Arts & Books

The poets who unexpectedly lead us to God

Glancing at the titles of Catholic articles recently, my eye caught the intriguing title of one of them: Twenty Classic Poems Every Man Should Read. Wanting to discover the gaps in my education, I scanned the list. They were definitely of a robust type (the website, after all, is called “The Art of Manliness”) and I knew most of them already. They included Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade as well as his Ulysses; Invictus by WE Henley (which Sylvia Plath once quoted rather poignantly in a letter to her mother); Kipling’s If (one of the most popular poems in the English language); Horatius by Lord Macaulay, which Churchill once learnt by heart; and Ozymandios by Shelley.

Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Longfellow and Jack London figured (the list was compiled by an American), as well as two poets obscure poets: Langston Hughes and John James Ingalls. Most of them are much-loved anthology pieces: the kind of verses, lays and ballads you are first entranced by in a shabby old school poetry textbook, which generations have thumbed through before you.

Now biographer Joseph Pearce has compiled another list, a volume entitled Poems Every Catholic Should Know, published by TAN Books. Comparing the two, I see that they only overlap with three poets, Tennyson, Longfellow and John Donne, though the poems chosen are different.

Unlike the “Man” list, Pearce includes several poets I didn’t know or hadn’t read, such as Norman Gale and Thomas Gooding. His anthology is a rich assembly that, as well as poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde and Francis Thompson, includes others who, if not Catholic, are profoundly religious or spiritual, such as Blake and Coleridge. The hymn-writer Charles Wesley is here, as is Bunyan. Pearce has prefaced each entry with a brief historical and biographical introduction to the poet chosen, which is stimulating, thought-provoking and informative.

Curious to know more about his choices I ask him what he sees as the point of poetry. Pearce thinks it “forces us to slow down and to switch off from our addicted-to-distraction lives”, adding “in this sense it has an affinity to prayer.” He believes that if we read it “with care and humility, poetry can open our eyes…enabling our hearts and minds to open into the glory of the divine presence in creation.”

What were his criteria in his selection? Pearce explains that he wanted to present “a selection of the finest Christian verse of the past millennium, arranged chronologically so that the anthology could also serve as a panoramic history of Christian poetry.” A further criterion was to ensure that the best-known poets were represented, whilst including lesser known and unjustly neglected poets.

I note that he has included Emily Dickinson, hardly a conventional Christian poet. Pearce admits that she was initially included “under duress from the editors at Hodder & Stoughton, because they wanted more female poets included.” He confesses that he is not an admirer of Dickinson’s poetry (as I am) and thinks she is “overrated.” But as she is “very much part of the canon in the US” he decided “to retain her presence in deference to popular sensibility and in defiance of my own personal preference!”

And why is there nothing by that well-known Catholic poet, William Shakespeare? Pearce, who has written widely on the Bard, tells me earnestly that Shakespeare is perhaps his “favourite author”. Yet he thinks that “the Christian element in his poetry and sonnets is subsumed with such subtlety that few of them would strike the reader as being “Christian” in any explicit sense, though the implicit Christianity is always present.”

I mention the omission of TS Eliot – surely a Christian poet? Pearce informs me that “there was a selection of Eliot’s verse in the original Hodder &Stoughton edition, but he was omitted in this new edition on purely financial grounds.” This is because Eliot’s post-conversion poetry “is still in copyright and the Eliot Estate is merciless in terms of what it charges per line.” He admits that he considers Eliot’s omission to be “regrettable.” However, he and his editors at TAN have decided to reinstate him whenever a second revised edition is published.