The HyperTexts

Best Christian Poetry
Best Religious Poetry
Best Spiritual Poetry
Best Heretical Poetry

Who were the best Christian poets of all time? Which are the best poems ever written about Christianity? Who are the best religious and spiritual poets, regardless of faith? Who were the best heretical poets? (My favorite heretic is the Archpoet, a medieval Latin "rogue scholar" who boldly and baldly lampooned the Moral Majority of his day.) I will attempt to answer these and similar questions. Because religious/spiritual poetry written in English has been primarily Christian, most of the poems here will reflect Christian sentiments or sentiments about Christianity. But many of these poems do not adhere to orthodox Christian dogma. In fact, I believe they will lead us to an "overwhelming question," to borrow a memorable phrase from T. S. Eliot ...

Top Ten Christian Poets: (10) Henry Vaughan, (9) George Herbert, (8) T. S. Eliot, (7) John Donne, (6) Gerard Manley Hopkins, (5) Christina Rossetti, (4) Emily Dickinson, (3) William Blake, (2) John Milton, (1) Dante
Top Ten Spiritual Poets: (10) King David, (9) King Solomon, (8) John Donne, (7) St. John of the Cross, (6) Gerard Manley Hopkins, (5) Emily Dickinson, (4) Rumi, (3) Hafiz, (2) Walt Whitman, (1) William Blake
Top Ten Heretical Poets: (10) King Solomon, (9) The Archpoet, (8) e. e. cummings, (7) Robert Frost, (6) Robert Burns, (5) Lord Byron, (4) Percy Bysshe Shelley, (3) A. E. Housman, (2) William Blake, (1) Walt Whitman
Top Ten Reformers: (10) Hebrew prophets, (9) Saint Paul, (8) John Lennon, (7) Bob Dylan, (6) John Milton, (5) Robert Burns, (4) Wilfred Owen, (3) Langston Hughes, (2) Walt Whitman, (1) William Blake

Honorable Mention: St. Francis of Assisi, Emily Bronte, G. K. Chesterton, William Cowper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Thomas Merton, Michelangelo, St. Teresa of Avila, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley

compiled by Michael R. Burch

William Blake was perhaps the most spiritual of English poets: he was a mystic who claimed to be able to see and converse with angels and saints. Blake, the greatest prophet and reformer among England's poets, enjoined his readers to enter the "mental fight" against the "Satanic mills" of what Dwight D. Eisenhower would later call the "military/industrial complex." Blake was also light years ahead of his time on matters such as racism, abolishing slavery, free love, and establishing the human rights and equality of women and children. But as we will see, there was something highly unusual about his faith ...

by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Mary Elizabeth Frye may be the most mysterious poet who appears on this page, and perhaps in the annals of poetry. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I will present her poem first, then provide the details ... but please take note of the repetition of "I am" in her poem ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

This consoling elegy had a very mysterious genesis, as it was written by a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age three. Mary Elizabeth Frye had never written poetry before, or at least nothing of note. She wrote this one on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag, in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave. When the poem was named Britain's most popular in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000 call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase. Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.

Walt Whitman was America's most spiritual and most prophetic poet. Like William Blake, Whitman was a mystic. But there was something unusual about Whitman's faith ...

Excerpt from "Song of Myself"
by Walt Whitman

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess if is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

A. E. Housman wrote some of the most powerful poems about religion in the English language, but there was also something unusual about his faith ...

XLVII—For My Funeral
by A. E. Housman

O thou that from thy mansion
Through time and place to roam,
Dost send abroad thy children,
And then dost call them home,

That men and tribes and nations
And all thy hand hath made
May shelter them from sunshine
In thine eternal shade:

We now to peace and darkness
And earth and thee restore
Thy creature that thou madest
And wilt cast forth no more.

Tom Merrill is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and this is a wonderfully touching, moving prayer-poem, but he is like Housman in an important regard ...

