Christian Poetry
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Christian Poetry

Christian poetry is any poetry that contains Christian teachings, themes, or references. The influence of Christianity on poetry has been great in any area that Christianity has taken hold. Christian poems often directly reference the Bible, while others provide allegory.

History of Christian poetry

Early history

Poetic forms have been used by Christians since the recorded history of the faith begins. The earliest Christian poetry, in fact, appears in the New Testament. Canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which appear in the Gospel of Luke, take the Biblical poetry of the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as their models.[1] Many Biblical scholars also believe that St Paul of Tarsus quotes bits of early Christian hymns in his epistles. Passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 (following) are thought by many Biblical scholars to represent early Christian hymns that were being quoted by the Apostle:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Within the world of classical antiquity, Christian poets often struggled with their relationship to the existing traditions of Greek and Latin poetry, which were of course heavily influenced by paganism. Paul quotes the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides in Acts 17:28: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his offspring.'" Some early Christian poets such as Ausonius continued to include allusions to pagan deities and standard classical figures and allusions continued to appear in his verse. Other Christian poems of the late Roman Empire, such as the Psychomachia of Prudentius, cut back on allusions to Greek mythology, but continue the use of inherited classical forms.

Other early Christian poets were more innovative. The hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus wrote a number of important poems that are still used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Vexilla Regis ("The Royal Standard") and Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis ("Sing, O my tongue, of the glorious struggle"). From a literary and linguistic viewpoint, these hymns represent important innovations; they turn away from Greek prosody and instead seem to have been based on the rhythmic marching songs of the Roman legions.

A related issue concerned the literary quality of Christian scripture. Most of the New Testament was written (or translated from Semitic languages) in a sub-literary variety of koinê Greek, as was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Old Latin Bible added further solecisms to those found in its source texts.

None of the Christian scriptures were written to suit the tastes of those who were educated in classical Greek or Latin rhetoric. Educated pagans, seeing the sub-literary quality of the Christian scriptures, posed a problem for Christian apologists: why did the Holy Ghost write so badly? Some Christian writers flatly rejected classical standards of rhetoric, such as Tertullian, who famously asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

The cultural prestige of classical literary standards was not so easy for other Christians to overcome. St.Jerome, trained in the classical Latin rhetoric of Cicero, observed that dismay over the quality of existing Latin Bible translations was a major motivating factor that induced him to produce the Vulgate, which went on to become the standard Latin Bible, and remained the official Bible translation of the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council. A fuller appreciation of the formal literary virtues of Biblical poetry remained unavailable for European Christians until 1754, when Robert Lowth (later made a bishop in the Church of England), kinder to the Hebrew language than his own, published Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, which identified parallelism as the chief rhetorical device within Hebrew poetry.[]

In many European vernacular literatures, Christian poetry appears among the earliest monuments of those literatures, and Biblical paraphrases in verse often precede Bible translations. Much Old Irish poetry was the work of Irish monks and is on religious themes. This story is repeated in most European languages.

In Old English poetry, the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on Christ's crucifixion which adapts Germanic heroic imagery and applies it to Jesus, is one of the earliest extant monuments of Old English literature.

In Armenian literature, by far the most important Christian poet is St. Gregory of Narek, who was a priest and monk at Narek Monastery near Lake Van during the 10th century.

The Canticle of the Sun was composed by Saint Francis of Assisi in the Umbrian dialect of the Italian language, but has since been translated into many languages. It is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language rather than in Latin.

Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy represents one of the earliest examples of Italian poetry in the Italian language.

The Renaissance

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, however, sent many Greek people fleeing to Western Europe as refugees and bringing Ancient Greek books and manuscripts with them that Western Christians had been previously unable to access. As this was during the Gutenberg Revolution, these books were mass produced and gave impetus to the Renaissance, but also caused many intellectuals, writers, and poets to embrace a nostalgia for Classical mythology and an antipathy for Christianity.

