Poetry, Donne, and Herbert

These are notes from a great podcast episode I enjoyed the other day on the Beeson Podcast with Canadian professor David Lyle Jeffrey. He is a medievalist and a scholar, but what came through most is that He is a Christian!

What is poetry?

Poetry is speech set apart, elevated language, used for special occasions or contexts. It opens the door to understanding things we might not otherwise “see” or grasp. Much of Scripture is written in poetic form. It points us to the divine in ways that are not entirely rational or that transcend reason or logic.

Many things that we want to understand theologically cannot be understood entirely through logical discourse or some sort of rational paradigm because they are inherently paradoxical by nature, things which simply escape the tidy sense of logic we have. … Jesus says that death may be life. We need something other than the regular way we talk to be able to understand what Jesus is saying. It’s not an accident that Jesus is a heavy user of biblical poetry. He quotes more often from the psalms than any other book. Next common is Isaiah, which is almost pure poetry.

Later he says this:

When Jesus speaks about truth, he makes a metaphor to help us understand that the kind of truth he embodies is in fact embracing all of creation and all of our experience. In some ways it is accessible to us and in some ways inaccessible to us.

How does this differ from metaphor or simile?

Simile is just a comparison in which we say something is like something else. We use the word “as” to indicate the same thing. It’s a kind of parallel relationship. We see an analogy, and we call that a simile. But in a metaphor we forcibly use a word which is not connected to the thing we’re trying to talk about and juxtapose that word upon the concept or upon the other idea in such a way as to force us to think about all over again.


Selection from John Donne:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite,
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and oh both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it, if it must be drown’d no more.
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; let their flames retire,
And burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.


George Herbert, Love III:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
	Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
	From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
	If I lacked anything.

“A guest," I answered, “worthy to be here”:
	Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
	I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
	“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
	Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not," says Love, “who bore the blame?”
	“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down," says Love, “and taste my meat.”
	So I did sit and eat.

Another of my favourite podcasts is the one by Stephen Nichols, called 5-minutes in church history. Recently, he too dedicated an episode to those he calls “17th century theological poets“, dead poets you may want to check out, among them: Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, John Milton, Ben Johnson, and George Herbert. To this list I’d also like to add William Cowper.

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