Friday, April 27, 2007

Protestant Poetry

I grew up in a traditional church, and that meant I learned a lot of poetry. Maybe not great poetry, but decent poetry. Some doggerel, of course, some mere rhyme, but in spite of that, lots of decent serviceable poetry.

I don't mean the Psalms. Those too, and of course they are poetry, and greatly so.

But what I mean here is the hymns. All the lyrics of the hymns, especially Luther and Watts and Wesley and Doddridge and Cowper and Winkworth. Such great amounts of poetry we regularly repeated growing up, in the form and dress of the hymns we sang.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.

In deep unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
He conjures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, how long,
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

The earth with its store
of treasures untold,
Almighty, thy power
hath founded of old.
Hath stablished it fast
by a changeless decree,
and round it hath cast,
like a mantle, the sea.

I could go on. And on and on. My head is full of lines like these. I don't have to look them up, I just know them, and there are lots more I could write from memory. I memorized these on Sunday mornings, quite unintentionally, by simply showing up in church.

No, it's not T S Eliot or Chaucer or Spenser. But it is decent poetry that serves a people. It is memorable, it honors its words and makes its images, it expands the mind and delights the ear, and it has grammatical integrity and discipline.

But this body of poetry seems to be invisible to the academic study of literature. Yes, our greatest poetry is admired and given much prestige, but the decent and serviceable poetry that nourished ordinary people is neglected and dismissed. I can't imagine a graduate student at a university being encouraged to study the common hymns as poetry.

But even in terms of cultural anthropology, isn't it obvous that something like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is as significant as any other poem in the English language?

Sadly, our Protestant poetry is being lost to us. Poetry in general is not a value of our culture. And poetry is not a value of our church leadership. Certainly not in my denomination. When our denominational leaders gather us together, all they want to talk about is statistics and organizations and management techniques. They don't want to talk about:

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I'll never, no never desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.


James Brumm said...

First of all, the lack of regard for hymnody as literature seems to be limited to this side of the Atlantic. In the UK, Elisabeth Cosnett got her Ph.D. in Literature with "The Poet as Hymn-Writer" in 1985 and Margaret Leask with a 1998 hymnody dissertation.

Second, I'll agree with you about the RCA. In 2003, when we celebrated the 375th anniversary by beginning each plenary with a hymn from a different era of RCA history, the last one was cancelled because our esteemed president, John Chang< considered the exercise "boring." At last year's GS, I actually walked into a conversation where somebody was referring to me as a CRC hymn writer (because of "Sing! A New Creation"). I introduced myself, and explained that I was an RCA pastor, to which one of the speakers responded "Oh, but I didn't think anyone in the RCA did THAT sort of thing."

will said...

in times of stress there are protestant hymns i sing. the poetry is rich in the metaphors of anither age tho some are timeless. case in point: "brightly beams our father's mercy, from the lights along the shore, but to us he gives the keeping ..." can't remember the rest, but it doesn't matter. that snippet, true now as then, is rich for me.

Joyously Saved said...

Great post! I agree that Protestant poetry is a category in itself and ought to be studied and admired. As a Lutheran coming from Lutheran and Reformed traditions, I love those old poems. I hope there will be a resurgence of interest in them!