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Issue No.117
22 January 2019

Faith in poetry

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Malcolm Guite explores how poetry 'bodies forth' the mysterious and the unseen


WHY MIGHT A PERSON OF FAITH TAKE AN INTEREST IN POETRY? Is there anything that poets can offer when we come to the mysteries of prayer and preaching, to the art of approaching or proclaiming our God?

The first thing to say, in answer to such a question, is that our faith is already formed, nurtured, and expressed in poetry, for the Bible itself is full of poetry. It's not just in the Psalms, or the beautiful Song of Songs, which of course consist entirely of poetry, but even the epistles, where Paul is preaching or expounding the faith, suddenly and sublimely lift into poetry. For scholars suggest that the great set pieces, like the lovely account of God emptying himself and taking the form of a servant in Philippians 2:5-11 or the glorious paean of praise to Christ as "the image of the invisible God" in Colossians 1:15-20, are in fact early hymns, as the prose of the first Christians was transmuted through praise into poetry.

In fact, that phrase in Colossians, "he is the image of the invisible God", tells us why we need poetry, for poetry finds images for the invisible, and Jesus himself, as the Word made Flesh, is God's love poem to humanity.

When Shakespeare describes a poet at work in A Midsummer Night's Dream he says:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.I.12-18)

It's a beautiful picture of poetry, but I think it's something more. Shakespeare's take on the poet's task, his account of making a glimpse of heaven visible on earth, of 'bodying forth' mysteries we might have missed, of giving "a local habitation and a name" to what we might otherwise never see, carries deep biblical echoes. For surely this is just what God, the true maker, the primal poet, does for us in Christ. In Jesus, "the Word made flesh", God "bodies forth" all his heavenly Love and gives to that Love "a local habitation and a name".

Theology may be abstract, but scripture and poetry are concrete, image-laden, visible, and that is the way God comes to us in Jesus. It is also the way Jesus teaches us in the parables: vivid images that suddenly open up to become metaphors that expand and enrich the minds of those who hear. In Jesus we hear the poetry of heaven speaking the poetry of earth.

What better way to open our minds to the riches of our faith than to be immersed in the poetry scripture brings, and the poetry it inspires.