Listers, the Catholic Church has a vast reservoir of beautiful poetry that testifies to God’s love for Creation and us. Poetry is an excellent tool of praise and acknowledgement of all that God has given us. Perhaps not as simple nor as easily entertaining as prose would be, poetry has an added facet that is not as evident in prose.
The beautiful aspect of poetry that sets it apart from prose is the added rhythm creating another layer of description that goes beyond words. For example, in the poem “The Hound of Heaven” I can almost hear the pounding of footfalls against the pavement. It as if with each step a word from the poem is pounded out against the ground. This rhythm creates a sense of urgency that one would feel in a footrace against God. I would argue that if Francis Thompson’s vision of “The Hound of Heaven” was depicted in prose, it would not have given the readers as much of an emotional impact at the prospect of being pursued by God and finally succumbing to His liberating love.
I have selected six poems by Catholic poets and writers who speak and write about God’s gracious gift of his love for His people. My advice is to read them purposefully and aloud to get the full effect. There are far more poems that are probably greater than these, but I selected some of my favorites (“A Child My Choice” is my particular favorite). Some are just excerpts because some of the poems are very long. For those you want to read the poems in total, you can click on the titles which are linked to the a page with the completed poem. If you are interested in more poems by Catholic or at least “Christ-haunted” poets, I would recommend the book Flowers of Heaven compiled by Joseph Pearce.
Now on to the poems (be prepared to be pursued by love and captured by God’s glory):
1.An Excerpt from the “The Hound of Heaven”
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days:
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine way
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I him from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet–
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
2. “A Child My Choice”¹
Let folly praise what fancy loves, I praise and loves that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand
no deed defiled.
I praise him most, I love him best, all praise and love is his,
While him I love, in him I live, and cannot live amiss.
Love’s sweetest mark, laud’s highest theme, man’s most desired light,
To love him life, to leave him death, to live in him delight.
He mine by gift, I his by debt, thus each to other due,
First friend he was, best friend he is, all times will try him true.
Though young, yet wise; though small, yet strong; though man,
yet God he is:
As wise he knows; as strong he can; as God he loves to bliss.
His knowledge rules; his strength defends; his love doth cherish all;
His birth our Joy; his life out light; his death our end of thrall.
Alas, he weeps, he sighs, he pants, yet do his Angels sing;
Out of his tears, his sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.
Almighty babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die.
–St. Robert Southwell
3. An Excerpt from “The Battle of Lepanto”
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that swat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
4. “The Golden Prison”
Weep not for me, when I am gone,
Nor spend thy faithful breath
In grieving o’er the spot or hour
Of all-enshrouding death;
Nor waste in idle praise thy love
On deeds of head or hand,
Which live within the living Book,
Or else are writ in sand;
But let it be thy best of prayers,
That I may find the grace
To reach the holy house of toll,
The frontier penance-place, –
To reach that golden palace bright,
Where souls elect abide,
Waiting their certain call to Heaven,
With Angels at their side;
Where hate, not pride, not fear torments
The transitory guest,
But in the willing agony
He plunges, and is blest.
And as the fainting patriarch gain’d
His needful halt mid-way,
And then refresh’d pursued his path,
Where up the mount it lay,
So pray, that, rescued from the storm
of heaven’s eternal ire,
I may lie down, then rise again,
Safe, and yet saved by fire.
–Blessed John Henry Newman
5. “Pied Beauty”
Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
–Gerard Manley Hopkins
6. An Excerpt from “The Quarry”²
He wasn’t alone. His muscles grew into the flesh of the crowd,
energy their pulse, as long as they held a hammer,
as long as his feet felt the ground.
And a stone smashed his temples
and cut through his heart’s chamber.
They took his body, and walked in a silent line.
Toil still lingered about him, a sense of wrong.
They wore gray blouses, boots ankle deep in mud.
In this they showed the end.
How violently his time halted: the points on the
low voltage dials
jerked, then dropped to zero again.
White stone now within him, eating into his being,
taking over enough of him to turn him into stone.
Who will lift up that stone, unfurl his thoughts again
under cracked temples? So plaster cracks on the wall.
They laid him down, his back on a sheet of gravel.
His wife came, worn out with worry; his son returned
Should his anger now flow into the anger of others?
It was maturing in him through his own truth and love.
Should he be used by those who come after,
deprived of substance, unique and deeply his own?
The stones on the move again, a wagon bruising the flowers.
Again the electric current cuts deep into the walls.
But the man has taken with him the world’s inner structure,
where greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.
–Blessed John Paul II
St. Robert of Southwell, Pray for us!
¹This particular poem I dedicate to all of God’s children who left this world too soon.
²I couldn’t find of the full text of this poem in total, so there is no link to the entire poem.