Come Lord and Lift
by Tom Merrill

Come Lord, and lift the fallen bird
   Abandoned on the ground;
The soul bereft and longing so
   To have the lost be found.

The heart that cries—let it but hear
   Its sweet love answering,
Or out of ether one faint note
   Of living comfort wring.

Robert Frost may have been the last major American poet, and there is something unusual about his faith ...

Forgive, O Lord
by Robert Frost

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.

Hopefully God, if he/she exists, has a sense of humor. Merrill is even more skeptical ...

In God We Trust
by Tom Merrill

Absolve yourselves, believe them saved,
Whom hungrily you brought to fare
As chance decrees, and leave to them
The fortune to which you rose heir.
Now theirs shall be the kingdom too,
This one and that, and all they hold,
All marvels present, and as well
Fresh wonders when the flesh turns cold.

All you who by blind pulse renew
The primal blessing cast in heat,
And to a season's course entrust
Frail issue weather can defeat,
Who from flung seed grew anxious too—
Deny earth feeds on them and you.

The unusual thing about the poets quoted so far is that none of them were orthodox Christians. Blake was a mystic who denied the need to be "saved" by Christ, and Blake called the biblical god "Nobodaddy" because no one would want him for a father. Whitman also denied the need to be saved by Christ. Housman was an atheist, as is Merrill. Frost was a skeptic. Myself? I am an agnostic. Some of my poems are on religious/spiritual/Christian themes, but I don't subscribe to the idea that salvation by selective grace is a good thing. Here's one of my poems ...

What Would Santa Claus Say
by Michael R. Burch

What would Santa Claus say,
I wonder,
about Jesus returning
to Kill and Plunder?

For he’ll likely return
on Christmas Day
to blow the bad
little boys away!

When He flashes like lightning
across the skies
and many a homosexual

when the harlots and heretics
are ripped asunder,
what will the Easter Bunny think,
I wonder?

Out of the mouths of babes, perhaps ... I sometimes write poems from the vantage point of a child questioning the prime tenets of Christian faith. Here's a poem by a contemporary poet who raises valid questions about the abuse of children by religious fanatics who preach the "good news" that innocent children have been condemned to an "eternal hell" for the "sin" of having been born human ...

The Missionary's Position
by Joseph S. Salemi

I maintain it all was for the best
We hacked our way through jungle and sought out
These savage children, painted and half-dressed,
To set their minds at ease, and dispel doubt.

Concerning what? Why, God's immense design,
And how it governs all we do and see.
Before, they had no sense of the divine
Beyond the sticks and bones of sorcery.

Granted, they are more somber and subdued,
Knowing that lives are watched, and judged, and weighed.
Subject to fits of melancholy mood,
They look upon the cross, and are afraid.

What would you have me say? We preached the Word
Better endured in grief than left unheard.

No wonder Merrill questions the tawdry business of "salvation" ...

A Brief Alarm
by Tom Merrill

Like everything, this too will soon be lost,
Forever out of sight and out of mind,
A brief alarm resorbed into the sum
Of passing things that leave no trace behind.
For its duration, it would summon all
To a restraint heroic—to be brave
Beyond all generations gone before,
And make a sacrifice more sure to save:

To starve the ground, and lay no further feast
For bloated Earth's unflagging appetite,
But be content to plow redemptively
A barren field in which no seed seeks light
And make your plots the last wherein to toss
A harvest raised for neverending loss.

Here's a poem of mine in which I question the "wisdom" of "God Almighty" ...

