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Well-Versed in Faith | Selections from Flowers
of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse, compiled by Joseph
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) | That
singular splendour of the Italian race, as Boccaccio dubbed Dante,
was born in Florence in May 1265. Baptised Durante, his name was later
contracted to Dante and early biographers were eager to stress the aptness
of both names, the much-enduring and the giver.
Since the time of the Reformation it has been the tendency in England
to stress the importance of the Inferno to the detriment of the
other two books of the Divine Comedy, with the inevitable result
that Dante is perceived by many as dour and puritanical. This does the
greatest of poets a great, and dare one say an infernal, injustice. Dante
was, above all, a poet of joy as these extracts from Longfellows
translation of Purgatorio and Paradisio convey.
O Lady, thou in whom my hope is strong
O Lady, thou in whom my hope is strong,
And who for my salvation didst endure
In Hell to leave the imprint of thy feet,
Of whatsoever things I have beheld,
As coming from thy power and from thy goodness
I recognise the virtue and the grace.
Thou from a slave hast brought me unto freedom,
By all those ways, by all the expedients,
Whereby thou hadst the power of doing it.
Preserve towards me thy magnificence,
So that this soul of mine, which thou hast healed,
Pleasing to thee be loosened from the body.
(Paradiso, Canto XXXI)
George Herbert (1593-1633) | George Herbert
was the son of Lady Magdalen Herbert, to whom Donne addressed his Holy
Sonnets. Like Donne, Herbert took Anglican orders. In both his life
and works he represents the early flowering of that Anglo-Catholicism
which was being championed in his day by William Laud. He died in the
same year that Laud, later to be beheaded for endeavouring to overthrow
the Protestant religion, became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasond timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
William Cowper (1731-1800) | John Newton
was to exert a considerable influence upon William Cowper after the latter
had moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire where Newton was curate. If is often
suggested that this influence was harmful to Cowpers delicate mental
health but their collaboration on the Olney Hymns produced a wealth
of hymns still popular today.
Walking with God
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.
Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) | Perhaps
Newman can be considered the founding father of the Catholic literary
revival in England. Ordained in the Anglican Church in 1824, he soon became
embroiled in the divisions between the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical
parties in the Church of England. Siding solidly with the Anglo-Catholics,
Newman rose to fame and prominence as a leading member of the Tractarian
movement. His reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 caused
great controversy. He explained his reasons for conversion in the autobiographical
Apologia Pro Vita Sua and in the semi-autobiographical novel, Loss
and Gain. Although he is considered primarily as a theologian, these
two works, together with his collected poems, ensure his place among the
illustrissimi of Victorian writers.
The Sign of the Cross
Wheneer across this sinful flesh of mine
I draw the Holy Sign,
All good thoughts stir within me, and renew
Their slumbering strength divine;
Till there springs up a courage high and true
To suffer and to do.
And who shall say, but hateful spirits around,
For their brief hour unbound,
Shudder to see, and wail their overthrow?
While on far heathen ground
Some lonely Saint hails the fresh odor, though
Its source he cannot know.
Francis Thompson (1859-1907) | Like Oscar
Wilde, Francis Thompson came to Christ via desolation. Born at Preston in
Lancashire, his father was a doctor and his mother was the daughter of a
surgeon. Both were Catholic converts. He trained for the priesthood at Ushaw
College but was unsuited to the vocation and turned instead to medicine.
Failing his medical examinations, he tried to join the army but was rejected
as being medically unfit. In desperation, he fled to London in 1885 and
for years lived on the streets in post-Dickensian squalor. Much of the little
money he earned, through selling matches or holding peoples horses,
he spent on his opium habit. He was rescued from this desperate situation
by Wilfrid Meynell, husband of the poet Alice Meynell, who persuaded him
to seek medical treatment. He spent two years at the Premonstratensian Monastery
at Storrington in Sussex where much of his finest poetry was written. Three
volumes of poetry were published between 1893 and 18978 to immediate critical
In No Strange Land
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cryand upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cryclinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!
Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) | As the son of an Archbishop
of Canterbury, Bensons reception into the Catholic Church in 1903
caused a national sensation. Rarely since Newmans controversial conversion
half a century earlier had anything aroused such scandal in ecclesiastical
circles. There were other notable parallels between Benson and Newman. Both
were Anglican clergymen at the time of their reception into the Church and
both were ordained as Catholic priests after short periods of study in Rome.
Like Newman, Benson wrote an apologia explaining the reasons behind his
conversion. His Confessions of a Convert was published in 1913, shortly
before his untimely death the following year. In his short life he wrote
a number of best-selling novels and his Spiritual Letters, published
posthumously, exhibit the depth of his faith. He also wrote several poems,
also published posthumously.
O Deus Ego Amo Te
O God, I love Thee mightily,
Not only for Thy saving me,
Nor yet because who love not Thee
Must burn throughout eternity.
Thou, Thou, my Jesu, once didst me
Embrace upon the bitter Tree.
For me the nails, the soldier's spear,
With injury and insult, bear
In pain all pain exceeding,
In sweating and in bleeding,
Yea, very death, and that for me
A sinner all unheeding!
O Jesu, should I not love Thee
Who thus hast dealt so lovingly
Not hoping some reward to see,
Nor lest I my damnation be
But, as Thyself hast loved me,
So love I now and always Thee,
Because my King alone Thou art,
Because, O God, mine own Thou art!
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) | Siegfried
Sassoon was a septuagenarian when he was received into the Catholic Church
in 1957. An early and lasting admiration for Belloc and a late friendship
with Ronald Knox were both significant factors in his spiritual journey,
but most important was his own introspective mysticism. His final acceptance
of Christianity was the culmination of a lifetimes search, traceable
through his poetry back to his youth.
A Prayer in Old Age
Being no expectance of heaven unearned
No hunger for beatitude to be
Until the lesson of my life is learned
Through what Thou didst for me.
Bring no assurance of redeemed rest
No intimation of awarded grace
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
To Thy forgiving face.
I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.
R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) | R.S. Thomas is
arguably the greatest poet in the English language since T.S. Eliot. Ordained
into the Anglican ministry in 1937 he became vicar of the remote Welsh parish
of Eglwysfach in 1954. His poetry resonates with a love for the Welsh landscape
and people, and is tempered by a disdainful loathing for the encroachment
of modern technology. Thomass work derives its depths from his resilient
yet troubled faith.
I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off your scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.
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 spiritual
Pearce's IgnatiusInsight.com author page
The Power of
Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce about Flowers of Heaven:
One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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