After a solid day spent in the open air with hands deep in the dirt, what more could a hermit desire? This one simply craves a comfy armchair, a tall drink of something soothing, and a book of poetry.
Few people have time for poetry today, it seems. Poetry – or good poetry, anyway – needs to be savoured. In an age of instant information and tangent searching, not many want to commit to a set number of words on a page, read slowly, and read again. But I do.
If you’re like me in this way, then you may already have these names among your “shelf friends”. Without further ado, here are my top five:
5. Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Rossetti was one of those Victorian women whom modern “woke” generations find it hard to understand. Because she’s a woman of note from a period when there were few, we tend to want to put her into a modern box. But she doesn’t fit there. Her life was defined by her family and her faith. Her father and brother were poets, so the gift ran in the family. At least two prospective suitors were considered and rejected because they did not see faith-matters as she did. And her mother required companionship, so Rossetti dedicated many years of her life to acting in that capacity.
Rossetti’s poetry is not all what could be called “contemplative.” (“Goblin Market” is a case in point). But the body of her work that is, is quite wonderful. Let Rossetti be as she was: a woman dedicated to faith and to family, a woman with a gift for expressing the profound beautifully.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
– excerpt from “A Better Resurrection”
4. William Cowper (1731-1800)
Cowper, probably best known for his hymns, was a life-long depressive and extremely devout. He is proof that even the faithful are not exempt from deep emotional struggles. Yet sometimes it is those who struggle the most, like Cowper, who have managed to channel their suffering into works of compassion, insight and timeless value.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
– excerpt from the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”
3. George Herbert (1593-1633)
“Holy Mr. Herbert” (as he came to be called) died at the age of 39. He’d had just enough time to marry, become priest to a small country parish, and begin to raise his three orphaned nieces. When he lay dying of TB, he entrusted his poetry to a friend, asking him to determine whether his poems should be burned or published. You can guess what his friend decided.
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
– excerpt from “The Flower”
2. Malcolm Guite (1957- )
Guite is a living poet worth knowing about. He was born in Nigeria to British parents, spent time growing up in Canada, and now holds academic and chaplaincy posts at Cambridge (UK). As a priest and an academic, he brings to his work a contemplative and hopeful tone. His poetry has both depth and beauty.
Stand here a while and drink the silence in.
Where clear glass lets in living light to touch
And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green
Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.
You look across an absent sanctuary;
No walls or roof, just holy, open space,
Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech
God planted here before you first drew breath.
– excerpt from “Hatley-St. George”
1. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
The uncontested winner in my view. Hopkins’ devout faith took him to the Roman Catholic Church during the peak of the Oxford Movement, and he was thereafter ordained as a Jesuit priest. Hopkins’ work was published posthumously, following his death of typhoid. His poetry showcases a love of playing with words, often inventing new words or new ways of using words. His inspirations were overwhelmingly faith and the natural world. It’s impossible not to be charmed and moved by Hopkins. I dare you to try!
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.