What makes a good Christian poem good?

“I would say,” says Edward Short, who chose the poems in the new collection The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, “beyond technical smartness and insight and a respect for mystery, a good Christian poem must have a certain probity, a certain accountability. And a certain element of surprise.”

(Images: Church: Jason Krieger/Unsplash.com; Notebook: Nicolas Messifet/Unsplash.com)

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, Culture and Abortion, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. He writes for a number of periodicals, including The Wall Street Journal, The Catholic World Report, Literary Review, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, and City Journal. He chose the poems included in a new collection from Gracewing, titled The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, and also wrote the Introduction. Noted poet and critic Dana Gioia wrote the Foreword.

Mr. Short recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, the relationship between poetry and faith, good and bad religious poetry, and much more.

CWR: What was the inspiration behind, and specific goal for, this collection of Christian verse?

Edward Short: When not writing books on Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, I advance the mission of an altogether excellent 12-K preparatory school in Manhasset, New York called The Schools of Saint Mary, which is dedicated to giving its students a thorough grounding in the rich Catholic tradition. The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse grew out of my desire to produce a collection of poetry that would give the bright, imaginative students of the school not only a love of Christian verse but an understanding of how our Catholic tradition provides the basis for most of the poetry written in English from the 7th to the 21st centuries. Christianity, in other words, has been the very lifeblood of the art of poetry in English from its inception. After all, English lyric poetry had its foundation in the many lovely lyrics written to Mary in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After the fall of pagan Rome, the Blessed Virgin was the inspiration of the revival of all the arts, and poetry was no exception. Hence, the aptness of my entitling the miscellany, The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse. Ultimately, it is Mary’s collection.

When I broached the idea of choosing and introducing the volume with the pastor and president of Saint Mary’s, they could not have been more wholeheartedly supportive. They also agreed to help cover the cost of the permission fees for use of work under copyright with a gracious generosity for which I will always be grateful. If the book is adopted, as we are confident it will be adopted, by other Catholic schools and colleges throughout America and England and around the world for course work in English and Religion studies, we will have Father Robert Romeo and Father Dom Elias Carr, Can. Reg to thank. They were splendid throughout the whole process of bringing the book to publication, and the publisher and I cannot be more grateful to them.

The book’s goal is simple: to celebrate the tradition of sacred poetry in English in all its pied beauty. It is also to show readers and Catholic educators alike that proper Catholic education cannot simply be secular education in tartan skirts and blue blazers. If we mean to supply our students with a Catholic formation that will benefit them for all their days – in their families and in their professions, in their hopes and in their dreams, in their difficulties and in their joys – we must familiarize them with a tradition that has not only humanized but civilized readers for centuries. Christian verse is a vital part of that Catholic tradition and the point of my book is to keep it alive.

CWR: Dana Gioia, in the wonderful Foreword, states at the start: “Most Christians misunderstand the relationship of poetry to their faith.” What is that misunderstanding? How does Gioia go about addressing it?

Edward Short: Yes, Dana Gioia wrote the Foreword for the book, and it is marvelous. Indeed, it is so good that First Things ran a version of it in a recent issue and by all accounts it is creating quite a stir in various Catholic circles and beyond.

My personal hunch is that it has hit a nerve because it addresses a rather consequential problem. We all know that when it comes to art there is an odd philistinism in our contemporary Catholic culture, a philistinism almost completely unaware that throughout the history of Western Civilization the Church has been the direct or indirect patron of all the arts, its inspiration, its guide. The debt poetry owes to the Catholic tradition is enormous, though one would never know this in speaking with many Catholics.

The beauty of Gioia’s deft, learned, passionate foreword is that it tackles this lamentable philistinism head on. “Poetry is not only important to Christianity,” he writes. “It is an essential, inextricable and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice. The fact that most Christians would consider that assertion absurd does not invalidate it. Their disagreement only demonstrates how remote the contemporary Church has become from its origins.” This is profoundly true of the bureaucratic, ersatz Catholicism that our Modernists have worked so ingeniously to advance for so many decades. That someone of Gioia’s ungainsayable authority should call them out on their work of demolition is heartening. “At the risk of offending most believers, it is necessary to state a simple but unacknowledged truth,” Gioia writes: “it is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry.” He then proceeds to quote the verses that Mary, having been told by the angel Gabriel that she will be the Mother of God, utters to her cousin Elizabeth, which we know as the Magnificat:

My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
And, behold, from henceforth: all generations will call me blessed
For he that is mighty hath magnified me:
And holy is his Name.

