The Worldly Poetry of the Puritans

I’m pleased to have Stephen Wolfe back with us again today for this piece on Puritan poetry.

The common understanding of the Puritans, in both popular and academic circles, is that they were hostile to all art, despisers of human desire, and saw nothing redeemable or good in creation. According to this view, their religious fervor was more than world-denying; it was earth-denying; it was desire-denying; it was sense-denying; and it was beauty-denying.

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Walt Whitman on Neighbors and Strangers

It is good to remember, especially in light of these presidential primaries, that no era is without its share of baffling endorsements. Andrew Carnegie, whose imperious steel mills did more than perhaps anyone to antagonize the neo-transcendentalist folklore of Leaves of Grass, called Walt Whitman the greatest poet America has produced.

Out of the many poems Whitman wrote on the effects of industrial change, perhaps none is as poignant as “To A Stranger.” Continue reading

Waking in the Dark Wood

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right way was wholly lost and gone.

Canto 1:1-3, Inferno

Now, this is an interesting way to start a story. From the outset of Dante’s Inferno, the reader finds herself in what should probably be the middle. But Dante cannot remember where he started, his first step into the wood, or even when he left the path he meant to be on; so this is his new beginning. And it doesn’t look promising.

From the moment I opened Dante’s Inferno in high school, this passage became a part of my internal dialogue. In his first three lines, Dante expresses the experience of many a prodigal son or wandering daughter. You made a left when you knew you were meant to go right, a few more turns were a little less clear, the road kept slopping gently downward, and pretty soon, you’d forgotten where you’d been or how you ended where you are.

It’s sometimes easy for the dramatic sinner (those of us who, if we’re going to go wrong, really like to do the thing with flare and dedication) to identify when we’ve hit those dark woods, because everything in our lives is suddenly under shadow. But I think it is a common occurrence even in the most pious. Perhaps it is fifty extra pounds and a food addiction you seemed not to notice until you saw that picture on Facebook and now cutting back seems impossibly hard. Maybe it’s an illicit sex life that started out so innocently and grew so gradually, you can’t pinpoint where it went too far. Or maybe it’s even less obvious, like anger that’s been secretly stewing so long, forgiveness doesn’t seem possible, or bigotry and prejudice that’s become a part of you.

I am discovering, that, unlike the murky confusion and sudden awaking of the path that leads to darkness, the right ways are often fully illuminated and obvious, the better to see how difficult they really are. When Dante finds himself lost in the dark, the most obvious exit he finds is an ominous gate with a path leading slowly downward. Though any reader can tell this is a bad idea, Dante decides to take his journey farther down into a deep pit, only to find that he must eventually start climbing again, just from an even lower starting point. As he moves into Purgatory, he starts an ascent that is illumined by the light of day, but no more reassuring than the downward spiral in which he had been. In fact, the climb is about to get so steep, so difficult, that he must leave his current guide behind and carry on without him.

Dante cannot ascend towards heaven until he faces the consequences of sin and sees for himself that repentance is often hard and painful. This is as good an allegory for living repentance as I’ve read. Walking in the path of sanctification, in step with one’s own conviction can be really damn hard, especially when you’re used to the shade. Where it seems easy to slip down a path that leads to darkness, the way back out is not so fun; after all “…the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction.” You see this same theme, by the way, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which it becomes evident that the only way for Voldemort to heal his soul is through repentance, which is much too painful for him to ever consider.

I have spent a long time admiring the narrow path while blithely skipping down the broad, where the road is smooth, which such interesting, shady woods on the horizon. But those woods are not so pleasant close-up, and there are but two paths left. The arduous climb into the clear light of day, back to a high road, of sorts, or a certain gate I’ve no interest in getting nearer. It has taken a long time for me to accept that there is no easy way out of the woods. Despite it’s uncomfortable brightness, and the hot, dusty climb ahead, I’m turning towards the Sun.


Italian Sonnet

I AM, the holy smoking fire,

Burns bright on Sinai’s awful height;

And tremors from His words of might

Split wide the earth and shake the pyre

Where goat and bull and Self perspire:

Vain off’rings for the King of Light

Who stands with rod hard-clenched to smite—

Their blood poor payment for just ire.

‘Twas Love that lit the blaze that glows,

Seeking payment for all my sin.

But lo…who now brings all man owes

And staves the flames from Adam’s kin?

‘Tis Love Himself now lays the Lamb

Across the pyre and speaks…”I AM.”

Bethlehem, by Charles Williams

‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my soul to my mind,
‘Past the plains of darkness
Is a house to find
Where for my thirsting
I shall have my fill,
And from my torment
I shall be still.’

‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my mind to my heart,
‘Past the hills of questing,
By our ghostly art,
We shall see the high worlds,
Holy and clear,
Moving in their order
Without hate or fear.’

‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my heart to my soul,
‘I shall thrive never
On the world’s dole.
Past the streams of cleansing
Shall a house be found
Where the peace and healing
For my aching wound.’

By the streams of cleansing,
By the hill of quest,
By the plains of darkness,
They came to their rest.
As the kings of Asia,
They went to a far land;
As the early shepherds,
They found it close at hand.

When they saw Saint Joseph
By their ghostly art,
‘Forget not thy clients,
Brother’, quoth my heart,
When they saw Our Lady
In her place assigned,
‘Forget not thy clients,
Mother’, quoth my mind.

But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
‘O my Joy,’ she sighed to it,
She wept, ‘O my Lord!’

Carol, by Dorothy Sayers

The Ox said to the Ass, said he, all on a Christmas night:
“Do you hear the pipe of the shepherds a-whistling over the hill?
That is the angels’ music they play for their delight,
‘Glory to God in the highest and peace upon earth, goodwill’
Nowell, nowell, my masters, God lieth low in stall,
And the poor, labouring Ox was here before you all.”

The Ass said to the Ox, said he, all on a Christmas day:
“Do you hear the golden bridles come clinking out of the east?
Those are the three wise Magi that ride from far away
To Bethlehem in Jewry to have their lore increased . . .
Nowell, nowell, my masters, God lieth low in stall,
And the poor, foolish Ass was here before you all.”

The Nativity, by CS Lewis

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!

A Christmas Carol, by GK Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Have a Good Friday

Crucifixus Est

TS Eliot, from Four Quartets:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That quesions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”

Simple but Lovely Poem on the Nature of Daily Work

I think this poem goes along well with Dorothy Sayers’ “Why Work?” and is a clear statement of the Christian understanding of work. The author is Henry Van Dyke, American poet and writer of that famous hymn, “Joyful, Joyful.”


Let me but do my work from day to day,
  In field or forest, at the desk or loom,
  In roaring market-place or tranquil room;
Let me but find it in my heart to say,
When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,
  “This is my work; my blessing, not my doom;
  Of all who live, I am the one by whom
This work can best be done in the right way.”

Then shall I see it not too great, nor small,
  To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;
  Then shall I cheerful greet the labouring hours,
And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall
At eventide, to play and love and rest,
Because I know for me my work is best.

If you want more Henry van Dyke, you can read about him here, and read his poetry and other writings here.