World Poetry Day: CPX chooses its best

To celebrate World Poetry Day, CPX staff and friends share their favourite spiritual poems.

Augustus William Hare wrote that “Poetry is to philosophy what the Sabbath is to the rest of the week.” While Mr Hare runs the risk of creating an artificial divide between poetry and philosophy (to the potential detriment of both), there is something powerfully restorative about a poem.

This year CPX is marking World Poetry Day by taking a Sabbath from prose and argumentation and instead reveling in the richness of the Christian poetic canon. We asked CPX staff and friends to share their favourite poems of a spiritual bent. For poetry-lovers, we trust you find much here to enjoy. For the poetry-shy, we hope that you find many new friends among these poetic greats.

Simon Smart
CPX Director



Denise Levertov

I once heard someone describe Christian ‘Joy’ as “a defiant nevertheless”—profound hope in the face of life’s all too real and present tragedies, disappointments and sorrows. This poem by Denise Levertov seems to connect with something along those lines and I find it very moving. Many believers describe the Christian journey as experiencing the ‘absence’ of God as much as his presence. And yet, the same people often attest to a deep sense that, even in their darkest moments, God has not let them go.

I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

John Dickson
CPX Director




































Holy Sonnets, no.14
John Donne

I have a soft spot for paradoxes, and in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets he takes these to wonderful heights. In the form of a kind of love song, with erotic overtones, he describes what it is to know God, rather than merely to know about God. In surrendering to absolute power, we find our victory as human beings; in allowing ourselves to be crushed we are made whole; in being ravished by God, he says, we become truly pure.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Christ of the Never
Henry Lawson

In Henry Lawson’s Christ of the Never this reputed agnostic and drunk simultaneously offers a stinging rebuke of the church of his day and a song of praise to the ideal of Jesus. The poem describes the work of Peter McLaughlin, an historical bush preacher of questionable pedigree who wandered the ‘Never Never’ country in the 1800s serving the roughest settlers in the country. For Lawson, McLaughlin is a Christ-figure who puts formal religion to shame. The closing lines are chilling in their criticism and insight: “I place him in front of all churchmen; Who feel not, who know not – but preach.”

With eyes that seem shrunken to pierce
To the awful horizons of land,
Through the haze of hot days, and the fierce
White heat-waves that flow on the sand;
Through the Never Land westward and nor'ward,
Bronzed, bearded and gaunt on the track,
Quiet-voiced and hard-knuckled, rides forward
The Christ of the Outer Outback

For the cause that will ne'er be relinquished
Spite of all the great cynics on earth –
In the ranks of the bush undistinguished
By manner or dress – if by birth –
God's preacher, of churches unheeded,
God's vineyard, though barren the sod,
Plain spokesman where spokesman is needed,
Rough link 'twixt the bushman and God.

He works where the hearts of all nations
Are withered in flame from the sky,
Where the sinners work out their salvations
In a hell-upon-earth ere they die.
In the camp or the lonely hut lying
In a waste that seems out of God's sight,
He's the doctor – the mate of the dying
Through the smothering heat of the night

By his work in the hells of the shearers,
Where the drinking is ghastly and grim,
Where the roughest and worst of his hearers
Have listened bareheaded to him.
By his paths through the parched desolation,
Hot rides and the terrible tramps;
By the hunger, the thirst, the privation
Of his work in the furthermost camps;
By his worth in the light that shall search men
And prove – aye! and justify each –
I place him in front of all churchmen
Who feel not, who know not – but preach

Kobayashi Issa

With more than 20,000 Haiku poems to his credit, Kobayashi Issa is one of Japan’s best-loved literary masters and a devout Buddhist. He lost his mother at a young age, was cruelly treated by his step-mother and lost four of his children and his wife during childbirth. He remained ever-faithful to the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth that the “cessation of suffering comes through the relinquishing of desire”. All hardship is ‘dew’ he believed, an aspiration soon forgotten when one is able to detach from one’s passions. At the death of one of his girls, he penned words revealing the tension he felt between his desire to be a faithful Buddhist and his attachment to his loved ones.

Tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
sari nagara

This world of dew
is only a world of dew – 
and yet, and yet.


Justine Toh
Head of Research at CPX











Hurrahing in Harvest
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ecstatic passion for God and his creation is nowhere on better display than in Hurrahing in Harvest. Hopkins’ irrepressible energy and addictive alliteration makes Hurrahing a lip-smacking pleasure to read aloud, though it’s hard not to froth at the mouth when it comes to the climax—after which I feel dazed, charged, winded and yet all wound up.


Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.