However, in 1517, Marko Maruli?, a Croatian lawyer and Renaissance Humanist, wrote the Davidiad an epic poem in Latin which fused Biblical motifs and Virgilian poetics in 14 books, which retells the life of King David, whom Maruli? depicts, in keeping with Catholic doctrine, as a prototype for Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the Davidiad was long considered to be lost. A manuscript was re-discovered only in 1924, only to be lost again and re-discovered in 1952.

In addition to the small portions that attempt to recall the epics of Homer, The Davidiad is heavily modeled upon Virgil's Aeneid. This is so much the case that Maruli?'s contemporaries called him the "Christian Virgil from Split." The late Serbian-American philologist Miroslav Marcovich also detected, "the influence of Ovid, Lucan, and Statius" in the work.

Maruli? also wrote the epic poem Judita, which retells the events of the Book of Judith. The poem contains 2126 dodecasyllabic lines, with caesurae after the sixth syllable, composed in six books (libars). The linguistic basis of the book is Split ?akavian speech and the ?tokavian lexis, and the Glagolitic original of the legend; the work thus foreshadows the unity of Croatian language.

Also, in 1535, Marco Girolamo Vida, an Italian Roman Catholic Bishop and fellow Renaissance Humanist, published the Christiad, an epic poem in six cantos about the life of Jesus Christ, which, like the Davidiad, is modeled upon the poetry of Virgil.


The German Reformation stimulated hymn writing among both Catholics and Protestants, e.g. Martin Luther's Ein Feste Burg, the Calvinist hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen, and the Catholic hymns of Angelus Silesius and Friedrich Spee.

During the French Wars of Religion, both Catholic and Huguenot poets argued their causes in verse. Of these, English poet Keith Bosley has called Huguenot soldier-poet Agrippa d'Aubigné, "the epic poet of the Protestant cause," during the French Wars of Religion. Bosley added, however, that after d'Aubigné's death, he, "was forgotten until the Romantics rediscovered him."[2]

In France during the same era, the Catholic poet Jean de La Ceppède is most notable for using the sonnet, the favored poetic form of the Renaissance for expressing romantic love, to relate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and for using the gods and demigods of Greek and Roman mythology, in the manner later advocated by The Inklings, to point out the greatness of Jesus.[3]

However, the effect of the English Reformation was a shift in English poetry toward secular subjects, which caused poetry to be condemned by members of the ultra-Protestant Puritan Movement.

In response to both Puritan attacks on verse and the secular subjects that inspired most English poetry at the time, Robert Southwell, a Roman Catholic priest and clandestine missionary in Elizabethan England, wrote a collection of poems on religious subjects. In his poems, Southwell drew heavily upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and on the new Catholic art-works he had seen while studying for the priesthood at the English College in Rome. As the strict censorship in England made it impossible for him to legally publish his poems, Southwell circulated them clandestinely, in a 16th century version of the samizdat literature that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a forward to his poems, which many scholars believe was addressed to Southwell's cousin, William Shakespeare, the priest-poet wrote, "Poets by abusing their talent, and making the follies and feignings of love the customary subject of their base endeavors, have so discredited this faculty that a poet, a lover, and a liar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification. But the vanity of men cannot counterpease the authority of God, Who delivering many parts of the scripture in verse, and by His Apostle willing us to exercise our devotion in hymns and spiritual sonnets warranteth the art to be good and the use allowable. And therefore not only among the heathens, whose gods were chiefly canonized by their poets, and their Pagan divinity oracled in verse, but even in the Old and New Testament, it hath been used by men of the greatest piety in matters of most devotion. Christ Himself, by making a hymn the conclusion of His Last Supper and the prologue to the first pageant of His Passion gave His Spouse a method to imitate, as in the office of the Church it appeareth and all men a pattern to know this measured and footed style. But the Devil, as he affecteth deity and seeketh to have all the compliments of Divine honor applied to his service, so hath he among the rest possessed also most poets with his idle fancies. For in lieu of solemn and devout matter, to which in duty they owe their abilities, they now busy themselves in expressing such passions as only serve for testimonies to how unworthy affections they have wedded their Wiles. And because the best the best course to let them see the error of their works is to weave a new web in their own loom; I have here laid a few coarse threads together to invite some skillfuller wits to go forward in the same or to begin some finer piece wherein it may be seen, how well verse and virtue suit together. Blame me not, (good cousin) though I send you a blameworthy present, in which the most that can commend it, is the good will of the writer, neither art not invention giving it any credit. If in me this be a fault, you cannot be dauntless that did importune me to commit it, and therefore you must bear part of the penance, when it shall please sharp censures to impose. In the meantime with many good wishes I send you these few ditties add you the tunes and let the mean I pray be still a part in all your music."[4]