Willy Nilly
by Michael R. Burch

for the Demiurge, aka Jehovah

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
Oh, really!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Here's a poem of mine that was influenced by e. e. cummings, perhaps most importantly in its questioning of "popular wisdom" ...

gimME that ol’ time religion!
by michael r. burch

fiddle-dee-dum, fiddle-dee-dee,
jesus loves and understands ME!
safe in his grace, I’LL damn them to hell—
the strumpet, the harlot, the wild jezebel,
the alky, the druggie, all queers short and tall!
let them drink ashes and wormwood and gall,
’cause fiddle-dee-DUMB, fiddle-dee-WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeee ...
jesus loves and understands

In this poem "US" means both the United States and "us" the people of the world, wherever we live. The name "jesus" is uncapitalized while "Room" is capitalized because it seems evangelical Christians are more concerned about land and not sharing it with the less fortunate, than the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also, Jesus and his parents were refugees for whom there was "no Room" to be found. What would Jesus think of Christian scorn for the less fortunate, one wonders? What would he think of people adopting his name for their religion, then voting for someone like Trump, as four out of five evangelical Christians did, according to exit polls?

who, US?
by Michael R. Burch

jesus was born
a palestinian child
where there’s no Room
for the meek and the mild

... and in bethlehem still
to this day, lambs are born
to cries of “no Room!”
and Puritanical scorn ...

under Herod, Trump, Bibi
their fates are the same —
the slouching Beast mauls them
and WE have no shame ...

“who’s to blame?”

Is it any wonder that poets are increasingly skeptical? ...

Is there any reward?

by Hillaire Belloc

Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.
I am broken and bored,
Is there any reward
Reassure me, Good Lord,
And inform me about it.
Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.

Other religious/spiritual poets of note include Maya Angelou, W. H. Auden, Anne Bradstreet, Wendell Berry, John Berryman, Bono, Robert Bridges, John Bunyan, Frank Chappell, Seamus Cassidy, Geoffrey Chaucer, Eleanor Farjeon, Mary Elizabeth Frye, Khalil Gibran, Dana Gioia, George Harrison, Geoffrey Hill, Jane Hirschfield, Mark Jarman, Elizabeth Jennings, Judy "Joy" Jones, X. J. Kennedy, William Langland, Philip Larkin, W. S. Merwin, Vassar Miller, Czesław Miłosz, Pablo Neruda, John Henry Newman, the Pearl poet, Edgar Alan Poe, Francis Quarles, Sir Walter Raleigh, Kevin N. Roberts, Joe M. Ruggier, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Edith Sitwell, Christopher Smart, William Stafford, Snorri Sturluson, Robert Southwell, Allen Tate, R .S. Thomas, Thomas Traherne, Torquato Tasso, Dylan Thomas, R. S. Thomas, J. R. R. Tolkien, Phyllis Wheatley, John Greenleaf Whittier, Christian Wiman, Richard Wilbur, Oscar Wilde, Rowan Williams, and the author of the Gospel of Mark

Robert Frost wrote perhaps the greatest poem about religion by an American poet. His poem "Directive" is a bit long for my purposes here, but it appears in full further down on this page.

Excerpts from "Directive"

by Robert Frost

And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Christina Rossetti was a devout Christian, but there was something unusual about her faith ...


by Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
    Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
    From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
    A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
    You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the great devotional poets, but there was also something unusual about his faith ...

The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
  dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Here's a poem in which e. e. cummings, one of the most spiritual of American poets, questions the "comfortable minds" of Christians ...

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
by e. e. cummings

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

I find it interesting that none of the poets so far seem to have been orthodox Christians. William Blake detested the black-robed priests of orthodox Christianity who nailed a "Thou shalt not" sign above his garden of earthly sexual delights. Blake did not believe in the "atonement" and saw God only in the divinity of man. For Blake, as with the mystics of many religions, the divinity of God and the divinity of man were the same thing. Like the Gnostics, Blake saw the God of the Old Testament as being the Devil and called him "Nobodaddy."

Whitman was also a mystic, not an orthodox Christian. He saw God in all human beings (including criminals and prostitutes) and all life, even blades of grass. He did not believe in the "atonement" and was the first major Western poet to write openly on homosexual themes.

