Before the Door of God
edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson
Yale University Press, 2013
The Sea Sleeps: New and Selected Poems
by Greg Miller
Paraclete Press, 2014
Once in the West
by Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Poetry and prayer have been tangled up from the start. For most cultures, the earliest extant poetry is a mixture of psalms and spells: language intended to do something supernatural, to bring forth blessings or curses, bridging the divide between the human and the divine. As Sir Philip Sidney reminds us in his A Defence of Poesie and Poems, the Romans called the poet “vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet,” and other ancient cultures had similar terminology. The mysterious “inspiration” that yielded poems was not far removed from that which yielded visions or oracles.
But this relationship, even as it has continued to the present day, is not without its problems. Does a prayer need to be well written? Does it matter if it’s beautiful? Will God be more likely to listen if it is? Is God really the audience, or is the devotional poem intended for one’s fellow mortals, eavesdropping as it were on the poet’s performance? Is addressing a poem to God just another literary convention—like the Petrarchan beloved, only bigger? To what degree does sincerity matter? What is a devotional poem really meant to do?
A new anthology from Yale University Press, Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, surveys English-language devotional poetry from its roots in the Hebrew psalms, Greek Homeric hymns, and early Christian lyrics, up through a variety of twentieth- and twenty-first-century practitioners. It’s a beautifully produced volume, with high-quality paper, attractive layouts, and generous margins. (Compared with the tissue-thin paper and miniscule print size of some anthologies, this one is designed for pleasurable reading.) Brief but thought-provoking essays introduce each section, and cogent headnotes introduce each author. In the early sections, the original Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Old English texts are provided alongside the translations.
One of the pleasures of this collection is the way it illustrates changes in poetic style through the centuries. The choppy, alliterative lilt of Cædmon’s Hymn (modernized by Kimberly Johnson), written in the seventh century,
Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s guardian,
the measurer’s might and his mind-thoughts,
the work of the Gloryfather, how he of each wonder,
Eternal Lord, established a beginning.
gives way to the honeyed Elizabethan eloquence of George Gascoigne’s version of Psalm 130, De Profundis:
From depth of doole wherein my soule doth dwell,
From heauy heart which harbours in my brest,
From troubled sprite which sildome taketh rest.
From hope to heauen, from dreade of darkesome hell.
O gracious God, to thee I crye and yell.
which in turn yields to the Cavalier playfulness of Robert Herrick’s “To God”:
Lord, I am like to mistletoe,
Which has no root, and cannot grow
Or prosper, but by that same tree
It clings about; so I by Thee.
which in time is succeeded by the earnest emotionalism of Christina Rossetti’s “A Better Resurrection”:
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
and so on, up through the plainspoken directness of Marie Howe’s “Prayer”:
Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
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