Poetry: Ally of Our Faith
Expression of a potent idea in a few words can bring forth awe and delight
Catholics and other Christians have had enormous influence on the life of the mind and the creative arts of poetry, art, and music.
Poetry has always been a strong ally of our Faith and our civilization. The tricky thing, though, is that it’s hard to define; not everything that rhymes can be called poetry, and some of the greatest poems don’t rhyme at all. The essence of poetry is powerful economy: expressing a potent or moving idea in a few words that amaze or delight us, rather as music does. In a sense poetry and music are sisters.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes the first light of dawn thus: “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.”
The coming day is personified: human, joyful, striving upwards. We see those smoking candles in our mind’s eye. It’s a striking, powerful picture that goes far beyond a mere prose description.
In the same poet’s The Merchant of Venice are these lovely lines:
The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise, in such a night,
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
A number of scholars (not surprisingly most have been Catholic, though not all) have been convinced that Shakespeare was a Catholic and that the inspiration behind those words was the Exsultet, the Holy Saturday proclamation:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
At first glance the similarity of the phrases in such a night and this is the night don’t amount to a strong argument, but there is a great deal of corroboratory evidence. In essence, the emotive language hints at the poet’s secret grief for the Faith that he was unable to speak openly about in those testing times.
To my mind the greatest of all hymn writers were the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley. They were also the most prolific, having produced literally thousands of hymns, many of which are still sung (though rarely in Catholic churches). Consider this stanza by John Wesley:
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
I find this inexpressibly moving. We are all familiar with the story, but its brevity and compactness — so much theology in so few words — almost takes one’s breath away. Poetry crystallizes human thoughts and feelings. Poems are like the blooms of language. Let William Wordsworth have the last word:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.