Gioia’s reading of the significance of this for the Church and for poetry is categorical. “Christian poetry begins – quite literally – at the first moment in which Christ is announced to humanity,” he writes. “That origin demonstrates the supreme and inextricable importance of poetry to Christian experience. In scripture, verse is the idiom for the revelation of mystery.” These are home truths that need broadcasting and Dana Gioia gives them not only an erudite but an eloquent voice.

One other brief but vital thing regarding Dana Gioia. Here is one of our best contemporary poets, one of our best contemporary critics. When I reached out to him asking for his help, he might very well have begged off. After all, he did not know me when I wrote to him initially. And he was busy on more fronts than anyone could tally. Yet he wrote back immediately and said he would be happy to write the foreword. “I am not inclined to write a preface for anyone or anybody,“ he wrote. “But your book seems so good, and the need for such a book is so great that it would be a sin of omission not to help you. I can’t complain about the harvest if I don’t join the laborers.” I have received wonderful help over the years in my various literary and scholarly undertakings, but to have received such a warm, good-hearted, generous letter from such a distinguished quarter was moving.

I owe Dana a great debt of thanks. Unlike so many in the literary swim, he does what he can to come to the rescue of our beleaguered culture, and he certainly came to my rescue when I was in need of a famous name to help promote the book.

CWR: In your introduction, you present the criteria you used in selecting 350 pages of verse and poetry. What were the essential criteria you had in mind?

Edward Short: I have to say I was very careful about setting editorial principles. One needs them to ensure that one’s work has coherence and unity and point. My editorial principles were straightforward: I wished to include poems that were well made and memorable and had something direct or indirect to say of aspects of the Christian faith, broadly defined, though I also wished to be open to including poems by Christian poets on subjects other than the faith to show how Christian convictions animate such poets on whichever theme they essay. I also wished to include non-Christian poets on different aspects of Christianity. Hence, my inclusion of poems by Shelley, Hardy, Housman and Larkin, all of whom might have been opposed to Christian belief but could not entirely eschew the Christianity they chose not to espouse. Since ours is an age of unbelief, it is important that we share with the young poems that hint at the untenability of unbelief, even in the case of those like Hardy who are sworn to its colors.

Do I always follow these principles? I suppose there are certain occasions where I decided to flout them. Eliot’s poem, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” for instance, is hardly well made, in any objective technical sense, but it is nonetheless revelatory of the fastidious poet’s distaste for the various ways in which we abominate the Feast of the Nativity. I also included the poem to encourage the young, who may aspire to write well but are disappointed with their own fledging efforts. To these young people, I would say, read “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” and take heart. If Eliot could write such a pedestrian poem and yet write “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “The Journey of the Magi” and Four Quartets, there is hope for us all.

CWR: There are countless poems to draw upon. How did you go about researching and selecting?

Edward Short: I plundered Oxford’s critical editions for many of the great poets and individual or collected volumes for lesser ones. As my aggrieved wife and children can attest, I have a rather large library for a New York City apartment, and many of the books are volumes of verse. I also dipped into the authoritative books of verse published by Oxford over the years, starting with Q and ending with Christopher Ricks. (Ricks’ Oxford Book of English Verse, incidentally, is absolutely brilliant, a genuinely critical anthology, as is his Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.)

All anthologists are deeply reliant on former anthologists and I am no exception. I take issue with some of Donald Davie’s omissions — he left out too many Catholic poets and included too many ‘ho hum’ hymns – but there are many good solid aspects of his New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981). His introduction is well-argued, even if one does not entirely agree with it. His choice by his own lights is full of interesting surprises. And he frankly admits that he gives the lion share of his volume over to “Herbert and Vaughan, Smart and Cowper,” which is not a hierarchy with which one can lightly disagree, though he excludes Browning, Hardy and Kipling, stints Eliot, omits Belloc and Chesterton, and closes the book with lashes of C.H. Sisson, not the most incandescent of poets. The main problem with the book, I would say, is that Davie set himself unduly strict editorial principles. To be included, poems had to address themselves “to the Incarnation pre-eminently, to Redemption, Judgement, the Holy Trinity, the Fall,” as he wrote — and they could not be written from any agnostic standpoint. Hence, his refusal to admit Larkin in his collection, though, after Eliot, Larkin’s “Church Going” is probably the most serious Christian poem the country ever produced. At least it takes the absence of faith in England seriously. The same could be said of Larkin’s “Aubade,” which captures the crisis of unbelief at its most stark and unsparing. In adhering to such needlessly limiting principles, Davie consigned his selection to ultimate failure. After all, as Newman recognized so clearly, poetry is not written by angels but by those who are flawed, by those who are prone to error, prone to sin. For Davie to insist that the only admissible Christian poetry was poetry of the choir was mistaken.

