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The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce
about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse |
January 13, 2006
Joseph Pearce has firmly established
himself as the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in
interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition.
He is the author of acclaimed biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde,
Hilaire Belloc, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and books on English literature and
literary converts. He is Writer-in-Residence and Associate
Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and
is the Co-Editor of the St. Austin Review and the Editor-in-Chief
of Sapientia Press.
(Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author
page for more about his work and a full listing of his books published
by Ignatius Press.)
His most recent Ignatius Press book is Flowers
of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Pearce compiled
the poetry and wrote short introductions to each of the poets. Carl E.
Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, interviewed Pearce about the book,
poets, and the past and present state of poetry.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was the genesis of this collection of poetry?
Joseph Pearce: Initially I proposed an anthology of Christian verse
spanning the entire second Millennium to Hodder & Stoughton, a leading
UK publisher, as an appropriate way of celebrating the advent of the third
Millennium. The original volume was published in the UK at the end of
1999 but was never published in the United States. This new and revised
edition is similar to the original UK edition but is also significantly
IgnatiusInsight.com: What criteria did you use in selecting poems from
a thousand year's worth of potential candidates?
Joseph Pearce: I tried to walk the line between popular taste and
academic sensibility, seasoned by my own predilections! Ive sought
to ensure that all periods are represented adequately and that all the
major English-language poets are included, if they have written good Christian
poetry as part of their corpus of work. I chose to adhere strictly to
formal poetry so have not included selections from Shakespeares
plays, for instance.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What poets and poems are among your personal favorites?
Is there a particular era or form that interests you more than others?
Joseph Pearce: Dante is the greatest poet of all time. There is nothing
to challenge the sheer majesty and profundity of the Divine Comedy.
I love mediaeval poetry in general; its full of vigor and verve,
and a jollity and joie de vivre which are seldom present in post-Reformation
poetry. I admire the Metaphysical Poets, particularly St. Robert Southwell,
George Herbert and Richard Crashaw. I am, however, and as my other work
obviously suggests, a lover of nineteenth and twentieth century literature.
From this period my favorite poets are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire
Belloc, Siegfried Sassoon and, last but emphatically not least, T.S. Eliot.
In my opinion, Hopkins is the finest poet of the nineteenth century, and
Eliot the finest poet of the twentieth century; and both are profoundly
IgnatiusInsight.com: Flowers of Heaven contains several obvious
choices of well-known poets (Dante, Donne, Newman, Hopkins, etc.). Who
are some of the poets that readers might not be as well acquainted with?
Who do you think deserves a wider reading today?
Joseph Pearce: In the modern section of the book I have included verse
from several hugely significant poets who are sadly neglected today, though
they were lauded in their own time. These include Maurice Baring, Alfred
Noyes, Siegfried Sassoon, Roy Campbell and Dunstan Thompson. These are
poets who need to be rediscovered and reinstated into the literary canon.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of your favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton, was
frank about his dislike for modern poetry, including the work of T.S.
Eliot. What do you think of Chesterton's assessment of Eliot's poetry?
Joseph Pearce: He was wrong! Frankly, I dont believe Chesterton
understood Eliots poetry, though he admired Eliots play, Murder
in the Cathedral. Like many others of his generation, Chesterton disliked
the novelty of Eliots avant garde approach to meter and rhyme.
I like to think that Chesterton would have grown to admire Eliot if he
had lived longer. Eliots Four Quartets, a deeply mystical
and religious work and arguably his masterpiece, was not published until
several years after Chestertons death.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What role did Christianity and the Catholic Church
play in the history and development of poetry?
Joseph Pearce: I hope that this volume will show how Catholicism was
and is at the very heart of Christian poetry. With this in mind, I have
included short introductions to each poet to illustrate the historical,
theological and philosophical context of their work, showing how each
poet fits into the bigger picture.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is it tempting to place Shakespeare among a collection
such as this, especially in light of recent scholarship that strongly
suggests he was Catholic?
Joseph Pearce: As explained above, I resisted the temptation to include
extracts from Shakespeares plays, adhering strictly to a policy
of publishing formal verse. The Christianity of the sonnets, particularly
the coded allusions to Catholicism, is too subtle for inclusion in this
volume. Flowers of Heaven is intended as a popular and readily
accessible anthology of verse which precludes the degree of extensive
annotation that would have been required to bring out the hidden dimensions
of Shakespeares sonnets, or the possible meanings behind the beguiling
word-play of his supremely enigmatic poem, "The Phoenix and the Turtle".
Im saving these discussions for another book!
IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had to tell the ordinary Catholic why they
should read poetry, what would you say?
Joseph Pearce: I would say that God speaks to us through the power
of Beauty, not least because He is the wellspring of all beauty. Good
poetry is the summit of literary beauty. To ignore poetry is to ignore
what God is trying to say to us through the power of the creative gift
that He gives to the great poets of Christendom. We ignore poetry at our
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the state of poetry in general today? Christian
Joseph Pearce: In general, poetry is in a poor state today. As the
product of our nihilistic age, most modern poetry has nothing to say,
and doesnt even say nothing with any eloquence! I have been heartened,
however, by the number of good contemporary Christian poets and
particularly heartened by the verse sent to me in my capacity as co-editor
of the Saint
Austin Review (StAR). We receive far more excellent poems than
we can possibly publish in the magazine and I hope one day to edit a volume
of contemporary Christian verse so that this new poetry can reach the
wider audience that it deserves.
Related Links and Articles:
of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | June 2005
and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce | May 2005
With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
| May 2005
of Oscar Wilde | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004
Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Compiled by Joseph Pearce
293 pages | Paperback
This anthology provides some of the finest Christian verse written during
the second millennium of Christianity. All of the great ones are here:
Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Dante and Chaucer from the High
Middle Ages; John Donne from the Reformation; English and American Romantics
such as Browning and Whittier; late nineteenth-century mystics like Dickinson
and Hopkins, as well the great converts of that period like Newman and
Chesterton; and, T. S. Eliot speaking out of and into our own times.
A conscious attempt was made to meet both the standards of academia and
the tastes and sensibilities of the faithful. The selections are arranged
chronologically to serve also as a history of verse. Brief biographical
and anecdotal introductions reveal the varied relationships of the poets
with each other and with the trials and tribulations of their day.
This magnificent collection is essential for all poetry lovers for those
who respond to the beauty of the written word penned in the service of
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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