Even though Southwell was captured, tortured, convicted of high treason and executed at Tyburn in 1595, the underground priest-poet's illegal poetry helped inspire the Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne, Richard Crashaw, and George Herbert, to write Christian religious poetry as well.

During the Reformation in Wales, Queen Elizabeth I of England commanded that Welsh poets be examined and licensed by officials of the Crown, who had alleged that those whom they considered genuine Bards were, "much discouraged to travail in the exercise and practice of their knowledge and also not a little hindered in their living and preferments."[5] Unlicensed Bards, according to Hywel Teifi Edwards, "would be put to some honest work." Although Edwards has compared the unlicensed Bards of the era with, "today's abusers of the Social Security system," [6] historian Philip Caraman quotes a 1575 "Report on Wales" that reveals an additional reason for the decree. During the Queen's ongoing religious persecution of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, many Welsh poets were, according to the report, acting as the secret emissaries of Recusants in the Welsh nobility and were helping those nobles spread the news about secret Catholic Masses and religious pilgrimages.[7]

This was no idle claim. When unlicensed bard Richard Gwyn was put on trial for high treason before a panel headed by the Chief Justice of Chester, Sir George Bromley, at Wrexham in 1523, Gwyn stood accused not only of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and of involvement in the local Catholic underground, but also of reciting, "certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers." Gwyn was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was carried out in the Beast Market in Wrexham on 15 October 1584. Richard Gwyn was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated on 17 October. Six works of Welsh poetry by Richard Gwyn, five carols and a funeral ode, have been discovered and published.[8]

In Spain, which was experiencing what is still called the Spanish Golden Age, poets such as Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross composed verse that remains an immortal part of the canon of Spanish poetry. Also, the Augustinian friar Luis de León also wrote many immortal works of Christian religious poetry in Spanish.

The Age of Reason and after

In England, the Dissenting and renewal movements of the 18th century saw a marked increase in the number and publication of new hymns due to the activity of Protestant poets such as Isaac Watts, the father of English hymns, Philip Doddridge, Augustus Toplady, and especially John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism.[9] In the 19th century hymn singing came to be accepted in the Church of England, and numerous books of hymns for that body appeared.

In 1704, when The Philippines was still the capital of the Spanish East Indies, Gaspar Aquino de Belén authored the Pasyon: a famous work of narrative poetry in the Tagalog language about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The uninterrupted recitation or Pabasa of the whole epic is a popular Filipino Catholic devotion during the Lenten season, and particularly during Holy Week.

In 2011, the performing art was cited by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Philippines under the performing arts category that the government may nominate in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.[10]

In America with the Second Great Awakening, hymn writing flourished from folk hymns and Negro spirituals to more literary texts from the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.. Women hymn writers gained prominence including Anglo-Irish hymn-writer Mrs C. F. Alexander, the author of All things bright and beautiful. Anna B. Warner wrote the poem "Jesus loves me," which, put to music, many Christian children learn to this day.