Pied Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins

We live in an age of endless diversity that celebrates “all things counter, original, spare, strange”. While Christianity has often been criticized for imposing uniformity and diminishing difference, Hopkins suggests that the teeming variety of life in all its assorted and irregular forms begs to differ. And so he celebrates all that is “fickle” and “freckled” of God’s creation, proclaiming “glory be to God for dappled things”.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                 Praise him.

Greg Clarke

Chief Executive of The Bible Society





































Bat's Ultrasound
Les Murray

From one of the world's great poets came a most extraordinary collection of Australian poetry which seeks to imagine the God-created world through the eyes, ears and vocal chords of animals. This one explores the world of the bat, and it is worth hearing Murray (an incredible linguist) read it himself at this website:

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing

with fleas, in rock-cleft or building

radar bats are darkness in miniature,

their whole face one tufty crinkled ear 

with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing. 

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror. 

Where they flutter at evening's a queer 

tonal hunting zone above highest C. 

Insect prey at the peak of our hearing 

drone re to their detailing tee: 

ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?

O'er our ur-area (our era aye

ere your raw row) we air our array

err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,

our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Seven Stanzas at Easter
John Updike

Updike is a confrontingly honest novelist, and brings the same frankness to bear on the Easter story here.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall

It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then

regathered out of enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,

not a stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow

grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,

opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are

embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

Dream of the Rood
Author Unknown

One of the first Christian poems, in Old English (which I abandoned after first year at uni!). A wonderful imagining of what it was like to be the cross on which Christ hung. This version has been translated into modern English for reading ease.

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,

which came as a dream in middle-night,

after voice-bearers lay at rest.

It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree

born aloft, wound round by light,


Kate Wilcox
CPX intern














































A Mistake
Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz (which I’m reliably informed is pronounced Chez-wah-ff  Mee-woe-sh) is a Catholic, Polish poet whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. Milosz spent World War II living in Warsaw under Nazi occupation, and much of his poetry is shaped by these early experiences of horror. His poetic output is considerable, and many of them deserve a mention, but A Mistake is a personal favourite.  It is a beautiful reflection on the meaning of life, in light of the certainty of death.

I thought: all this is only preparation
For learning, at last, how to die
Mornings and dusks, in the grass under a maple
Laura sleeping without pants on, on a headrest of raspberries,
While Filon, happy, washes himself in the stream.
Mornings and years. Every glass of wine,
Laura, and the sea, land, and archipelago
Bring us nearer, I believed, to one aim
And should be used with a thought to that aim.

But a paraplegic in my street
Whom they move together with his chair
From shade into sunlight, sunlight into shade,
Looks at a cat, a leaf, the chrome steel on an auto,
And mumbles to himself, “Beau temps, beau temps.”

It is true. We have a beautiful time
As long as time is time at all.

A General Song of Praise to Almighty God
John Mason

Owing to the Christian practice of singing praises, much spiritual poetry over the ages, from today back to the Psalms, was written to be sung. This hymn from the seventeenth century is wonderful in its energy and boisterousness – I feel like trumpets should accompany each reading. The poet is, at the same time, confident in his praise of God and taken with God's incomprehensibility. The wonderful final lines express the poet’s joy (and perhaps slight artistic frustration) at the way God’s person and nature escape metaphorical comparison: “Thou art a sea without a shore/ A sun without a sphere / Thy time is now and evermore / Thy place is everywhere.”

How shall I sing that Majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

Casimir Pulaski Day
Sufjan Stevens

It seems a little strange to mention contemporary, indie singer Sufjan Stevens alongside Donne, Eliot, Milton and co, but his music shows one way that spiritual poetry lives on in modern mainstream culture. Casimir Pulaski Day tells the story of a young man whose girlfriend is diagnosed with cancer in the first stanza and dies from it by the conclusion of the song. It speaks of the experience of suffering, and the distinct flavor this experience has for Christians. How devastatingly familiar to anyone who has been in church for any length of time are the lines: “Tuesday night at the Bible study / We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens.” Stevens reframes Job’s famous words (“The LORD gives and the LORD takes away”) in his final poignant stanza: “All the glory when He took our place / But He took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.”

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you when I found out
You had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens
On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window
In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

Ben Myers

Author and lecturer of systematic theology at Charles Sturt University's School of Theology



















Paradise Lost
John Milton

After all his political hopes and ambitions had been shattered, Milton made sense of this painful, disillusioning experience by creating a great tragic epic poem about Adam and Eve, their creation, fall, and redemption. Milton discovered that the Christian doctrine of original sin isn't just a theory or a gloomy idea: it is a powerful and compelling explanation of the real texture of our experience, in all its misery, grandeur, and fragility. The poem itself goes for hundreds of pages, but we get a sense of the loss that occurred at the Fall in the following lines:

…her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

Love III
George Herbert

I think Herbert's “Love III” is one of the most perfect and exquisite poems ever written about the Christian experience of sin and redemption. If you want to know what it feels like to be a Christian, read Herbert. In simple, homely, monosyllabic language, the poem portrays a dialogue – or really an argument – between the welcoming Christ and his unworthy guest. When the Jewish philosopher Simone Weil read this poem, she said: “Christ himself came down and took hold of me.”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack'd anything.

