What’s Catholic Poetry?
It’s poetry imbued with what the late Father Andrew Greeley called “the Catholic imagination.” In 1917, Joyce Kilmer, a poet and Catholic convert, aptly wrote: “The poet sees things hidden from other men.” Catholic poetry is propelled by a sacramental outlook that looks beyond the visible for the true, the good, and the beautiful in everyday life. The poem might not always hit the mark, but that’s the goal. I think that hope has to be kept in mind when reading some of these older poems with their pious Victorian flourishes. It doesn’t make what they’re trying to say any less true.
Who’s the Poet?
The son of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the leader of the Anglican Church), Robert Hugh Benson caused quite a stir in England in 1903 when he became a Roman Catholic and a Roman Catholic priest, no less. A college chaplain and a popular preacher, he also wrote historical fiction, plays, devotional works, apologetics, and even children’s books.
In 1911, Father Benson was named a Monsignor in honor of his many achievements. His early death on October 19, 1914, was brought on by pneumonia. A number of Benson’s books are still in print. One of my favorites is Come Rack! Come Rope!, which deals with Queen Elizabeth I’s persecution of Catholics. His 1907 novel Lord of the World, among the first futuristic thrillers in English, has been recommended by both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. (It’s actually on my shelf waiting to be read!)
What’s the Poem?
After A Retreat
What hast thou learnt today?
Hast thou sounded awful mysteries,
Hast pierced the veiled skies,
Climbed to the feet of God,
Trodden where saints have trod,
Fathomed the heights above?
This only I have learnt, that God is love.
What hast thou heard today?
Hast heard the Angel-trumpets cry,
And rippling harps reply;
Heard from the throne of flame
Whence God incarnate came
Some thund’rous message roll?
This only have I heard, His voice within my soul.
What hast thou felt today?
The pinions of the Angel-guide
That standeth at thy side
In rapturous ardours beat,
Glowing from head to feet,
In ecstasy divine?
This only have I felt, Christ’s hand in mine.
Source: Joyce Kilmer’s Anthology of Catholic Poets (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1939), 10-11.
Why’s It Worth Reading?
This poem always grabs me. I love retreats. After one, I feel a better sense of God’s love, and a greater desire to grow in friendship with Christ. At my alma mater, Cathedral Prep Seminary, Monsignor Phil Reilly used to say that you measure a retreat’s effectiveness by what happens after it.
- Does it help you better hear God’s voice?
- Does it help you be a better neighbor, worker, spouse, parent, friend?
This poem makes me ask myself those questions. Maybe that’s the real measure of this particular poem. At least it is for me. I hope, my reader friend, it will be for you too.
(The drawing of Monsignor Benson is by Pat McNamara.)