While at first glance Gerard Manley Hopkins might appear to be an orthodox Christian, his best poems were about nature, not the "atonement," and he said himself that he was the near-twin of the notorious heretic and homosexual Whitman.

Christina Rossetti, like many of the other poets on this page, seems to have been a universalist. When she wrote, "Will there be beds for me and all who seek? / Yea, beds for all who come," she seems to have invoked the belief of universalists: that all human beings will be saved. But then faith in Jesus Christ cannot be a requirement for salvation. Many of the best Christian/devotional/spiritual poets have been reputed to be universalists, including Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Burns, Matthew Arnold, Alexander Pope, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walter Savage Landor, among others.

In fact, it's hard to find an orthodox Christian among the best spiritual/religious poets, as the poems following on this page will attest. Even the two greatest Christian poets of all time gave scant attention to the "atonement" ...

Excerpt from "Paradise Lost"
by John Milton

And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

John Milton gave the "atonement" a single embarrassed enjambed line in his great epic, "Paradise Lost." After promising to "justify the way of God to men," Milton made Adam, Eve and Satan romantic heroes for the ages, while relegating Jesus Christ a minor role. William Blake said that Milton was of the "Devil's party," which he meant as a compliment, since Blake believed rebellion against the status quo was necessary for man to achieve full divinity.

Excerpt from "Paradiso"
by Dante

Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame.

Dante, seemingly the most Christian of poets, was saved in his poems not by Jesus, but by Beatrice and Virgil (a pagan poet).

Buffalo Bill's defunct
by e. e. cummings

Buffalo Bill's
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
        and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
        he was a handsome man
                             and what i want to know is
        how do you like your blueeyed boy
        Mister Death

John Lennon's "Imagine" is one of the best-known and best-loved anti-religion lyrics ...

by John Lennon

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today ...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace ...

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world ...

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the best-known American poets of all time, and perhaps the last major American poet to be acclaimed by literary critics and the reading public.  Frost stands with Mark Twain as one of the foremost American critics of orthodox Christianity, as attested by poems of his like "A Question" and "Forgive O Lord." "Directive" (below) is an under-known and under-appreciated poem today, but one well worth reading and considering, as Frost illustrates the darkness of a religion that insists the "chosen few" are predestined for "eternal glory" while (as Saint Mark said), other people are deliberately led astray by God to their eternal doom. "Directive" with its guide who "only has at heart your getting lost" and its sign "CLOSED to all but me" becomes a chilling, deeply disturbing poem when we see its effect on the children of whom Frost says, "Weep for what little things could make them glad."


by Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Here's another of my favorite poems on the subject. At we can see, poets are tackling the problems with Christian theology head-on ...

The Worms' Contempt
by W. H. Davies

What do we earn for all our gentle grace?
A body stiff and cold from foot to face.

If you have beauty, what is beauty worth?
A mask to hide it, made of common earth.

What do we get for all our song and prattle?
A gasp for longer breath, and then a rattle.

What do we earn for dreams, and our high teaching?
The worms' contempt, that have no time for preaching.

Some poets more or less abandoned God for nature. None of the great Romantic poets were orthodox Christians. William Wordsworth seemed to adhere to a nature-based religion in which the "natural piety" of childhood was man's salvation ...

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold
by William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Wordsworth seemed to prefer paganism to the tedious, dubious "joys" of modernism and orthodoxy ...

