Scripture and Poetry

David Lyle Jeffrey's valuable book is worth your time.

If you only read one book on poetry this year - or ever, for that matter - let it be David Lyle Jeffrey, Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). 

This is the finest book on poetry in relation to Scripture I have read, or probably ever will read. Dr. Jeffrey’s purpose is to demonstrate “the power of Scripture to fire the poetic imagination”, and he achieves this goal superbly.

From the beginning of English literature, especially poetry, Scripture has been a primary touchstone and resource: “that the Bible has been overwhelmingly influential over much more than name and story; pervasive idiom, locution, meter, and parallelism, aside from more direct borrowings of line and phrase, all bear witness to a biblical foundation. Beyond all this, there is a presence in English annals of a conception of poetry itself in which, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, the poet construes his task as imparting a certain counsel concerning wisdom.” Averring that God is a poet – since so much of Scripture is written in verse – Dr. Jeffrey proceeds to show what he means by this, explaining the powerful influence of Biblical verse on English poets through the ages: “The fact that God speaks poetry when the issues are most weighty suggests that appreciating his poetry might be an essential element in our knowledge of God; that is, we should understand him as a poet—the originary Poet—the One who writes the world.”

His treatments of Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, and Wilbur are the best and most illustrative examples of his thesis. I especially appreciated his exposition of the Catnerbury Tales, as a journey of repentance into the presence of God, and of his comparison of the poetry of Donne and Herbert, friends and contemporaries. He shows the everyday beauty and profundity of Richard Wilbur’s verse in such a way as to encourage us to pay more attention to the glory of God all around us.

The approach of Scripture and the English Poetic Tradition is both historical and poetical. He provides examples from each of the primary eras of English poetry, drawing on examples from other cultures to support and illustrate his argument. His final chapter is an elegant argument for recovering the Biblical basis for English literature, and reasserting the authority of our “Common Book” by recovering this literature and contributing to its tradition. He insists that art – poetry, in this case – is “a handmaiden to faith” and “can give us a glimpse, when referred to its source, of the deep echo in beauty, especially in the beauty of a holy love, of the beauty of holiness, and thus of the love of our heavenly Father.”

He is absolutely correct.

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