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
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
IMAGE ISTOCK/ AGSANDREW