The World Is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Some of the most famous Christian hymns were written by poets. Robert Bridges, an English poet laureate, wrote the English lyrics to the Bach composition "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Sir Walter Scott wrote the original English lyric that became famous as "Ave Maria" when Schubert set a German translation to music. The American poet Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The literary critic George Saintsbury deemed "Rock of Ages" a "great poem." It was written by a published poet with the unusual name Augustus Montague Toplady. William Cowper, one of the leading poets of his day, collaborated with John Newton on a number of hymns; one of those hymns, "Amazing Grace," has become the most popular Christian hymn. Christina Rossetti was one of the foremost female English poets of all time, if not the foremost; she wrote hymns and four books of devotions. The poet Christopher Smart published four books of hymns, including one of the first collections of hymns for children. Charles Wesley, perhaps the most famous and prolific hymnist, was a poet and the son of a poet. He wrote what he called "sacred poems" along with nursery rhymes, light verse, satires, elegies and political, occasional and personal verses. William Blake's poem "Jerusalem" (of "Chariots of Fire" fame) was set to music and became a popular hymn; in fact, it's one my mother knows by heart. When she couldn't find "Jerusalem" in her church's hymnal, she wrote it in by hand on a blank page! A. E Housman wrote a different kind of hymn. Although he was an atheist, at least he didn't accuse Jesus Christ of conspiring to send billions of human beings to an "eternal hell" for not believing in his person ... 

I—Easter Hymn
by A. E. Housman

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Here's Blake again, railing against the prudishness of the black-robed priests of orthodoxy ...

The Garden Of Love

by William Blake

I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping, weeping.

Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

One of my favorite writers on the subject penned his poems in medieval Latin, on the cusp of the first Inquisition ...

His Confession
by the Archpoet

circa 1165; translated from the original Medieval Latin
by Helen Waddell

Seething over inwardly
With fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
For the winds to scatter.

Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.

Hither, thither, masterless
Ship upon the sea,
Wandering through the ways of air,
Go the birds like me.
Bound am I by ne'er a bond,
Prisoner to no key,
Questing go I for my kind,
Find depravity.

Never yet could I endure
Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
Did she make her dwelling.

Down the broad way do I go,
Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
Better save the skin.

Pardon, pray you, good my lord,
Master of discretion,
But this death I die is sweet,
Most delicious poison.
Wounded to the quick am I
By a young girl's beauty:
She's beyond my touching? Well,
Can't the mind do duty?

Hard beyond all hardness, this
Mastering of Nature:
Who shall say his heart is clean,
Near so fair a creature?
Young are we, so hard a law,
How should we obey it?
And our bodies, they are young,
Shall they have no say in’t?

Sit you down amid the fire,
Will the fire not burn you?
To Pavia come, will you
Just as chaste return you?
Pavia, where Beauty draws
Youth with finger-tips,
Youth entangled in her eyes,
Ravished with her lips.

Let you bring Hippolytus,
In Pavia dine him,
Never more Hippolytus
Will the morning find him.
In Pavia not a road
But leads to venery
Nor among its crowding towers
One to chastity.

Yet a second charge they bring:
I'm forever gaming.
Yea, the dice hath many a time
Stripped me to my shaming.
What an' if the body's cold,
If the mind is burning,
On the anvil hammering,
Rhymes and verses turning?

Look again upon your list.
Is the tavern on it?
Yea, and never have I scorned,
Never shall I scorn it,
Till the holy angels come,
And my eyes discern them,
Singing for the dying soul,
Requiem aeternam.

For on this my heart is set:
When the hour is nigh me,
Let me in the tavern die,
With a tankard by me,
While the angels looking down
Joyously sing o'er me,
Deus sit propitius
Huic potatori.

'Tis the fire that's in the cup
Kindles the soul's torches,
‘Tis the heart that drenched in wine
Flies to heaven's porches.
Sweeter tastes the wine to me
In a tavern tankard
That the watered stuff my Lord
Bishop has decanted.

Let them fast and water drink,
All the poets' chorus,
Fly the market and the crowd
Racketing uproarious.
Sit in quiet spots and think,
Shun the tavern's portal
Write, and never having lived,
Die to be immortal.

Never hath the spirit of
Poetry descended,
Till with food and drink my lean
Belly was distended,
But when Bacchus lords it in
My cerebral story,
Comes Apollo with a rush,
Fills me with his glory.

Unto every man his gift.
Mine was not for fasting.
Never could I find a rhyme
With my stomach wasting.
As the wine is, so the verse:
'Tis a better chorus
When the landlord hath a good
Vintage set before us.