During an 1893 Welsh eisteddfod held as part of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago,[11] Rev. Evan Reese, a Calvinistic Methodist minister from Puncheston, Pembrokeshire, and author of Welsh poetry whose Bardic name was Dyfed, won the Bardic Chair and the $500 prize money offered for a 2,000 line awdl on the set subject Iesu o Nazareth ("Jesus of Nazareth").[12] Rev. Reese went on to become the Archdruid of the Gorsedd Cymru and to announce the posthumous victory of Hedd Wyn at the infamous 1917 "Eisteddfod of the Black Chair."[13]

Christian poetry figured prominently in the Western literary canon from the Middle Ages through the 18th century.[14]

However with the progressive secularization of Western Civilization from about 1500 until the present,[15] Christian poetry was less and less represented in literary and academic writing of the 19th and 20th centuries and scarcely at all in the 21st century.

Modern Christian poetry

Twentieth and 21st century Christian poetry especially suffers from a difficulty of definition. The writings of a Christian poet are not necessarily classified as Christian poetry nor are writings of secular poets dealing with Christian material. The themes of poetry are necessarily hard to pin down, and what some see as a Christian theme or viewpoint may not be seen by others. A number of modern writers are widely considered to have Christian themes in much of their poetry, including G. K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Jennings.

In 1976, P. C. Devassia, an Eastern Rite Catholic poet from the Syro-Malabar Church of India, published, as part of the Sanskrit revival, the Kristubhagavatam, a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ based on the Gospels, but according to the ancient traditions of Sanskrit poetry and with many mentions of the gods and heroes of Hinduism and even of Mohandas K. Gandhi in order, like The Inklings and Jean de La Ceppède, to point out the greatness of Jesus.

Within New Formalism, a literary movement in American poetry, there are several authors of Christian poetry. They include Dana Gioia, Frederick Turner, David Middleton, and James Matthew Wilson.

Modern Christian poetry may be found in anthologies and in several Christian magazines such as Commonweal, Christian Century and Sojourners.[16] Poetry by a new generation of Catholic poets appears in St. Austin Review, Dappled Things, and First Things.

Examples of Christian poets

The following list is chronological by birth year.

Examples of Christian poems and notable works


  1. ^ Martin, Ralph (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans' handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Eerdmans. pp. 122-126. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
  2. ^ Keith Bosley (1983), From the Theorems of Master Jean de La Ceppède: LXX Sonnets, page 4.
  3. ^ A Poet of the Passion of Christ by Christopher O. Blum. Crisis Magazine, April 2, 2012.
  4. ^ Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney (2007), Robert Southwell: Collected Poems, Fyfield Books. Pages 1-2.
  5. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2010), The Eisteddfod, pages 10.
  6. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2010), The Eisteddfod, pages 8-10.
  7. ^ Philip Caraman, The Other Face: Catholic Life under Elizabeth I, Longman, Green and Co Ltd. Page 53.
  8. ^ Burton, Edwin. 'The Venerable Richard White', Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 15, p. 612 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912)Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  9. ^ Andrews, John (1977). Dowley, Tim; Briggs, John; Linder, Robert; Wright, David (eds.). Eerdmans' handbook to the history of Christianity (1st American ed.). Herts: Eerdmans. pp. 426-432, 530-532. ISBN 0-8028-3450-7.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Nicholls, David (1998-11-19). The Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521454292.
  12. ^ Hywel Teifi Edwards (2016), The Eiseddfod, University of Wales Press. Page 31.
  13. ^ Alan Llwyd (2009), Stori Hedd Wyn, Bardd y Gadair Ddu (The Story of Hedd Wyn, the Poet of the Black Chair), page 13.
  14. ^ Davie, Donald, ed. (1981). The New Oxford book of Christian verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-213426-4.
  15. ^ Taylor, Charles (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674026766.
  16. ^ Ramsey, Paul, ed. (1987). Contemporary religious poetry. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-2883-7.

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