In making my own selection, I was much more freewheeling – discreditably so, Davie would doubtless have thought. Yet I am sure that it reflects the real relationship that poets have with Christianity, rather than one that is prescriptive, and it makes for a good read by being various in the lively sense in which Louis MacNeice used that word, though obviously it is not flawless.

Making any selection of poems for any anthology is an extraordinarily difficult thing: there are so many considerations one must keep in mind, whether with regard to space or permissions or thematic balance or readability, and one inevitably passes over things that one should have included and includes things that, on second thought, one might reasonably have excluded. I inadvertently passed over Andrew Marvell, whose ‘Bermudas’ certainly should have made the cut. I did not include enough Jonathan Swift, John Clare, Robert Browning, Hardy or Kipling. I should have included Robert Graves’ “Recalling War” and Ivor Gurney’s “There Have Been Anguishes.” God was never far from the minds of the poets of the Great War, even though most of them were not Christian. Davie would never have included this effusion from Graves, but I think to exclude it is to bundle away an aspect of the history of Christianity in England with which the English still struggle. I must find room for it in the revised edition.

What, then, was war? No mere discord of flags
But an infection of the common sky
That sagged ominously upon the earth
Even when the season was the airiest May.
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again; patron alone
Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.
Fear made fine bed-fellows. Sick with delight
At life’s discovered transitoriness,
Our youth became all-flesh and waived the mind.
Never was such antiqueness of romance,
Such tasty honey oozing from the heart.
And old importances came swimming back –
Wine, meat, log-fires, a roof over the head,
A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call.
Even there was a use again for God –
A word of rage in lack of meat, wine, fire,
In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning.
War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air,
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.
And we recall the merry ways of guns –
Nibbling the walls of factory and church
Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees
Like a child, dandelions with a switch.
Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,
Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.

What are some of my other regrets? I should have found space for Saint Robert Southwell’s “A Child of My Choice.” I should have included more poems by James Matthew Wilson, the best of our younger poets, though I believe most readers will appreciate the aptness of my placing Wilson’s beautiful poem on baptism after Richard Greene’s eulogy to his mother. Wilson’s poem also closes out the collection nicely, baptism being for Catholics so profound a rite.

Richard Greene, by the by, is a good Canadian poet who is also a brilliant literary biographer, having written good biographies of Edith Sitwell and Graham Greene. A friend of mine recently told me that Greene made a hash of the first couplet of his poem, but knowing Greene I am sure he deliberately made the first couplet misshapen as a joke to set off the bravura technical brilliance of all the heroic couplets that follow. The jazz trumpeter Miles Davis would often deliberately miss notes in his otherwise brilliant playing for the same reason. It is also an amusing way to keep critics on their toes.

CWR: You indicate that there is far too much Christian poetry that is shallow or overly pietistic. What are some characteristics of bad Christian poetry? What are some of the characteristics of good Christian poetry?

Edward Short: What I say in my introduction is that I wished to include the poems of Christian poets on themes other than their Christian faith because it is important to show that for these poets their Christian faith animates all that they write, even when they are writing on secular or non-religious matters. There is a rather amusing poem by Hilaire Belloc in the book called “Discovery” – amusing in the bleak way that some Catholic satirists have of being amusing.

Life is a long discovery, isn’t it?
You only get your wisdom bit by bit.
If you have luck you find in early youth
How dangerous it is to tell the Truth;
And next you learn how dignity and peace
Are the ripe fruits of patient avarice.
You find that middle life goes racing past.
You find despair: and at the very last,
You find as you are giving up the ghost
That those who loved you best despised you most.

Of course, this is not a Christian poem in any explicit sense, but it is a poem about the world by a Christian poet who knows that the world is a place of manifold duplicity; and certainly knowing that does require a fairly astute Christian perspective. Christian faith, in other words, is never something that can be compartmentalized: it takes hold and guides the whole person in all that he does and all that he sees.

