Survey #1: The Results are In!

For the first few hours after my post hit the Web, there were no answers to my question, “What poem has inspired you in your religious life?” and I started asking myself, “Don’t these people read?!” It was just about when I had started to lose faith (isn’t it always the way?) that a trickle turned to a stream, and I can now report to you a fine list of verse and other odds and ends that you might turn to next time you lose faith.

First—I should have predicted this—there were Psalms (especially 23) and hymns proposed. Of the latter, my favorite is “For All the Saints,” which happens to be the title of my very first post. Another suggestion, “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist Did Pray,” is new to me, mostly because, unlike “For All the Saints,” it is not featured in the Episcopal hymnal from which I sang as a young teen. The reader cited especially this lovely verse, praying for unity:

We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

A personal note on Psalm 23: I sometimes use it to put myself to sleep at night, but in the King James translation which I learned almost as early as I learned The Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. . . .” I understand that the current version in use in the Catholic liturgy is more accessible to the contemporary American ear, but every time I get to “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose,” I cringe. I am aware that this is not the desired response, that perhaps it is even confessable—a terrible moral quandary! But I digress.

Ferde proposed two items, one of them a poem and both too long to cite, but they’re good ones: “The Divine Comedy ought to get a mention here,” he wrote. “A little long to post, but what sticks with me is Dante’s polling of the population of hell.” My fishing buddy (as in fishers of men, usually, we don’t catch many real fish) went on: “If I can stray from poetry, James Agee’s short novel A Death in the Family is deeply spiritual. I read it over 40 years ago and it’s still with me. This novel and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with Walker Percy) are Agee’s only notable work. He squandered his enormous talent writing movie reviews for The Nation magazine, drinking to excess, and chain-smoking cigarettes. He got out of a cab in New York one afternoon and dropped dead right there on the sidewalk. Not yet 50.”

Of the poets cited, Francis Thompson (pictured here) gets a gold star, as The Hound of Heaven is the only poem cited by more than one reader. Father Hopkins (Gerard Manley) is probably the winner, though, not only because I have already written about him here (and all matters of taste on this blog are adjudicated finally by moi-même) but also because readers cited two of his poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire and God’s Grandeur, with its great final couplet (“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”). Meanwhile, I’ll give a silver star to W. H. Auden, since I had already written a post on his “Ballad of Barnaby,” which triggered this survey, which prompted yet another reader to cite Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Said the reader, “It’s not what you’d call upbeat, but it’s a great portrayal of our constant longing for something better, something which we as Christians find in God.”

There were votes for John Donne (“Holy Sonnet XIV“), William Butler Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium“), G. K. Chesterton (“The Ballad of the White Horse,” much too long to cite but available here), and the always perplexing Ezra Pound (“Ballad of the Goodly Fere“). Female poets included Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (“Aurora Leigh“) and (sweet!) “my Aunt, Sr. Marie Emmanuel Streit, S.C. (1904-1991) Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati,” who wrote “Aspiration”:

A wild canary flashes by,
(like arrow sped from unseen bow
To pierce a target in the sky!)
I watch its swift unswerving flight
And think how very glad I’d be
If I could wing as sure a way
O Heart of God, my goal, to Thee!

Finally, ’tis strange, there was a citation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, surely among the darkest of English-language plays but inspiring to at least one Catholic. I’ll leave you pondering this bit of verse from the Bard:

But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

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  • Anonymous

    Is it too late to add a poet or a poem?Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, a French Benedictine nun and poet, wrote two collections of poems that have inspired me: Prayers from the Ark and The Creatures' Choir, all translated by the British novelist Rumer Godden.Some are gentle and full of sweetness, others use irony to remind us of our proper place. All teach humility.THE PRAYER OF THE GOLDFISH O God,forever I turn in this hard crystal,so transparent, yet I can find no way out.Lord,deliver me from the cramp of this waterand these terrifying things I see through it.Put me back in the play of Your torrents,in Your limpid springs.Let me no longer be a little goldfishin its prison of glass,but a living sparkin the gentleness of Your reeds. AmenTHE PRAYER OF THE GIRAFFE Lord,I who see the world from abovefind it hard to get used to its pettiness.I have heard it saidYou love humble creatures.Chatter of apes!It is easier for meto believe in Your greatness.I feed on exalted thingsand I rather liketo see myself so close to Your heaven.Humility!Chatter of apes! Amen. ~ Maria Horvath

  • Anonymous

    The Pillar of the Cloud by John Henry Cardinal Newman. Beautiful poem about the Holy Spirit.

  • Anonymous

    Ah love, let us be true to one another.For the world that seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new. Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor peace, nor certitude, nor help for pain. And we are here as on a darkling plain, swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night. Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold

  • Did no one mention Ave Marie Stella? This was St. Dominic's as well as St. Louis de Montfort's favorite hymn. Oh, and St. Louis de Monfort was quite a poety / hymn writer himself, only most of it has not been translated to English.

  • Sal

    Loved that someone mentioned Dante.We forget it's a poem, sometimes.Next up, novels, please?

  • Rouxfus

    One more great one, from St. Francis Xavier, included in the Baronius Roman Missal (1962) for post-communion devotion:My God, I love Thee, not becauseI hope for heaven thereby;Nor yet since they who love Thee notMust burn eternally. Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst meUpon the Cross embrace;For me didst bear the nails and spear,And manifold disgrace; And griefs and torments numberless,And sweat of agony;E’en death itself; and all for oneWho was Thine enemy. Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,Should I not love Thee well,Not for the sake of winning heaven,Or of escaping hell; Not with the hope of gaining aught,Not seeking a reward;But as Thyself hast loved me,O ever-loving Lord? E’en so I love Thee, and will love,And in Thy praise will sing,Solely because Thou art my God,And my eternal King.

  • Anonymous

    Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Gave thee life, and bid thee feed, By the stream and o'er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing, woolly, bright; Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice? Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Little Lamb, I'll tell thee, Little Lamb, I'll tell thee. He is called by thy name, For He calls Himself a Lamb. He is meek, and He is mild; He became a little child. I a child, and thou a lamb, We are called by His name. Little Lamb, God bless thee! Little Lamb, God bless thee! BLAKE

  • Webster Bull

    I am posting a comment received by e-mail. Consider it "anonymous." WBAs a fellow Episcopalian convert to Catholicism married to a cradle Catholic, I have enjoyed your blog immensely. I am a little late on your poetry request, hence this email. If you have not discovered him yet, read the poetry of St. John of the Cross (another Dr. of the Church). It is magnificent. Most folks focus on his spiritual prose. I read him in a college Spanish class when I was 20 and was mesmerized. It took another 15 years for me to figure out why when I discovered the doctrine of transubstantiation which lead me to leave the Episcopal church and become a Catholic. God bless and keep up the wonderful writing.