Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.
Overview: This little volume of poems was arranged posthumously from sundry sources, including many plucked from The Pilgrim’s Regress. There is in general a strong overlap in subject matter with both Lewis’ fiction (“Narnian Suite,” “Wormwood,” “The Dragon Speaks”) and his nonfiction (“Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Divine Justice”). Walter Hooper has arranged the poems along the lines of their themes, beginning with the most ambitious.
Though enjoyable, it will never enjoy as wide an appeal as Lewis’ fiction or Christian living titles, since much of the material is written for a literary audience. If you enjoyed his excursions and ramblings in God in the Dock, or The Pilgrim’s Regress, or George MacDonald’s poetic works, you would probably enjoy this book.
In terms of form, all of the poems are very short except for two or three, and almost all of them rhyme, sometimes incorporating sonnets, other times incorporating classical metrical schemes.
Meat: There are several hidden gems in here whose original sources are no longer available. “The Turn of the Tide” is a favorite, which conceptualizes Bethlehem in terms of spiritual combat. The poems from The Pilgrim’s Regress—which, like The Lord of the Rings or Phantastes, mixes poetry with its prose—stand alone quite well.
Not surprisingly, Eden is a major theme: see “The Future of Forestry,” “Adam Unparadised,” and “Eden’s Courtesy,” for a few. Other Old Testament characters are dealt with (“Solomon,” “The Late Passenger”), though none so seriously or so often as Eden, which is seen as a hint of the new creation that will be:
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell. (“What the Bird Said Early in the Year”)
Lewis’ intellectual independence is also seen in some of the more sarcastic works, like “An Exposulation: Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction” and “Evolutionary Hymn.” His odes to Andrew Marvell and John Milton are also notable in the context of his academic position.
Bones: Christian readers expecting didactic theological insights would feel for the most part short-changed by Lewis’ poetry. The book is, for the most part, a literary effort, and therefore has little in the way of moral imperative. Part I especially—pages 1-49, more than a third of the book—is replete with classical references (“And Peleus took the Nereid Theris …”) which are lost on almost all modern readers.
Overall, this collection is well worth having, but most people will prefer to cherry-pick poems with intriguing titles rather than read the whole book.
Full Title: A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul.
Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.
Overview: MacDonald arranged this book into 366 daily readings, most of which are devotional and meditative. Each day has a seven-line stanza, many of which are addressed as prayers. (John Keble, an Anglican, had produced the much more popular “Christian Year” about 50 years earlier.)
This is probably MacDonald’s best book of poetry, though he has many. His poetry is a mix of the sentimental (very accessible) and more classical attempts (very inaccessible).
Meat: The stanzas here are simple, devotional thoughts and prayers, many of which can help to express a longing for God. Like the Epistle of James, MacDonald is always stirring his readers to be “doers, and not hearers only.” He speaks from the heart and speaks to the root of the spiritual life.
Bones: MacDonald’s poetry here is simple, and occasionally simplistic. My only other criticism is that MacDonald is so introspective. It can be rather angsty at times.
“When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire,—
Oh, be thou then the first, the one thou art;
Be thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.”
Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.
William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.
When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.
Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.
(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)
Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.
Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.
Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.
I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.
Source: William Cowper, Olney Hymns.
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.
In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let th’ unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may.
It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens,
Will give his children bread.
Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.