Mark A. Green
In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the story begins with Lucy stepping through a great wooden wardrobe, her empyreal entrance into another world. This new world, similar to our own but also gloriously different, surprises and delights Lucy as she wanders and explores.
Like the wardrobe that Lucy steps through, poetry can be a door we stumble through into a whole new world that surprises and delights us. We may discover exquisite collections of well-wrought words that bring ingenious new worlds to life in our imagination. Like Narnia, poetry can be a world of excitement and evil, of wonder and witches, of imagination and idolatry.
Like Narnia, poetry can also be dangerous. How do we discern what is good and beautiful and true in the poetry of those who don’t share our convictions? Do they have something to share with us that we can appreciate without fear of being captivated by their unbelieving aptitude and artistry? If you know the Narnian story, you know that a lighted lamppost helped the four explorers, Lucy and her siblings, orient their journey. As it is in Narnia, so it is with us. The light of truth from our Bibles provides the required illumination we need to guide us forward.
In his new book, The Soul in Paraphrase (Crossway, 2018), Leland Ryken provides three helpful categories of poetry that each require a different discernment. I will use his categories as a guide. The first is the literature of Christian belief. As we enjoy what poets write about the Christian life, we can compare what they create with what the Bible says about the subject or content of the poems. When brothers and sisters weave the truths of Scripture into the fabric of their poetry, we are uplifted in our own walk. When we participate in the poem, it’s as if we are viewing our Father’s world from a new perspective, a stage that the poets employ to entertain and inspire us.
Consider the beautiful devotional verse of John Donne and George Herbert from the seventeenth century. Their imaginative word pictures, with the Bible as a type of lamppost, guide us into strange spaces and poetic places we might not inhabit in our ordinary lives. Here is an example, from Herbert’s poem “Sunday,” that encourages us to enjoy the great gift of the Lord’s Day:
The Sundays of man’s life,
Threaded together on time’s string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal glorious King.
Or consider these verses by Donne and his orienting hope of the resurrection when faced with the death of a loved one:
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 do 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.
The literature of common experience might also be called the “common-grace” realm of poetry. Here we can stand side-by-side with our neighbor, appreciating and admiring the same piece of art. As believers, of course, we see and interpret this artist-created world differently from our unbelieving friends. We might be fascinated as our friends struggle to create meaningful art while denying their inherent knowledge of God. If we watch closely, we can see them expressing beautifully their existence and even their responsibility before the God they deny!
While we might acknowledge what they are trying to do in poems that attempt to describe our shared world, there is a sharp division in how we view, appreciate, and interpret what they write. We can ask—and this takes discernment on multiple levels—if the poem is beautiful, while also asking if it’s true.
An example of a beautiful poem that demonstrates different ways of viewing the world is Robert Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken.” In it, the author acknowledges that we as humans can make choices that matter, but he does so with an anamorphic it’s-all-up-to-me attitude. The last stanza reads:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The believer, by contrast, faces these same diverging paths in life with the comforting assurance that the providence of our good God actively works to ensure all things work together for our good—even our choices.
The final category of poems that Ryken gives us is the literature of unbelief. Here is where many of our neighbors—and much of the world of artists—live and breathe and have their being. We must remember, however, that even as artists openly rebel against God, they cannot deny him. Van Til helps us here when he says, “Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God” (The Defense of the Faith, 273).
Many of the poets in this group unknowingly witness to the beauty of the created world while raising metaphorical fists toward their creator. Walt Whitman is one classic example in our American pantheon of poets. Whitman rejoices at the creation, singing songs about himself as a marvelous creation while intentionally rejecting the God of the Bible. This type of poem can provide a singular insight into the hopelessness of lives lived without Christ, regardless of the beauty of the lyric.
The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley furnishes an illustration of this in his poem on the death of his fellow poet John Keats. Note how Shelley, in comparison to John Donne on the same topic earlier, faces the anguish of death without hope. Shelley lived a wild, unbelieving life that ended in tragedy and, when faced with the horror of death, wrote one of his most famous poems that, ultimately, is not true. It closes in the dead-end darkness of unbelief. This is the last stanza of his long, mournful, beautiful poem, “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”:
The breath whose might I have invok’d in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
Dana Gioia, the recent poet-laureate of California, describes poetry as enchantment, a form of vocal music. Such lyrical, pleasant poetry is a gift to us and a reminder that the creator God formed us in his image and still makes himself known in his creation. Leland Ryken makes the claim that God expects us to understand poetry because “approximately a third of the Bible is poetic in form” (“10 Things You Should Know About Poetry”). When we read good poetry by proficient poets, something resonates within us and calls us away from our ordinary lives to participate in songs of life that speak to us of another world. Words skillfully crafted into stylistic sculptures of sound beckon us to revel in the refrains of common-graced beauty along the path of our particularized pilgrimage. These word songs, like fur coats in the wardrobe, are all around us and lead us to participate in our own poetic adventure.
The author is an OP minister and president of White Horse Inn. New Horizons, April, 2019.