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 acclaim.
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.
Joseph Pearce's IgnatiusInsight.com author page
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005