Bad Christian poetry, like bad secular poetry, is usually bad because it is poorly conceived and poorly executed, though it is perhaps worse than bad secular poetry because it is guilty of the extra sin of being religiose or sanctimonious. One can see this in Robert Lowell’s once highly rated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” which Craig Raine amusingly savages in an essay on Lowell’s Collected Poems. Apropos Section VI of the poem, in which Lowell drags Our Lady of Walsingham into his musings on the violent world of whalers off Nantucket, Raine considers what the poet Seamus Heaney made of this otherwise jarring juxtaposition. “Why this figure of the Virgin should enter the poem could be explained intellectually by contrasting her with the predatory, Calvinist, blood-spilling whalers,” Heaney speculates. To which Raine responds: “So much for the intellect. Then we’re back to intuition, to ‘magic,’ in effect to blarney.” Yet Heaney defends the use of the Virgin as a kind of prop in the otherwise ill-constructed poem on the grounds that “poetically speaking… we sense its rightness as a matter of emotional effect…” Logically speaking, Raine is unconvinced. “In other words, Heaney hasn’t a clue.”

One definite distinction of most good Christian poetry is that, if nothing else, it does make sense, a claim which one cannot always make about Lowell’s poems. Poetry, after all, needs to be more than mere bravura phrase-making. “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will,” Lowell famously intoned at the end of “The Quaker Graveyard” – surely a most memorable phrase. But what does it mean? Now that Lowell is no longer read in the English departments where once he was the undisputed darling of academics and poets alike, undergraduates are no longer forced to cudgel their brains about the meaning of the dubious phrase. I can assure readers of the poems I chose for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse that they will be spared such tedious riddles. Too many modern poets – John Ashbery was perhaps the most appalling offender – imagined obscurity a kind of necessary lens through which to see the complexity of modern experience. No, it is not a lens: it is the kaleidoscope of poets too lazy, too affected and too self-indulgent to bother with sense. The poem that Edward Thomas (1878–1917) wrote to commemorate the war dead on Easter, 1915 is a standing rebuke to such inexcusable opacity.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick in nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again

However, one has to say, in fairness, that there are bad Christian poems that somehow succeed despite their badness, and I suppose the best example of this is Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” which, for all its flaws, influenced not only Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien but Clive Tolley, the learned historian of the early church in England, who insisted that I include the poem in the collection. Moreover, my dear friend and fellow Newman scholar, Father Dermot Fenlon, latterly of the Oratory in Edgbaston and chaplain of the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Priory in Cobh, Country Cork, was also fond of the poem, as he was of Milton’s greatest sonnet, “On His Blindness.” If the saints in heaven read Christian verse, I hope Father Dermot approves of what I have done.

As far as piety is concerned, good Christian poems can be very pious – Crashaw and some of the other devotional poets of the seventeenth century clearly show this – but what I meant to say simply is that I did not want to showcase only devotional poems, which would have misrepresented the actual richness of Christian verse in English.

What makes a good Christian poem good? I would say, beyond technical smartness and insight and a respect for mystery, a good Christian poem must have a certain probity, a certain accountability. And a certain element of surprise. The eighteenth-century poet and friend of Jonathan Swift, John Gay nicely exemplifies this in a short poem that I include from “Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London.” Gay is hardly a Christian poet in the sense in which we refer to Swift and Samuel Johnson as Christian poets but he was a Christian poet nevertheless — indeed, one might almost say a Christian poet despite himself, and the verses from him included in the book show why.

Contemplate, mortal! On thy fleeting years;
See with black train, the funeral pomp appears!
Whether some heir attends in sable state,
And mourns with outward grief a parent’s fate,
Or the fair virgin, nipp’d in beauty’s bloom,
A crowd of lovers follows to her tomb;
Why is the hearse with ‘scutcheons blazon’d round,
And with the nodding plume of ostrich crown’d?
No; the dead know it not, nor profit gain;
It only serves to prove the living vain.
How short is life! how frail is human trust! –
Is all this pomp for laying dust to dust? …

Another hallmark of good Christian poetry is its innovativeness. One can see that in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. They were masters of the art of poetry, but they were also innovative masters. They made it new, as Ezra Pound urged. And I would say that Christian poets have a knack for proper innovation simply because their faith enables them to see the world anew by seeing it through the concreteness and wonder of God’s Love.

Yet another staple of good Christian poetry is its simplicity. The best Christian poets do not call attention to themselves but to their Lord and Saviour. In this they follow Ben Jonson, who always addresses his Maker with a conscientious humility. “Good and great God, can I not think of you/But it must straight my melancholy be?” A lovely little poem by Charles Causley (1917-2003) entitled “Mary’s Song” is another good example of this simplicity, recalling as it does the unadorned Marian hymns of the 13th and 14th centuries that begin the collection.