Good my lord, the case is heard,
I myself betray me,
And affirm myself to be
All my fellows say me.
See, they in thy presence are:
Let whoe’er hath known
His own heart and found it clean,
Cast at me the stone.

Of course it was Jesus Christ himself who instructed men not to cast the first stone. Christian homophobes seem intent not to take him at his word. Sometimes even the most devout of devotional poets seem to find little solace in religion ...


by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
  Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
  Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
  Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
  That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

Other poets seem to have adopted a religion based on human love, in which God plays little or no role ...

The Broken Tower
by Hart Crane

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day — to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals ... And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping —
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain! ...

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope — cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) — or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure ...

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) — but slip
Of pebbles, — visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower ...
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Leonard Cohen merges biblical themes (David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah) with the gospel of human love (sexuality) ...

by Leonard Cohen

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Well, baby I've been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya

I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Our love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to ya?

There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Other poets seem to say or intimate that human beings and/or nature are divine, as in this poem by William Wordsworth to his beloved sister ...

It Is A Beauteous Evening, Calm And Free
by William Wordsworth

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

But other poets are more skeptical about human nature. Percy Bysshe Shelley, another of the great Romantic poets, was an atheist ...

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sometimes faith and worldliness combine in the same poet. John Donne wrote some of the most famous sermons and devotional poems of all time. But he was also a ladies' man and a sensualist ...


by John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not; I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

It's interesting (at least to me) that even among the best-known devotional poets, the most famous poems are seldom about Jesus, the atonement, etc. Here's a wonderful example:

The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
  dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Here's a poem in which I cast doubt on the idea that heterosexuals will be "saved by grace" while homosexuals go to an "eternal hell" ...

I’ve got Jesus’s face on a wallet insert
by Michael R. Burch

for the Religious Right

I’ve got Jesus’s face on a wallet insert
and "Hell is for Queers" on the back of my shirt.
     And I uphold the Law,
     for Grace has a Flaw:
the Church must have someone to drag through the dirt.

I’ve got ten thousand reasons why Hell must exist,
and you’re at the top of my fast-swelling list!
     You’re nothing like me,
     so God must agree
and slam down the Hammer with His Loving Fist!

For what are the chances that God has a plan
to save everyone: even Boy George and Wham!?
     Eternal fell torture
     in Hell’s pressure scorcher
will separate homo from Man.

I’m glad I’m redeemed, ecstatic you’re not.
Did Christ die for sinners? Perish the thought!
     The "good news" is this:
     soon my Vengeance is His!,
for you’re not the lost sheep He sought.

This is a poem I wrote for Tom Merrill, who is really in trouble according to conservative Christians, since he's an atheist and gay ...
Lean Harvests
by Michael R. Burch

for T.M.

the trees are shedding their leaves again:
another summer is over.
the Christians are praising their Maker again,
but not the disconsolate plover:
   i hear him berate
   the fate
   of his mate;
he claims God is no body’s lover.
Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest anti-war poet in the history of the English language, spoke strongly against the horrors of armaments and war and seemed to subscribe to a Greek rather than Christian view of the afterlife ...

The Unreturning
by Wilfred Owen

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled,
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

Even poets who rarely if ever wrote on religious themes seem to have been influenced by the Bible. A case in point is this allusion to the fig leaves of Adam and Eve ...

First Fig
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

Emily Dickinson was another poet who often wrote on religious themes without succumbing to orthodoxy. It's hard to say exactly what she believed. The best poets are seldom icons of religious certitude ...

Hope Is A Thing With Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings a tune without words
And never stops at all.

And sweetest, in the gale, is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That keeps so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet, never, in extremity
It ask a crumb of me.

Poets like Thomas Hardy seem capable of only a tenuous hope, at best ...

