My wife Lucy and I often recall lighthearted moments spent conversing with friends who spoke English as their second or third language. After living in different countries for twenty years, we have spent thousands of hours like this. At times we have been in the middle of a conversation with friends but utterly unable to follow their English because of unique speech patterns or heavy accents. When this happened, we continued nodding our heads to affirm the speaker, waiting until we could latch onto words that made sense to us. Then we could enter again into the joy of the conversation.

Poetry can be like that for many of us. In English there are poetic ways of using the same words that are vastly different from colloquial speech. We often give up reading mid-poem because we just cannot quite understand the flow of the poet’s discourse. We might persevere for a while, because we have heard that this journey of poetry can be a fruitful one. But eventually we set the book aside, exasperated. One day, we say, we will have more time to tackle the excursion into the dense thicket of verse.

Years ago, I discovered a group of wonderful individuals who helped me interpret poetry. They are voice actors who have spent their lives bringing words to life without the aid of visual cues. A famous example would be Richard Burton’s YouTube reading of “The Hound of Heaven,” that magnificent poem by Francis Thompson that paints a picture of the pursuit of our heavenly Father.

Now of that long pursuit,
Comes at hand the bruit.
That Voice is round me like a bursting Sea:
And is thy Earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me.
Strange, piteous, futile thing;
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of Naught (He said).
And human love needs human meriting —
How hast thou merited,
Of all Man's clotted clay, the dingiest clot.

Alack! Thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art.
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save me, save only me.

—Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson

This approach—joining talented voice actors on the poetic journey—might be just the motivation we need to start our own personal journey along the poetic line. Allow me to recommend this approach with one of the foundational poems in our Western canon, The Odyssey by Homer.

After fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus tries to return to his wife and son in Ithaca. We join the story with Odysseus trapped on an island, still not reunited to his wife after ten years. His wife Penelope is besieged by suitors who continually pressure her to remarry (and give up the family riches), because it seems obvious that her husband is dead. Her son, not quite of age to take over the household, simmers with rage against the suitors and longs for his father’s return.

Odysseus’s long journey, aided by the fickle Greek gods of old, is told in spectacular style by Homer, the legendary epic poet from ancient Greece who wrote both The Odyssey and The Iliad. Homer’s epics were foundational for key aspects of Greek civilization and form the foundation of any curriculum focused on The Great Books. The translation of these epic poems from the original Greek by Robert Fitzgerald is reputedly one of the best English translations in print. 

Here is my suggestion for a rollicking great yarn, in poetry no less.

Begin with a used edition of The Odyssey on AbeBooks.com. For around five dollars you can have the book shipped to you at no cost. (I recommend getting a used copy of The Iliad at the same time for reasons I’ll explain below.)

Once the book arrives, point your browser to https://archive.org/details/hmrio/The+Odyssey+by+Homer/Book+01+-+A+Goddess+Intervenes.mp3 where a new friend will make The Odyssey come to life. You may know this actor already if you, like me, loved every episode of Downton Abbey. Do you remember Matthew Crawley, the husband of Lady Mary, who dies unexpectedly in a car accident at the end of the third season? Matthew Crawley is played by actor Dan Stevens, a renowned Shakespearean and film actor from England.

Dan Stevens has recorded the entire Fitzgerald version of The Odyssey and The Iliad for free on this website. (Alternatively, you can do as I did and purchase The Odyssey from Macmillan.com for $26.99, so that the artist will receive royalties.) Notice that The Odyssey is broken down into only twenty-four chapters (or books) averaging about twenty-five minutes of listening time each.

Having the written word in front of you with Master Stevens delivering the lines is like listening to a poem in stereo. I cannot recall when I first heard of this approach, but I have used it for Homer as well as the classic Divine Comedy by Dante.

Before starting your own poetry listening odyssey, take the time to read the forward to the poem in Fitzgerald’s translation by D. S. Carne-Ross, a renowned critic of poet translation. (He sets up The Iliad so very well and helps you get your bearings before heading out. There’s even a map for those of us who yearn for more Bilbo Baggins!)

I encourage you not to hurry. Listening to Dan Stevens’s lyrical recitation while writing your own notes in your already well-loved book is pure New York cheesecake. Enjoy every delicious step. I sometimes pause and just praise God for the tangible example of such beauty still existing in our fallen world.

“But you, brave and adept from this day on … there’s hope that you will reach your goal … the journey that stirs you now is not far off” (Book 2, The Odyssey).

Mark A. Green is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the President and CEO of White Horse Inn in San Diego, California. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2021.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2021

Poetry for Preaching and Enjoyment

Also in this issue

The Power of Poetry for Preaching and Enjoyment[1]

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 2, “The First Resurrection” (1975)

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 18–20

Medical Technology: A Blessing Not to Be Idolized: A Review Article

Pastors and Their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry by Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson

Ars Poetica—A Medley

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