Poetry and the Heart

Are we missing something very important?

The Celtic Revival: Afterglow (11)
Buas i.e. full knowledge of poetic art: because science goes after poetic art...

  - Cormac, Glossary, Irish, 9th century[1]

Keep your heart with all diligence, 
For out of it 
springthe issues of life.

  - Proverbs 4.23

Late in the period of the Celtic revival, Cormac, an abbot and king, was apparently concerned that many of the old Gaelic terms and words, which had been so important in previous generations, were falling into disuse and so might be forgotten. And if the words were forgotten, the meanings they conveyed and the role they played in life might likewise fall into disuse.

Perhaps he was concerned this would blot out the memory of that great period of revival, that was even in his day in its eclipse. For nearly four centuries Celtic Christians had brought revival, renewal, and awakening throughout Ireland, Scotland, and parts of Europe, and, as we have seen, poetry played a large part in that great movement of God’s Spirit.

During the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) Christian leaders employed poetry to aid in the work of making disciples, celebrating the goodness of God in creation, encouraging God’s servants in their work, remembering the achievements of their forebears, bringing identity and unity to their communities, and marking important days in the annual calendar. Poems from that period were carefully crafted in order to make them easy to understand and remember, delightful to sing or recite, and powerful to instruct. Celtic Christians packed their poems with Biblical allusions, theological insights, and an abundance of local color and contemporary concerns. Among the scant literature surviving from this period, much of it is in the form of poetry.

Was poetry falling into disuse in Cormac’s day? Did he, at the very least, hope to remind his contemporaries of something they were about to lose? 

Interesting, this word, buas. It indicates more than merely what its definition suggests. For Celtic people poetry was the highest form of learning, the greatest art, the most important cultural achievement of any tribe or people, yet very little poetry appears during the afterglow of the Celtic Revival. No wonder Cormac was concerned.

Why was poetry so important to these folks? Why did Cormac insist that a knowledge of poetry should precede all other kinds of knowing?

Poetry speaks to the heart, bringing delight, creating wonder, and provoking the imagination. With the heart thus engaged, poetry appeals to the mind. If the poetry is noble, virtuous, elevating, spiritual, and true to God’s Word, it fills the mind with thoughts of eternal verities and glory. 

Science, on the other hand, being primarily a rational endeavor, speaks to the mind apart from the heart. Science is about reason, objectivity, and refusing to allow emotions to clog or corrupt judgment. Science, Cormac understood, tends to come at life head first, whereas poetry does so heart first­– precisely as Solomon, David, the prophets, and Jesus said it should.

The heart is the heart of the matter in the life of faith, as Solomon – writing in poetry – knew very well. A heart neglected and not trained and disciplined to fulfill its proper role in the soul can easily be led astray by false ideas, corrupt values, and base emotions. Celtic Christians understood the importance of disciplining the heart, so that all the affections are properly tuned and focused for dealing with the issues of life in a manner consistent with the heart of God. 

One way to train the heart is to take up the study of poetry, especially the great spiritual poetry of the Celtic and English traditions. In poetry we can expect the saints of old to speak to our hearts, improving our affections and, with them, our thoughts, our priorities, and our lives.

So you’ve never had much time for poetry? Well, there’s no time like the present.

Psalm 49.1-6, 15 (Sagina: And Can It Be, That I Should Gain)
Hear this, you peoples, low and high; give ear as wisdom I proclaim:
My heart with understanding fills to hear and sing my Savior’s fame.
Why should I fear when foes arise, who trust in wealth and boast in lies?
    My God redeems my soul from hell!
    His grace and mercy let me tell!

Lord, You love poetry, and have chosen to use it for our edification. Help me to love it as well, and to…

God loves poetry, and so can you!
Almost half the Bible is written in poetry, so there must be something to this genre that is powerful to communicate eternal truths. The sons of Korah certainly thought so, since their cry to the nations and peoples of the earth in Psalm 49 is cast entirely in verse. We’re happy to provide a number of books of poetry in our bookstore, including Fault LinesComparatioSatan BoundTo Know Him, and The Hidden Life. Purchase any one of these, and we’ll send you a free copy of Bricks and Rungs: Poems on Calling.

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T. M. Moore, Principal
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe PsalterScripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1]O’Donovan, p. 22.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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