Archive | Poetry

The Aeneid | Virgil

The cover of Virgil's The AeneidJust before Virgil (70-19 BC) died, he left instructions that his epic poem, The Aeneid, should be burned. Caesar Augustus (the one who called the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) disagreed with Virgil’s dying wishes and rescued the manuscript at least in part because the story legitimized Roman culture and rule.

The Aeneid is a sequel of sorts to Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad narrates the Trojan war. At the end of the war, Odysseus journeys home (see Homer’s Odyssey) and Aeneid escapes and goes on his own convoluted journey. The good Aeneid begins the book fleeing the ruins of Troy and ends a mature hero who wins a new homeland: Rome.

Most interesting in The Aeneid is the interplay between divine and human agents. The gods are capricious, following up petty insults with life-altering storms. They back various human actors to play out their own squabbles. Eventually Jupiter has to step in with a stern, “Stop it!”

From a Christian perspective The Aeneid is a depressing world where capricious deities and fates tug humans around like puppets. Despite this, many Christian theologians were inspired by the ethics of the good Aeneid. In his Divine Comedy, Dante summoned up Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory!

The Collector’s Library edition features a prose translation by J. W. MacKail. The most difficult part of reading The Aeneid was remembering all the names. SparkNotes does an excellent job summarizing the plot of each book and describing the significance of the narrative. I recommend reading SparkNotes before and after each book of The Aeneid to aid in comprehension.

The Aeneid is a foundational work of literature that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by J. W. MacKail. London: Collector’s Library, 2004.

The Divine Comedy | Dante Alighieri

The cover of Dante's The Divine Comedy

I’ve been lost in the forest before. The worst that has ever happened to me was a bit of confusion and a late supper.

When Dante got lost …

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

(Inferno, I:1-6)

Instead of making it home for dinner, he took an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. He begins in fear, he ends in love:

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, XXXIII:145)

I’ve been meaning to read this classic for years. When I saw Barnes & Noble’s beautiful leather-bound edition, I couldn’t resist.

Reading it was a challenge. It’s not every day you read a Nineteenth century English translation of a Fourteenth Century Italian text in verse! With the help of a dictionary app and SparkNotes, I fell into the rhythm of the poem and began to understand it. Reading the text aloud (even muttering the cadence under my breath) helped immensely.

I’m not qualified to comment on the literary merit of this classic, or the translation. I’ll keep my comments to theological issues.

Go to Hell!

Dante wrote his masterpiece in exile. He found himself on the wrong side of political power and was banished from his home in Florence on trumped-up charges (xi).

The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, which refers to the joy taken at someone else’s misfortune. It’s not a very flattering quality, but one Dante seems to enjoy. When he arrived in the sixth circle of hell, he wandered around tombs that held heretics who were tortured.

Upon a sudden issued forth this sound
From out one of the tombs; wherefore I pressed,
Fearing, a little nearer to my Leader.

And unto me he said: “Turn thee; what dost thou?
Behold there Farinata who has risen;
From the waist upwards wholly shalt thous see him.

(Inferno X:28-33)

The character from the crypt was none other than Farinata, his real life political enemy. What do you do with a political enemy from earth? Stick him in your literary hell! This is where an annotated text is very helpful (unless you’re up-to-date with the people of Fourteenth Century Florence).

Unfortunately, Dante’s pattern for dealing with some of his enemies has been followed many times in church history. Instead of doing the hard work of loving your enemy, it’s easier to just demonize him.

Highway to Hell

My edition of The Divine Comedy is filled with illustrations from Gustave Doré. These illustrations taught me something: hell is far more exciting and interesting than heaven. Inferno is far more frequently and graphically illustrated than Paradiso.

This attitude—the idea that heaven is boring and hell is exciting—is still around. Perhaps AC/DC popularized it the best:

Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
Goin’ down
Party time
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell

Dante’s hell is full of all sorts of interesting (if sadistic) tortures. Some people are burned alive, some turn into trees whose limbs are pecked at by Harpies, some are boiled alive in a river of blood, some are shat upon. Literally. Poop falls from the sky. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with Dante!

If you squint, you can read this torture as divine justice in the light of God’s holiness. Realistically, it’s another sad example of schadenfreude. Someone needs to go back in time and give him a copy of VanBalthasar’s Dare We Hope?

Disembodied Heaven & the Impassable Deity

I always knew that I disagreed with Dante’s view of hell. I was surprised by how much I disagreed with his heaven—and his Trinity!

Dante’s God is an Aristotelian construct mediated by Aquinas:

O grace abundant, by which I presumed
To fix my sight upon the Light Eternal,
So that the seeing I consumed therein!

Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All infused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.

Withing the deep and luminous substance
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension,

(Paradiso XXXIII:82-84, 88-90, 115-117)

God, for Dante, is an immovable point of perfect light. Three circles symbolize the Trinity, with three different coloured lights. All manifold colours emanate from this point. The heavenly spheres (the planets), all rotate around this point as do the various levels of heavenly worshipers. There is nothing to do in heaven but to be consumed in contemplation.

