During the school year I usually read the required textbooks for the courses that I teach in the seminary. Because the fields that I teach – church history, missions, and church contemporary issues – produce lots of books, I keep pretty busy. In addition, I have to prepare a sermon almost every week and this requires reading lots of Bible commentaries, theological books and counseling manuals. Therefore this summer, I decided that I am doing a different type of reading – poetry.
I have always enjoyed poetry. I inherited the love of poetry from my mother who helped me memorize hundreds of Christian poems which I recited in our local church. Because I started this at an early age, it helped me later with memory work in school. When I came to the United States I was introduced to the rich literature and poetry of the English language.
Therefore, this summer I decided to go back and read one of the old books I have in my library – F.T Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury, which was edited in 1861 and updated in 1961 by Oscar Williams. Therefore, books one to four were selected by Palgrave, and poems written from 1861 to 1960 by Oscar Williams. The book has 690 poems and I have read over a quarter of them.
One of the enjoyable things about the poetry (in my opinion) is the desire to share it with other people. One of the old definitions of poetry is that a poem is the best words in the best form. When they were little, sometimes my daughters became captive to my reading them aloud. I would look to a poem to see the majesty of words and to ask myself why I did not think that way.
The earliest English poets were fascinated with love. We can see this in John Dryden’s poem “Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day” (1687):
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But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
Or Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars”
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you to shall adore:
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.
Or the transformation that happens in a poem by Ben Johnson entitled “To Celia”
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither’d be;
But thou thereon didst only breathe
And sen’st back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee.
Most poems are about love, but there are a good number of poems about tragedy and death. John Shirley’s poem “Death the Leveler” concludes with a powerful line that contradicts the title:
Only the action of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
As I am continuing in my reading sometimes I am surprised at the intensity that these poets had in writing about love and death. One almost feels that these are the two distant sides – how to love when one is young and passionate and how to make sure that one is ready to die because death can come at any moment. As I enjoy the passion expressed in these poems, I am reminded of a short poem of Edna St. Vincent Millay that I memorized in Dr. Mitchell’s class. It was the motto for many of his students:
I will burn the candle at both ends,
It won’t last the night;
But o my friends and ah my enemies,
It gives such lovely light.
Jesus tells us that He is the light of the world, but then turns to us and tells us that we are the light of the world if we are his followers. It is a good analysis of every life, long or short: have we passionately spread the light?