“A guest,” I answer'd, “worthy to be here”;
        Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
        “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
        So I did sit and eat.

Ash Wednesday
T. S. Eliot

Before his conversion Eliot's poetry gave scathing depictions of the emptiness and barrenness of life. His Christian poetry never softened this bleak assessment. For Eliot, the Christian faith doesn't provide easy consolation or a nice optimistic outlook. In the incarnation, Christ enters into all the barrenness of our experience, into the sad fragility of time, and silently, secretly redeems us from within. Christ doesn't create another perfect world, but redeems this world and this time. There is a lot of false Christian optimism these days, and Eliot's poetry is a powerful antidote.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are


Peter Alexander
Emeritus Professor of English at UNSW

























Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot

Eliot, one of the greatest Modernist poets, became a Christian in 1927, and from then on produced a stream of deeply thoughtful (indeed, often tormented) works which dig back into the Christian traditions of the West to find a way to make sense of Twentieth century chaos. What’s so striking about Eliot is that as one of the greatest of Modernist poets in English you’d expect his writing to be unraveling Christian culture. But, in fact, you would not be able to understand what he’s writing about if you couldn’t identify the Christian background of this great twentieth century poem.

In this section of his magnificent series of linked poems, Four Quartets, you find yourself unmistakeably in a Christian linguistic context, of a Roman Catholic Latin prayer to the Virgin Mary:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those

Whose business has to do with fish, and

Those concerned with every lawful traffic

And those who conduct them.

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of

Women who have seen their sons or husbands

Setting forth, and not returning:

Figlia del tuo figlio,

Queen of Heaven.

Also pray for those who were in ships, and

Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea's lips

Or in the dark throat which will not reject them

Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell's

Perpetual angelus.

Widower in the Country
Les Murray

Les Murray is one of the two or three finest poets writing in English today, and, incidentally, is Australian. Murray’s poetry, while it never preaches, is imbued with the influence of passionately held Christian convictions, which can be seen everywhere in his verse, though seldom overtly.

This poem, ‘Widower in the Country’, tells the experience of a man whose wife is recently deceased, experiencing Christmas without her. This is a poem about a world like Beckett’s dead world in Endgame:  the Widower has lost his wife, and his world has fallen to pieces. The emptiness of his Christmas shows his loss of faith as well.

I'll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I'll go outside and split off kindling wood,
From the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
And the sun will be high, for I get up late now.
I'll drive my axe in the log and come back in
With my armful of wood, and pause to look across
The Christmas paddocks aching in the heat,
The windless trees, the nettles in the yard…
And then I'll go in, boil water and make tea.

This afternoon, I'll stand out on the hill
And watch my house away below, and how
The roof reflects the sun and makes my eyes
Water and close on bright webbed visions smeared
On the dark of my thoughts to dance and fade away,
Then the sun will move on, and I will simply watch,
Or work, or sleep. And evening will draw in.

Coming on dark, I'll go home, light the lamp
And eat my corned-beaf supper, sitting there
At the head of the table. Then I'll go to bed.
Last night I thought I dreamt – but when I woke
The screaming was only a possum skiing down
The iron roof on little moonlit claws.

Tony Golsby-Smith
Co-founder and chairman of Second Road

The Brain — is wider than the Sky
Emily Dickinson

I love this little poem because it inverts our sense of what is large and what is real. Against the vast panorama of matter and the material universe, we humans can feel small and insignificant. And if we calibrate significance according to size, then of course we are outdone. But Dickinson turns the tables on matter, by introducing a different parameter to the comparison – the Mind and the Imagination. This new parameter restores primacy to humans, because we all know that our Imaginations can in a very real way ‘contain’ the vastness of the Sky but  conversely the Sky can never ‘contain’ us by an act of Imagination because it is inanimate. Her logic is surgical, just like her poetry. The first two stanzas lay out the empirical evidence by appealing to our common experience. The last stanza resolves the paradox she has set up in the only way possible; our Imagination is participating in the ‘weight of God’. So the Brain is more substantial than matter because it shares the ‘weight’ of God.

The Brain — is wider than the Sky
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and you beside.

The Brain is deeper than the Sea
For– hold them — Blue to Blue
The one the other will absorb
As Sponges, buckets do.

The Brain is just the weight of God
For heft them, pound for pound
And they will differ — if they do
As Syllable to Sound.


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