Tag Archives: Christian poetry

Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

The Ballad of the White Horse is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.

Meat:

White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)

Bones:

Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.

Quotes:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.

 

 

 

The Creation of the Angels

In pulses deep of threefold Love,
Self-hushed and self-possessed,
The mighty, unbeginning God
Had lived in silent rest.
With His own greatness all alone
The sight of Self had been
Beauty of beauties, joy of joys,
Before His eye serene.
He lay before Himself, and gazed
As ravished with the sight,
Brooding on His own attributes
With dread untold delight.
No ties were on His bliss, for He
Had neither end nor cause;
For His own glory ’twas enough
That He was what He was.
His glory was full grown;
His light Had owned no dawning dim;
His love did not outgrow Himself,
For naught could grow in Him.
He stirred—and yet we know not how
Nor wherefore He should move;
In our poor human words, it was
An overflow of love.
It was the first outspoken word
That broke that peace sublime,
An outflow of eternal love
Into the lap of time.
He stirred; and beauty all at once
Forth from His Being broke;
Spirit and strength, and living life,
Created things awoke.
Order and multitude and light
In beauteous showers outstreamed;
And realms of newly-fashioned space
With radiant angels beamed.
How wonderful is life in Heaven
Amid the angelic choirs,
Where uncreated Love has crowned
His first created fires!
But, see! new marvels gather there!
The wisdom of the Son
With Heaven’s completest wonder ends
The work so well begun.

Here and Here Alone

“Here and here alone
Is given thee to suffer for God’s sake.
In other worlds we shall more perfectly
Serve Him and love Him, praise Him, work for Him,
Grow near and nearer Him with all delight.
But then we shall not any more be called
To suffer, which is our appointment here.
Canst thou not suffer then one hour? or two?
And while we suffer let us set our souls
To suffer perfectly, since this alone—
The suffering—which is this world’s special grace,
May here be perfected and left behind.”

Source: Mrs. Hamilton King. Quoted in Herbert Alfred Birks, Jesus, A Man of Sorrows: Lent Addresses. 1900.

fountain pen

8 Devotional Poets You Must Know About

Historically, poetry has always had an important role in the Christian spiritual life. The longest book in the Bible is a book of verse; many of the Bible’s prophetic books, though they are not translated as poetry, are poetry in their original language. In addition, the New Testament’s writers quoted from the wisdom of secular poets and from early hymns.

Although I am a lover of music, it is sad when music overshadows the truths about which we are singing. If you start reading these works, you will find that the best musicians of today are those that draw from the vast treasures of Christian verse in English.

  1. John Donne (1572-1631)
    A Spiritual Romantic
    Literature students will read a few of Donne’s angsty poems that can be read alongside Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. But Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Divine Poems have a depth of work that set the foundation for English devotional poetry. His poems deal with suffering, the cross, and longing for God. Donne was a flighty and romantic soul, but in his lifetime ws better known as a pastor than a poet.
    Samuel Johnson classes Donne as a “metaphysical poet,” because of his flare for difficult metaphors (with no relation to the present trend of “metaphysics” as a religious study). Today critics class with him George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Richard Crashaw—all seventeenth-century poets who wrote on devotional themes, all inspired in part by Donne.

    ‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
    But, that God should be made like man, much more.

    Selection of Divine Poems: vox

  2. George Herbert (1593-1633)
    Lyricist of the Cross
    Herbert follows very much along the line of Donne, but that does not mean his work is not valuable. He frequently contemplates scenes or passages from Scripture, and like Donne, he was a priest. He was also a lute-player, and many of his poems were set to his own music. Herbert died at 39.

    He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.

    Selected Poems (free): pdf

  3. John Milton (1608-1674)
    Poet of Eden
    Author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Although he is most well known for these two poems, he has many other poems, especially on the Nativity of Christ, that are worth a second look.
    Milton also wrote a number of polemical tracts, one of which—the Areopagitica—is regarded as foundational to the Western concept of censorship and freedom of press.
    Milton was blind in his later life. His biographer records that he had his daughter read the Scriptures to him in the original languages for hours every day. While he was writing Paradise Lost, he took comfort in what he considered his most significant literary work, a recent political tract, now all but forgotten in comparison to his poetry.

    Peace hath her victories
    No less renowned than war.

    Paradise Lost (free): amzpdfvox
    Paradise Regained (free): amzpdfvox

  4. Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
    Pioneer of English Hymnwriting
    In his lifetime, Watts was known as a logician more than his verse. In the early 18th century, he published  The Psalms of David Imitated and several others books that set the foundation for English hymnody. Little known to most Christians, there was a time in Reformation England when there was a controversy over whether congregations should sing psalms or hymns. Authors and theologians like Benjamin Keach and Isaac Watts were instrumental—pun intended—in bringing freedom to Christian expression in music and worship, similar to many 20th-century musicians who challenged the Christians music industry to expand its art forms.

    He rules the world with truth and grace,
    And makes the nations prove
    The glories of His righteousness,
    And wonders of His love.

    Psalms of David: amz ($0.99) – pdfvox

  5. Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
    Singer of the Methodist Revolution
    Today John Wesley is known as the “founder of the Methodist movement,” and his brother as the songwriter of the movement. But are the brothers so different? Both brothers were in Oxford’s Holy Club, which Charles founded in 1729; both brothers went to Georgia in 1735; both brothers experienced conversion in 1738; both brothers began open-air preaching in 1739 after the style of George Whitefield; both brothers wrote thousands of hymns, and both preached evangelistically for decades.

    Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
    And looks to God alone;
    Laughs at impossibilities,
    And cries it shall be done.

    Hymns and Sacred Poems: pdf

  6. William Cowper (1731-1800)
    Minstrel of Abolition
    Cowper and Newton arranged Olney Hymns for Newton’s congregation in Olney, England; this was the first work to include “Amazing Grace” (by Newton) and many other now famous hymns.
    Cowper’s The Task is often called the best of his poetry, probably because of its defense of a Reformed theology. But his other long poems like “Charity” have equal merit and are loaded with theological content.

    God moves in a mysterious way,
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants his footsteps in the sea,
    And rides upon the storm

    The Task: pdfamz
    Olney Hymns: pdfamz ($6.99)

  7. F. W. Faber (1814-1863)
    The Muse of God’s Character
    Faber was a prolific Catholic writer of both poetry and prose. Although his theology works are strongly flavored by his Catholicism, today many Protestants know and love his verse through the writings of A. W. Tozer. Tozer was so greatly moved by Faber’s poetry, that in his compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, Faber figures more prominently than any other poet. Tozer also quotes Faber multiple times in his devotional books like The Knowledge of the Holy.
    Faber’s hymns deal preeminently with the nature and character of God, which is why Tozer liked them so much. Faber also deals with themes of death, the prayer life, and spiritual dryness. Protestant readers can also get our edition of Faber’s Hymns which has been culled down from his best works.

    Shoreless Ocean! who shall sound Thee?
    Thine own eternity is round Thee,
    Majesty Divine.

    Faber’s Hymns: amz ($2.99) – pdf

  8. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
    She was often quoted simply as Mrs. Browning, and her husband Robert was, of course, a famous poet in his own right. In some books of the period, she is introduced as “Mr. Browning’s wife,” but, ironically, I see her quoted more often in devotional readings.
    Though she shies from comparing her Drama in Exile to Milton’s Paradise Lost, she follows a similar line by starting where Milton left off.

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God:
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

    Drama in Exile (free): amzpdfvox