Sleep, King Jesus,
Your royal bed
Is made of hay
In a cattle-shed.
Sleep, King Jesus,
Do not fear,
Joseph is watching
And waiting near.

Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!
Sleep, King Jesus:

Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where the stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world
May enter in.

CWR: Who are some poets included in this collection that might not be well-known by many readers? Do you have some favorite poets or poems?

Edward Short: American readers may not be familiar with some of the good English poets included in the collection, including Anne Ridler (who was T.S. Eliot’s private secretary for a spell and the wife of the printer for Oxford University Press for many years, Vivian Ridler), Ruth Pitter, Charles Causley and Elizabeth Jennings, all of whom are superlative Christian poets. Then, again, readers may know Walter de la Mare but not as a Christian poet.

As for myself, I made a few discoveries, too. I discovered how unsuspectedly good Sir John Beaumont and Francis Quarles are – both poets from the great age of Christian poetry in the 17th century whom I thought I knew. Quarles’ “How to Pray” is particularly amusing. I also discovered – what I had never realized before – how much attention Thomas Hardy paid to the Christian faith in his work. Indeed, I wrote a long essay on Hardy’s verse in my forthcoming What the Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews to drive home the point. Hardy might have been a rationalist in the approved Victorian fashion but he was also a lapsed Christian and his verses attest over and over again to how this lapse troubled him.

Kipling was another poet who was scarcely Christian in any conventional sense but who wrote brilliant Christian verse. The high-toned old Evangelical lady – a world-class sadist — who looked after him in England when he was separated from his parents in India for his schooling made sure that he was steeped in scripture. One of the poems by him that I include is one of his last poems, entitled “The Storm Cone,” which he wrote apropos the gathering threat of Nazi Germany in the 1930s but which can be read in Christian terms as a poem about the peril of evil in all ages, the certainty of that peril and our abiding need to be prepared to meet it. Its opening stanzas will give readers a sense of how riveting the poem is:

This is the midnight—let no star
Delude us—dawn is very far.
This is the tempest long foretold—
Slow to make head but sure to hold.

Stand by! The lull ’twixt blast and blast
Signals the storm is near, not past;
And worse than present jeopardy
May our forlorn to-morrow be.

Whenever Kipling commences prophetic, as he does here, he is brilliant, and this is one of his very best pieces in that line. There is an essay on Kipling and his Christian work in my forthcoming What the Bells Sang. Were I teaching the young poetry, I would give them lots of Kipling: he is delightful when read aloud; he is an enthralling storyteller; and he is a genuine artist. And since he tended to be an outsider wherever he found himself, he sees things with a kind of fascinated detachment. Indeed, T.S. Eliot, in the introduction to his excellent A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1941), speaks of this detachment as “a universal foreignness which is the reverse side of [Kipling’s] strong feeling for India, for the Empire, for England, and for Sussex, a remoteness as of an alarmingly intelligent visitor from another planet” – a visitor, that is to say, not unlike the transplanted American in Eliot himself, who could both delight in and apprehend his adopted England with an uncanny acuity.

The poets to whom I give center stage in the book are Southwell, the 17th-century devotional poets, Smart, Cowper, Crabbe, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Eliot, Anne Ridler, Elizabeth Jennings and Dana Gioia. These, it seems to me, carry on the tradition of Christian poetry most ably, though there are many good poets who play vital supporting roles in the tradition. It is always easy to make invidious comparisons but they do not always accurately reflect the real dynamics of any living tradition. Those in supporting can sometimes rival those in leading roles. Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, whose sinewy versifications of the psalms are amply featured in the book, paved the way for Herbert and Donne.

So lean my woes me leave
That to my flesh my bones do cleave;
And so I bray and howl,
As use to howl and bray
The lonely pelican and desert owl
Like whom I languish long the day.

