it (massacring its feeble body),
          And throws it to the floor.

Then, taking up his pen, he starts anew,
     Spilling ink upon a fresh, blank page.

I have spent a lot of time as of late reading Donne’s poetry. This, combined with my pudding brain and the few essays I have left to work on, resulted a few days ago in the parody below. If you’d like to see what the original poem is (and you should as it’s brilliant), see the previous post where I speak about Holy Sonnet 15.

To his self, upon staying up late working

What if this essay were the last thing I write?
…..Mark on this page, O Pen, the measure of thy worth
…..When set against the journals of the earth,
And say whether mine has any might.
The thesis is obscured by inky plight,
…..Brought on by using words with too much girth.
…..Can I unto this mess have given birth,
…..Which now’is abomination in mine sight?
No, no, but as I claimed in essays past
…..When readers found them hard to understand,
…..Such error entered not by my own hand,
But to the text by audience imputed wast.
…..The teachers say we cannot learn intent;
…..How judge me then, not knowing what I meant?

As of late, my mind is an awful lot like a bowl of pudding. Seriously. As the end of this semester bears down upon me, I realize how much there is to do and how little time I have left in which to complete it all. A fifteen page paper on John Donne, a 20 minute presentation on 20th Century uses of Donne, a fifteen page paper on Henry James, and a ten page report for my “Language Awareness” class (that one I’m far less concerned about). And did I mention that tomorrow I’ve a 20 minute presentation to give on the morphology of Classical Sumerian, as well as a midterm to write? Pudding – there’s no other word to describe the state of my mind these days.

So don’t be expecting any truly insightful post for a bit (assuming that you’ve found any of the previous at least slightly intelligent in nature). I’ve no time to record such thoughts. Instead, as I’ve been reading the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, I thought I’d share a favourite of mine – albeit with no exegesis or interpretation. I find the poems richly rewarding, both as literary pieces and as devotional material. As to why I have chosen this particular one, I suppose it reminds me to keep my priorities straight. After all, if Christ were to return this very night, what good would my worrying about future papers be? It’s a reminder to make time for God – no matter how busy I am.

So here it is (according to the Westmoreland MS). Oh, and ignore the “…..” It’s just there to provide the proper indentation.

Holy Sonnet 15

What yf this present were the worlds last night?
…..Looke in my Hart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell
…..The picture of Christ crucifyde and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright?
Teares in his eyes quench the amazing Light,
…..Blood fills his frowns which from his pierc’d head fell.
…..And can that toung adiudge thee vnto hell
Which prayed forgiuenes for his foes ranck spight?
No, No; but as in myne idolatree
…..I sayd to all my prophane Mistressis
…..Bewty of pity, foulness only is
A Signe of rigor; So I say to thee
…..To wicked Sprights are horrid Shapes assignd,
…..This bewteous forme assures a piteous mind.

February 14th, St. Valentine’s day, has just passed us by. There is nothing specific about Valentine which should lead us to revere his day of remembrance as somehow linked with romanticism. Indeed, it is actually to Geoffrey Chaucer that we may attribute the connection between Valentine’s and love. For in his “Parliament of Fowls,” Chaucer sets the day (for no obvious reason) as the day upon which birds would annually join together in council to choose their mates. “For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make” (309-10).

It is in this poetic reference that the Valentine’s love tradition finds its origins. Chaucer could have chosen any other day (or at least any other spring day; in Chaucer’s time February 14th would have been considered part of the season of spring). But it happens that he chooses St. Valentine’s Day. And so it is in our time.

While in the contemporary era Valentine’s has been degraded to a day of mass commercialism, the concept of true love is one worthy of respect and praise. Paul admonishes us: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Certainly within these things, we may include the noble pursuit of true love between man and woman.

Thus, to commemorate such love, I here provide some minor sampling of my own feeble poetry on the subject. Within Scripture there are many examples of what true and goodly love can be like. This particular sonnet borrows imagery from the Book of Genesis in its attempt to portray romantic love.

It is not good for man to be alone

The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18a)

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:23-24)

When God created man, He soon declared,
“It is not good for man to be alone.”
And so, while Adam slept, the LORD prepared
To fashion flesh from flesh, and bone from bone.
God took a rib; a woman He returned,
The perfect match for Adam’s lonely lot.
God willed that they should live in bliss unearned,
To love each other, and to love their God.

And so, my love, I give to thee this poem,
And speak to thee of that which God hath willed
To be the cause for man to leave his home,
To seek his second half; his void be filled.
My rib thou art; be now rejoined to me,
And may we two be one in sanctity.


When that ends the month of Janvier
And Queen of Cities deep in slumber lays
Beneath the hoary ice and biting snow,
And for the weather none would dare to go
From out their sleepy homes, wood-warmed and sealed
‘Till Boreas’ season be repealed,
Then unto me came blessed news so sweet
Which softened all my heart, and so t’was meet
To take up pen and page to frame the day
Within its good and pleasant jolitée.

A message swift as light flew from the west
And settled here within my beating breast,
A word which came from Captain George’s land
Vancouver, city ever old and grand:
“Unto us this day a child is born
Within the rooster’s sounding of the morn.”

A blessing be he to his parents both
And through his life bring peace whe’er he goeth.
One name “strong” and “brave” at every time.
The other “King of All,” his name sublime.
So may he be a valiant monarch true
And emulate the King of All Virtue.

Oh, rear this child in godly living, friends
And when he ages up, his will shall bend
To love the LORD his God with heart and soul
And mind, as well with all his body whole.
My words be on you, father, mother, son,
That God will bless you all. E’en so. Amen.

And so I end my writ. Down pen, I lay.
And thus so sends this blessèd Janvier.

January 30-31st, 2008