That sounds spiritual, but it’s nowhere near biblical. Biblical metaphors include a throne with a blood-stained lamb. Biblical metaphors speak of a river with trees of life lining the banks. Dante’s God is a philosophical idea. I’ll stick with the Holy One of Israel who breathed his breath into this dust and called it good.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a challenging and interesting work to read. Just don’t confuse literature with theology.

—Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).

T. S. Eliot | Four Quartets

The cover of Eliot's Four Quartets

Over two millennia ago, a Hebrew philosopher known anonymously as the Qoheleth offered this observation:

[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)

You could consider Eliot’s Four Quartets his own wrestling on this ancient theme. Despite the Byrds’ zen-like refrain, the Qoheleth was troubled by this dark truth. We are creatures of time without the capacity to understand beginning and ending (let alone eternity!)

Eliot’s meditations are correspondingly dark. He begins, like the Qoheleth:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (“Burnt Norton” 1-5)

Time is a mystery. We can’t grasp it. We can’t somehow view it from the fixed point of a wheel—we can only participate in the dance that circuits around the “still point” (“Burnt Norton” 66).

Four Quartets are not something to be read lightly. They are incredibly dense and pregnant with meaning. This is language distilled to its essence.

For the Christian, these poems hold something extra. Eliot’s high-church Anglican worldview infused his writing. Consider these verses about the death of Christ:

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. (“East Coker” 67-71)

Indeed, the incarnation of Christ is the only real solution to our problem with time. In Jesus, the eternal entered time. If we have a hope of grasping the mystery, it will be found in him.

More than Eliot’s day, ours is full of people “Distraction from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (“Burnt Norton” 101). It is a helpful antidote to slow down and meditate deeply on something. Aside from scripture, I can think of no better work of art than Eliot’s Four Quartets.

(For a helpful entry point to understanding the Four Quartets, watch this lecture by Professor Thomas Howard.)

—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1944).

Always Now, Volume 3 | Margaret Avison

This is the final volume of Avison’s collection, although two more individual works followed (Momentary Dark and Listening), one before and one following her death in July, 2007. This final volume contains her most mature poetry—her best work.

I loved the increased biblical imagery and themes in these works. It was particularly interesting to read her take on Job (“Job: Word and Action”) from Not Yet But Still. There are many moments in these poems that make a believer pause to meditate.

I found these later poems easier to understand. The obscure vocabulary that riddled her early works has been traded in for more common terms that still find renewed meaning when she places them in lines.

On one hand, it’s sad to know I’ve read that last of Avison. Thankfully, she’s left a canon that can be reread and revisited for years.

Listening | Margaret Avison

Reading Avison is meditation.

From 1960s Winter Sun right through these last poems, Avison understood the world and conveyed its meaning in a language far more powerful than mere prose. These poems bypass intellect (although there’s plenty to think about) and connect with the soul.

Avison had a knack for finding beauty in the city. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in and around her city—Toronto—that I respect her so much. She writes about trees in the city, for example (“Ever Greens”), and they cease to become so much stunted city-ornamentation. They are transfigured in her presence: they are seen for the creation they are.

She knew the Creator, and his Word empowered hers.

On the Ground | Fanny Howe

Appreciating poetry is akin to fine wine-tasting or jazz collecting. It can seem like a mystery to the uninitiated, but a consuming passion to the lovers. I’ll be honest: my poetry acumen is woefully inadequate, but I still enjoy reading it. There were times in this book that I knew the words were important—even beautiful—even if I couldn’t explain why.

This is a book that wrestles with the grand topics of life: war, love, and religion. This book deserves to be read out loud. Even when the traditional way of understanding language disintegrates, the cadence feels somehow appropriate.

I’m afraid that’s the best review this poetry rookie can offer for this book. I enjoyed it, even if I’m unsure quite why.

100 Best-Loved Poems | Philip Smith, ed.

No one in their right mind would argue the worth of the poems in this volume. If you’re interested in the verse that has shaped our culture, this is a great place to start.

I learned something about myself in reading this book, though—I prefer things in their context.:

  • I’d rather listen to a representative album from an artist than a best-of CD.
  • I prefer Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology because it allows each author to speak in his own voice.
  • I would much rather have read these poems in their original context than ripped from their homes and forced into a best-of list.

This book is great—for a compilation. My next poetry read, though, will be the collected works of Robert Frost.

A Timbered Choir | Wendell Berry

This past summer I paddled the Missinaibi River from Missinaibi Lake to Mattice. In the evenings around the campfire, I would read a poem or two from this volume.

Berry’s a farmer from Kentucky, so it might seem odd that his poems felt appropriate in the Northern Ontario wilderness, but that’s what you get with Berry. He is so connected and intimately familiar with his location, his writing transcends that place and becomes universally applicable.

This book is organized chronologically, containing poems written between 1979 and 1997. The poems at the start of the book are profound. By the end of the book, they’re sublime. I’ll leave you with one of his shortest works to whet your appetite.

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does it’s work.

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