The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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