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Devotional Poetry: Profound or Problematic?

February 10, 2010

W.H. Auden c. Nancy Crampton

“Poems, like many of Donne’s and Hopkins’, which express a poet’s personal feelings of devotion or penitence, make me uneasy. It is quite in order that a poet should write a sonnet expressing his devotion to Miss Smith because the poet, Miss Smith, and all his readers knnow perffectly well that, had he chanced to fall in love w ith Miss Jones instead, his feelings would be exactly the same. But if he writes a poem expressing his devotion to Christ, the important point, surely, is that his devotion is felt for Christ and not for, say, Buddha or Mahomet, and this point cannot be made in poetry; the Proper Name proves nothing. A penitential poem is even more questionable. A poet must intend his poem to be a good one, that is to say, an enduring object for other people to admire. Is there not something a little odd, to say the least, about making an admirable public object out of one’s feelings of guilt and penitence before God?”

-W.H. Auden, “Postscript: Christianity & Art,” The Dyer’s Hand.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2010 12:45 pm

    I like this idea, and most penitential poetry makes me squirm a bit, but I like Donne especially. His poems makes sense among fellow Christians, but if making an enduring object for other people to admire really is the goal of poetry (and I don’t necessarily think so) then penitential poems seem to belong in a different class or to a specific group.

    I would interested to know what he means when he says “the Proper name proves nothing.” It seems that even if the type of love is the same for various women in his analogy, the way in which Ms. Smith or Ms. Jones ‘awakened’ that love would be different. Isn’t the fact that penitential poetry makes us uncomfortable proof (to some degree) that the proper name has proved something?

  2. February 12, 2010 11:14 pm

    In my experience, devotional poetry is extremely hard to create. That might be because i am not a very devotional person, in the traditional sense at least—I am not pious. Most of my poetry is impious, therefore. However, I’d point out that devotional poetry can be about joy, not just about penitence. I love the later Donne and all the Traherne because of the joy it exudes.

  3. Phillip Harvey permalink
    February 13, 2010 4:52 pm

    What is the purpose of the poem? The enjoyment of the reading? Or worship? In the former case, it apears to me, on the surface, to be no different than any other subject: the poet must be genuine and true. Is the poem to be used in worship? Then the poem is not first about the poet’s experience of God, but first about God. In this case, the poet’s experience of God only informs subject, but it is not the subject proper.

    I’ve never tried to write devotional poetry, but I enjoy Donne’s and I enjoy David’s psalms. When I read them, I feel closer to them becasue I believe they’re being genuine and true. Just as I feel closer to Thomas by “I Know This Vicious Minute’s Hour,” or to Frost by “Into My Own,” or to Keat’s by “On Chapman’s Homer.”

    I guess, it seems to me like the rules for devotional poetry should be no different from poetry on any other subject. And, as the adage goes, you should write about what you know. If Aaron is confessedly not a devotional person, in a traditional sense, then we couldn’t expect him to write traditionally devotional poetry. However, if he wrote a poem true to his experience of God and the spiritual, we might find a non-traditionally devotional poem that we rather like.

    Devotional peotry, therefore, seeks to connect man to man, poet to reader. Poetry for worship has a differnt goal entirely, to point man to God. To use a spatial metaphor: devotional poetry moves horizontally and worship poetry moves vertically. In as much as devotional poetry moves horizontally, it is subject no different paradigm than any other poetry, although it may have particular challenges unique to its subject. It is not fundamentally problematic as Auden seems to suggest.

  4. Alex Miller permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:12 am

    For me, poetry is often a process through which I discover what I can say honestly. Often I toss out a piece because, for whatever reason, it seems posed to me. It may be that I seldom write a devotional poem that rings true on the page, and it may certainly be that others find it easier to write them honestly than I do. But to dismiss any category in a sweeping gesture, as Auden does, I think is troublesome. When I read even a great artist writing a polemic against a type of art, it seems to betray a personal inability to find an honest means of expression in that area, rather than a premeditated aesthetic. This is not the same as to say that Auden had an impoverished devotional experience. Not at all. But each writer expresses certain tones better than others. My writing tends to be somber where Luke’s is playful and ironic, for example. What other means of judgment does a poet have than his or her own experience of the process of writing? Poets tend to react as poets before they react as critics.

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