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
     When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
     The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
     Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
     Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
     The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
     The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
     Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
     Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
     The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
     Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
     In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
     Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
     Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
     Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
     His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
     And I was unaware.

Other poets, Walt Whitman for example, can seem more hopeful ...

Beginning My Studies

by Walt Whitman

Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

But for some poets it seems the "sea of faith" has dried up more or less completely ...

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Ernest Dowson is one of my favorite unknown or under-known poets ...

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchohare longam
by Ernest Dowson

"The brevity of life forbids us to entertain hopes of long duration" —Horace

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Unlike the priests, parsons and preachers of religious orthodoxy, the best poets seem to prefer brutal honesty to glossing over the facts ...

A Last Word
by Ernest Dowson

Let us go hence: the night is now at hand;
The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
Laughter or tears, for we have only known
Surpassing vanity: vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.
Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

And poets, like Jesus, often seem to prefer the company of prostitutes to that of Pharisees ...

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae
by Ernest Dowson

"I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cynara"—Horace

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to you, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

But then the wisest man in the Bible was a sensualist and a nonbeliever ...

Song of Solomon
attributed to King Solomon

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes,
and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor wake my love, till he please.

The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.
My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall,
he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance,
let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.

My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved,
and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

The better poets tend to "tell it like it is," especially when suffering and death are concerned. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are the first truly great, truly original American poets. It's interesting that neither one of them seemed to be an orthodox Christian, although they both wrote a good number of highly spiritual poems ...

The Bustle In A House
by Emily Dickinson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.

The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

If death is the end of everything, is there any reason to be sentimental about it? ...

I Shall Not Care
by Sara Teasdale

When I am dead and over me bright April
    Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you shall lean above me broken-hearted,
    I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
    When rain bends down the bough;
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
    Than you are now.

For some poets, Time and Death seem to be the only gods ...

To Daffodils
by Robert Herrick

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
    You haste away so soon.
As yet the early-rising sun
    Hath not attained his noon.
        Stay, stay,
    Until the hasting day
        Has run
    But to the even-song;
And, having prayed together, we
    Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you;
    We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
    As you, or any thing.
        We die.
    As your hours do, and dry
    Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
    Ne'er to be found again.

Even the greatest of all Christian apologists, C. S. Lewis, can make religion seem inadequate in the face of Time, Death and Decay ...

As the Ruin Falls
by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you —
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through;
I want God, you, all friends merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure are the goals I seek;
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin;
I talk of love — a scholar's parrot may talk Greek,
But self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that you now have taught me (but how late!) my lack,
I see the chasm; and everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

Even the most spiritual of poets can make the love and wisdom of God seem inadequate to the task. What sort of "god" allows angels to be crushed? ...

My Sweet, Crushed Angel

by Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky

        You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.

You have waltzed with great style,
        My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God's heart at all.

Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy
                        To hear.

So what if the music has stopped for a while.

                        So what
If the price of admission to the Divine
            Is out of reach tonight.

            So what, my dear,
If you do not have the ante to gamble for Real Love.

            The mind and the body are famous
            For holding the heart ransom,

But Hafiz knows the Beloved's eternal habits.

                        Have patience,

For He will not be able to resist your longing
                        For Long.

You have not danced so badly, my dear,
            Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.

You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
                        O my sweet,
            O my sweet crushed angel.

But even though poets tend to be impractical creatures, they do seem to find reasons to continue living, for the most part, despite the long odds against them ...

by Robert L. Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

Byron, another of the great Romantics, was a poet who seemed to flit between atheism and Calvinism ...

So We'll Go No More A-Roving

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
    And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
    And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
    And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
    And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
    By the light of the moon.

What Shakespeare believed, or didn't believe, no one seems to know ...

Full Fathom Five

by William Shakespeare

Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — ding-dong, bell.

The eternal themes of Time and Death are common to both Western and Eastern poetry ...

