Book Review: the Poetry of Piety, an Annotated Anthology of Christian Poetry by Ben Witherington III
by Peter Menkin 1/20/2009 / Book Reviews
Literary as well as Religious, Poems of Piety
More than religious sentiment or drift, these poems express genuine piety, a sense of God and Christian belief. Titled, "The Poetry of Piety: An Annotated Anthology of Christian Poetry," take the paperback book by what it's worth: a book that "...offers both expert literary and theological analysis of a wide range of Christian poetry..." that is an excellent addition to a personal library. As someone interested in the pious sensibility, and in poetry, I find the work complete though short since the Baker Academic book categorized as literature and the arts encompasses only 28 poets. But that is enough for intellectual depth and illuminating poetry.
Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage have done a fine job of finding work that shows piety. Let's have a starting point for what is pious. This quote on Biblical poetry and its piety from The Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite for computer:
"There is poetry of the first rank, devotional poetry in the Psalms, and erotic poetry in the Song of Songs. Lamentations is a poetic elegy, mourning over fallen Jerusalem. Job is dramatic theological dialogue. The books of the great prophets consist mainly of oral addresses in poetic form." These are illuminated writings inspired by the Holy Ghost and written by holy men. In this sense, the poems selected in "The Poetry of Piety" also reveal a deep attachment, affection and desire for God in the Christian sense by the poets comprising this 172-page book. You may recognize some of the writers.
T.S. Eliot, the modernist, C.S. Lewis, from the 20th Century also, John Updike, and others like John Henry Newman, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, are a few represented in the title. I could go on with more names like Richard Wilbur and Robert Herrick. You as a reader won't be sorry to get to read these poets.
The analysis of the poetry is thoughtful, interesting, and revealing. In George Herbert's poem, "The Collar," the analysis notes, "...he recognizes his petulant and irrational actions, and his tirade is interrupted by a voice uttering the potent monosyllable, `Child!' The uncertainty of `Methoughts I heard one calling' leaves open whether God utters the word or whether the speaker is checked from within. In any case, the admonition and expression of paternal concern lead him to acknowledge his heavenly Father with the last two words of the poem." There is a great deal of thought in these analyses in this book, and the reader has room to reflect. Some poems are like a dialogue with self and self, self and God, as is this poem from the period 16th to 17th century.
Perhaps you have heard of the American poet T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." A pious poem, certainly, and entertaining as well. Even the beginning is strong and engaging in a modern way of sensibility. Right to the point it reads: "'A cold coming we had of it,/Just the worst time of the year/For a journey, and such a long journey...'" Right away the reader is engaged. The section of the analysis of this poem called, "Piety" explains the faith statement of the journey: "As it turned out, the good news of birth was the death knell for all things dark and dangerous, all things sordid and sorry. In short, the birth signaled the death of the old era through which the magi had suffered to get to the manger. The birth left the magi dissatisfied with the old dispensation and longing for its death. Yet the birth also meant hard and bitter agony, for it was difficult for even wise men to let go of `our places,' `these Kingdoms.'"
I find something moving even in the analysis, and certainly in the poems. A reader will find these poems moving, worth reading again, and also rereading the analysis which helps the reader in understanding and appreciating the work. Scholarly, but understandably so, this work is a keeper.
Known for literary distinction, these poems were chosen also for presenting, "sentiments and ideas about Christ and Christian theology." (That from the introduction.) There is a history of the poet, a section on the "literary aspects of the poem," and one which "enlarges the religious significance and relevance of the poem, especially for today's world." One notation by a Publisher Baker Book House says, "...the questions for reflection make this book an excellent devotional or creative small group resource." The book is for someone who wishes to take a concerted look at these poems, someone who has an interest in poetry, or wishes a deeper appreciation of Christianity and piety.
--Peter Menkin, Pentecost 2007
Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.