Religious poetry, old, new, mostly in the plain style

The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, chosen and edited by Donald Davie. New York: Oxford University Press. 320 pp. $8.95. Contemporary Religious Poetry, edited with an introduction by Paul Ramsey. New York: Paulist Press. 227 pp. $9.95.

These are happy times for religious poetry. Gone are the magic mushrooms of the '60s. Today, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer's terms, it's not the ``cheap grace'' of sentiment or spiritualism or dogma, but the ``costly grace'' of true discipleship that lures the best poets.

For the poets, of course, it all comes down to style, the ``costly grace'' of the plain style, not the cut-price style that asks no questions and fixes no limits. Two anthologies and especially the recent work of C.H. Sisson show what I mean.

Protestants, for example, sometimes write - and hear - in the plain style of the congregational hymn. Spare, euphonious, compact, universal - it's a central style so omnipresent as to be overlooked by literary critics. Emily Dickinson flourished in that style by challenging it. In his ``New Oxford Book of Christian Verse,'' now available in paper, Donald Davie places Dickinson's poems in the context provided by the hymns by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, treating the latter with as much scrupulous care and evident affection as the former. Reading attentively what one sings in church sometimes without thinking is refreshing and revealing.

In all, Davie covers more than a thousand years, beginning with the Old English ``Dream of the Rood'' and a small sample of Middle English lyrics - enough to whet one's appetite. The great 17th-century poets George Herbert and Henry Vaughn naturally take pride of place (earlier in the book there are five translations from the Psalms by Mary Herbert, George's mother). Davie has included an equal number of poems by Christopher Smart and William Cowper. Thus the stage is set for considering hymns as poems - and to reconsider the modern preference for Donne and Hopkins.

Davie has not only preserved poems physically, but also rediscovered some. As a whole, from the Dark Ages to our own rather dark ages, Davie's book illustrates the particular, and peculiar, virtues of the plain style and the fruitfulness not only of Christian dogma but also of the great branches that grow out of the central trunk, the narrative of Jesus. Davie defends the plain style as that style most appropriate to the highest purposes, to speaking of, and to, God, ``a language stripped of fripperies and seductive indulgences, the most direct and unswerving English'' - the literary equivalent of costly grace. Davie's anthology will be an active ingredient in the general literary culture for a long time to come.

Davie's book seeks to redefine Christian verse. Paul Ramsey's ``Contemporary Religious Poetry'' seeks other ends. It focuses on the present - from 1950 to now. Like Davie (who includes none of his own poetry in his book), Ramsey is a poet (he includes both Davie and himself). Like Davie, he celebrates the plain style - and not only that of the hymns. Ramsey's unfashionable standards are suggested when he says that ``many poems claim to be more than they are,'' and ``the Bible is not mealy-mouthed,'' and ``language can be used to clarify, to strengthen, to understand, not just to speculate and entangle and doubt.''

With honesty and truth to experience as criteria, Ramsey finds ``much good religious poetry being written: sober, comic, exploring, skillful, lucid, various.'' He organizes his pleasing variety of poems in sections with groupings thematic and formal: ``Against the Wind of Time,'' ``By Light and Sorrow,'' and ``Epigrams and Light Verse and Kin.'' Some poems on death and a fine coda of two poems by Richard Wilbur round out the collection.

``Contemporary Religious Poetry'' is a true find. It preserves a number of very short, very good poems, like N.Scott Momaday's ``Walk on the Moon,'' which is only four lines and tends to get lost. It goes like this: ``Extend, there where you venture and come back,/ The edge of Time. Be it your farthest track./ Time in that distance wanes. What is to be,/ That present verb, there in Tranquillity?'' Cosmic questions put to astronauts! Is this a religious poem?

Like the astronauts, Ramsey has extended the edge of experience. He shares some of the greatest poems with Davie - Edwin Muir's ``The Annunciation,'' for example. While there is no Elizabeth Jennings (see Davie), there is H.D. There are two astonishingly powerful poems by Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II.

Good verse is hard to write in the best of times, especially good religious verse. Christian poets must discern the Word, but the Word itself is discerning, and no respecter of persons. C.H. Sisson's poetry (see Davie) illustrates the problem. As he examines his own opacities and obduracies in the light of faith and Christian knowledge, his honesty helps him and, as man and poet, turns him away from modern solipsistic doubt to something more durable. This is from ``The Usk'': ``What I had hoped for, the clear line/ Tremulous like water but/ Clear also to the stones underneath/ Has not come that way, for my truth/ Was not public enough, nor perhaps true./ Holy Father, Almighty God/ Stop me before I speak - per Christum.''

Indeed, the ``discerning Word'' sometimes prefers silence.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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