Friday, November 16, 2018

The Soul in Paraphrase


Edited by Leland Ryken and published by Crossway, who kindly sent me a tastefully designed hardback copy to review, The Soul in Paraphrase offers exactly what the subtitle says: “A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems.” This anthology of works by Christian poets “begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and ends with the modern era.”

From Caedmon to T.S. Eliott and Robert Frost with the famous “Anonymous” in between, Leland Ryken not only selected some of the most treasured poems in English from a Christian perspective, but he included his “Notes on selected words” and insightful mystery-solving “Commentary” on each poem.

These features mean even more, coming as they do from a college English professor of almost 50 years and author of over 50 books on literature and/or God’s Word. Over the years, many of those books helped me to develop as a poet, critiquer of poems, and person of faith, so, as you can imagine, I received this review copy with Christmas glee!

To give you an idea of the delight awaiting the serious poet or poetry lover, take a look at the opening verse of “Caedmon’s Hymn” – the oldest poem known to be written in English.

“Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,
The might of the Maker and his wisdom,
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of every wonder,
The eternal Lord, the beginning established.”


After Professor Ryken updated the original poem into the contemporary English version shown, his “Notes on selected words” tell us interesting aspects of the key words or phrases that might otherwise be foreign to our ears. For example:

“Wisdom: ‘mind-plans’ in the original Old English, with the implication of thoughtful purpose and careful planning.”

The “Commentary” then gives us a peek behind the poem by telling us the story of an illiterate farmhand, who regularly wiggled out of his turn to sing as part of the nightly after-dinner routine at the abbey where he lived.

“On one of these occasions, Caedmon went to the barn and fell asleep. In a dream, he heard someone telling him to sing something. Caedmon replied that he did not know how to sing. ‘Sing about creation,’ the visitor replied. Thereupon Caedmon sang the song known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn.’ The new poetic gift never left Caedmon. English poetry thus began with a miracle of the word.”

Professor Ryken then goes on to analyze the whole poem, saying:

“The poem does three things that praise psalms typically do: (1) It begins with a formal call to praise God (the first stanza); (2) it provides a list or catalog of God’s praiseworthy acts; and (3) it rounds off the praise with a note of closure in the last line. This simplicity is played off against two pleasing forms of stylistic formality and artistry,” as found in the poet’s use of “phrases and clauses that name the same phenomena with different words, a technique influenced by the biblical verse form of parallelism. Second, our spirit is elevated by exalted titles for God, a technique known as epithets. For example, the first epithet in the poem is the Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom.”

Throughout this book, Professor Ryken introduces readers to the works of the most skilled Christian poets, who would probably be appalled by the “greeting card verse” too common in “Christian verse” today. Indeed, the “Editor’s Introduction” defines some desirable qualities for devotional poets to consider. This not only includes spiritually-minded content but the poem’s effect on the reader – something I urge Christian poets to think about before publishing poems that go on and on, generally to show off a clever clanging of rhyme without saying anything new. Or, worse, expressing gall over Christianity or “religion” in general with no hope in sight and no concern over the effect this might have by leaving Christians who are struggling with their faith stuck in the mire!

As I read through the poems selected for this collection, I found favorites whose work I, too, highly recommend. Inevitably, their poems give us thoughtful, insightful, well-written works that point to God rather than the poet’s cleverness. I noticed a timely but timeless embrace of nature and the environment, too, as well as skillful ways to praise.

Although the “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliott remains one of my favorite poems ever (and, yes, is included in this book), readers today often exclaim over the work of Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose brilliant and beautiful poetry can be elusive to some and downright deafening to others! What a joy, then, to read Professor’s Ryken’s notes and comments that give us access to poems which may be familiar to us and even loved, yet still perplexing.

And, so, Dr. Ryken has succeeded in presenting us with a book that provides a sweeping view of the best of the best while naming and explaining numerous techniques these classical poets used – techniques that, over many centuries, have become time-proven methods for elevating the literary quality of poetry of faith.

Mary Harwell Sayler,
©2018, poet-writer and poetry reviewer

The Soul in Paraphrase, hardback, Crossway




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