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.
- 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
- 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
- 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): amz – pdf – vox
Paradise Regained (free): amz – pdf – vox
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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,
- 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.