My favorite poets in the collection? I should say Southwell, Shakespeare, Herbert, Jonson, Hopkins, Hardy, Kipling and Eliot, though I designed the book more to showcase poems than poets. Henry Farley (fl. 1621), for instance, is hardly a name to conjure with, but the one poem I include of his, “The Bounty of the Age,” shows that ours is not the first age of unbelief:

To see a strange outlandish fowl,
A quaint baboon, an ape, an owl,|
A dancing bear, a giant’s bone,
A foolish engine move alone,
A morris dance, a puppet play,
Mad Tom sing in roundelay,
A woman dancing on a rope,
Bull baiting also at the Hope,
A rhymer’s jests, a juggler’s cheats,
A tumbler showing cunning feats,
Or players acting on the stage:
There goes the bounty of our age;
But unto any pious motion
There’s little coin and less devotion

And here, to conclude, is one of the loveliest poems in the book, “October Maples, Portland” by Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), which epitomizes a good deal of what is special about Christian poetry by making us see the world, as it is meant to be seen, sub specie aeternitatis – seen and celebrated. It is also a good counterpoint to Belloc’s “Discovery.” The fallen world, in other words, is not inveterately an unlovely world.

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost
Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,
They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.
Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street.

It is light of maples, and will go;
But not before it washes eye and brain
With such a tincture, such a sanguine glow
As cannot fail to leave a lasting stain.

So Mary’s laundered mantle (in the tale
Which, like all pretty tales, may still be true),
Spread on the rosemary-bush, so drenched the pale
Slight blooms in its irradiated hue,

They could not choose but to return in blue.

Since I chose for the book’s cover the mother and child by Ghirlandaio that hangs in Mellon’s National Gallery in Washington, this evocation of Mary’s blue mantle nicely echoes the great colorist’s resplendent painting. Here, I must thank the talented designer Eric Neuner for working with me so painstakingly on the cover. Even those friends of mine who will never get round to reading the poems in the book love the cover.

CWR: Further thoughts for our readers?

Edward Short: If school educators wish to purchase the book at a discount in bulk for their students, they should do so by contacting me and I shall put them in touch with the publisher, Gracewing. My email is edwardmshort@gmail.com. Alternatively, readers can buy the book from the usual online sellers: Waterstones and Blackwell’s in England and the Commonwealth and from Barnes & Noble in America and Canada.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.
About Edward Short 34 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. Recently, he chose and introduced the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, which includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists and historians, will be published by Gracewing this spring. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. “What makes a good Christian poem good?

    One that reflects the guiding light of the Holy Spirit as in

    ’All glory to the Father be,
    With his coequal Son;
    The same to thee, great Paraclete,
    While endless ages run’

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. A Christian poem is well explored by Edward Short. A favorite sample is the first stanza of The Living Flame of Love by St John of the Cross:

    O Living Flame of Love
    That wounded tenderly
    My soul in its inmost depth!
    As thou art no longer grievous,
    Perfect the work, if it be thy will,
    Break the web of this sweet encounter.

    • Short’s criteria of probity, accountability, and surprise may be elicited from these Stanzas. Although, if I may add, it would seem these spiritual renderings by John of the Cross convey as a form of knowing the mystery of divine love within the mystery itself. Accountability of his intent.

  3. Third Stanza

    O lamps of fire,
    In the splendours of which
    The deep caverns of sense,
    Dim and dark,
    With unwonted brightness
    Give light and warmth together to their beloved

  4. O worship the king, all glorious above;
    O gratefully sing his power and his love;
    Our shield and defender, the ancient of days;
    Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

    O tell of his might, O sing of his grace;
    Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
    His chariot of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form,
    And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

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

    Thy beautiful care what tongue can recite?
    It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
    It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
    And sweetly distils in the dew and the rain.

    Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
    In thee do we trust, nor find thee to fail;
    Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
    Our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

    O measureless might, ineffable love,
    While angels delight to hymn thee above,
    Thy humbler creation, though feeble their lays
    With true adoration shall sing to thy praise.

    (Liturgy of the hours, Wednesday evening 8-31-22)

  5. “In scripture, verse is the idiom for the revelation of mystery”, (Edward Short Citing Dana Gioia’s argument for Christian art). Frequently, staid Catholics are critical of poetry as that idiom, as well as Tolkien’s mythology [also called high fantasy] as pagan.
    Then we have Gregorian chant. Most agree chant, the music itself inspires a sensibility of the divinity, as well as poetic verse in chant, and the pure poetry of St John of the Cross a fine example. Kevin Walter and Edith Wohldmann give examples from the liturgy.

    • Why do people love?
      Why do people hate?
      Why does science postulate,
      to have faith is to negate,
      all reason and all knowledge?
      Is there nothing left to say,
      of what is not understood today
      in the empirical way?

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  1. What makes a good Christian poem good? | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. What makes a good Christian poem good? – Catholic World Report - WORLD CATHOLIC NEWS
  3. MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  4. What makes a good Christian poem good? – Catholic World Report – Catholic World Report – Health & Wellness

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