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
    And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
    "Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted — "Open then the Door!
    You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
    Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
    But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

And David's Lips are lock't; but in divine
High piping Pehlevi, with "Wine! Wine! Wine!
    Red Wine!" — the Nightingale cries to the Rose
That yellow Cheek of hers t'incarnadine.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.


Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
   One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
   About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:
   And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd —
'I came like Water and like Wind I go.'

But sometimes in the midst of sounding as if there can be no hope, poets seem to contradict themselves ...

by Edward Arlington Robinson

I cannot find my way: there is no star
In all the shrouded heavens anywhere;
And there is not a whisper in the air
Of any living voice but one so far
That I can hear it only as a bar
Of lost, imperial music, played when fair
And angel fingers wove, and unaware,
Dead leaves to garlands where no roses are.

No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night;
For through it all—above, beyond it all—
I know the far sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the light.

These are some heretical poems of mine ...

yet another post-partum christmas blues poem
by michael r. burch

ur GAUD created hell; it’s called the earth;
HE mused u briefly, clods of little worth:
let’s make some little monkeys
to be RELIGION’s flunkeys!

GAUD belched, went back to sleep, such was ur birth.

wee the many
by michael r. burch

wee never really lived: was that our fault?
now thanks to ur GAUD wee lie in an underground vault.
wee lie here, the little ones ur GAUD despised!
HE condemned us to death before wee opened our eyes!
as it was in the days of noah, it still remains:
GAUD kills us with floods he conjures from murderous rains.

In the end, there seems to be no consensus among the poets. Shakespeare's faith remains enigmatic, if not entirely invisible. Shelley, Housman and Merrill are self-avowed atheists. Blake spoke to angels on a daily basis, but despised the black-robed priests of religious orthodoxy who called free love a "sin." Milton purported to justify the ways of God to man, but somehow managed to turn Satan into a hero for the ages. Whitman was a mystic who seemed to find God in himself and all creation, even blades of grass. Many poets seem to believe in Love, but not in god. And so it goes.

Some of the best Christian poets were Universalists. They believed everyone would make it to heaven in the end. Poets who seemed to adhere to some form of Universalism include Donne, Samuel Johnson, George Crabbe, Tennyson, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Burns, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, George McDonald, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lewis Carroll, Matthew Arnold, Victor Hugo and Christina Rossetti ...

I believe we can safely make the statement that, just as none of the best-known American founding fathers were orthodox Christians, so too none of the best-known and most-admired Christian poets were orthodox Christians! If we read King Solomon closely, he was a sensualist, a hedonist and an agnostic. William Shakespeare also appears to have been an agnostic, and a rationalist. John Donne was a sensualist and a hedonist. Saint Paul was a universalist, as were T. S. Eliot,  Tennyson, Conrad Aiken, e. e. cummings, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson, George McDonald, Herman Melville, Pete Seeger and William Carlos Williams. Emily Dickinson was a freethinker. Dante claimed to have been saved by a pagan poet, Virgil, and his lover Beatrice. John Milton gave the "atonement" a single embarrassed enjambed line in his epic poem "Paradise Lost." A. E. Housman was an atheist. Walt Whitman, William Blake, Hafiz and Rumi claimed to be Christs themselves, not to be saved by Jesus Christ. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a tract on the necessity of atheism that got him expelled from college. The Hebrew prophets were universalists who never mentioned any possibility of "hell" or suffering after death. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, in his last and greatest book Till We Have Faces revealed himself as a Gnostic. Charles Baudelaire, Artur Rimbaud and Hart Crane were also Gnostics, as was the author of the Gospel of John. Emerson, Thoreau and Rilke were transcendentalists. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were deists. Robert Frost was a skeptic. John Lennon wrote "Imagine," a song about abandoning religion entirely. Where is there a single orthodox Christian among the great poets?

Other Religious/Spiritual/Christian/Anti-Christian Poems

This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin
Churchgoing by Philip Larkin
Resume by Dorothy Parker
Bathsheba's Song by George Peele

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The HyperTexts