The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce | January 13, 2006

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 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, interviewed Pearce about the book, poets, and the past and present state of poetry. 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 different. 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! I’ve 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 Shakespeare’s plays, for instance. 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; it’s 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 Catholic! 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. 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 don’t believe Chesterton understood Eliot’s poetry, though he admired Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral. Like many others of his generation, Chesterton disliked the novelty of Eliot’s avant garde approach to meter and rhyme. I like to think that Chesterton would have grown to admire Eliot if he had lived longer. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a deeply mystical and religious work and arguably his masterpiece, was not published until several years after Chesterton’s death. 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. 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 Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the possible meanings behind the beguiling word-play of his supremely enigmatic poem, "The Phoenix and the Turtle". I’m saving these discussions for another book! 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 peril! What is the state of poetry in general today? Christian poetry?

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 doesn’t 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:

The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | June 2005
Chesterton and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce | May 2005
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason
| An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004

Flowers of Heaven
One 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 truth.

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