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For centuries poets have looked to Scriptures to find inspiration, stories, and poetic forms to import into their own poetry. At the same time, of course, poets have turned to classical sources for inspiration and imitation. Until the eighteenth century, many poets such as Milton, Herbert, Donne, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, and others imitated the cadences and rhythms of biblical poetry as well as basing their poems on biblical themes and stories. By the eighteenth century, however, poets like Pope, Dryden—whose translation of Virgil remains one of the most lyrical available—Goldsmith, and others imitated the lyric and epic poetry of classical Greece, and celebrated the themes and stories of ancient Greece and Rome. By the twentieth century, the sources of contemporary poetry were like armies on a darkling plain, clashing by night. In fact, Ezra Pound once told T.S. Eliot that modern poets were more inspired by the Muse than by Moses.

Even so, the Bible's influence on English poetry has been considerable. Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder memorialize this influence in their excellent two-volume anthology, Chapters Into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible (New York: Oxford, 1993; 2 volumes). The editors have collected an astonishing range of poems that take their inspiration from scriptures in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Volume one covers the Hebrew Bible, while volume two covers the New Testament. The contents are arranged canonically, and there are sometimes several poems for major biblical tales such as the Creation Story and the Crucifixion of Jesus. The scripture on which each poem is based precedes it as an epigraph. Atwan and Wieder use the King James Version of the Bible because so many of the poets they selected based their own poems on the resonant lyricism of the great Bible of 1611. As Adam Nicolson writes in his forthcoming God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, May), "the language of the King James Bible is the language of...an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good."

The poems included in the collection range from the fourteenth century to the twentieth century. The poets in the anthology range from the famous to the unfamiliar. "To be included in the anthology a poem had to possess real literary merit (as distinct from admirable sentiment, or propriety, or didactic fervor) and it had to derive from a specific scriptural source." (xxvii)

The most interesting feature of these volumes is the influence of the Bible on modern poetry. While Herbert's and Donne's and Milton's paean to scripture is familiar to us by now, the lyrics of modern poets inspired by the Bible are not. A few examples from each volume provide striking examples of the continuing influence of the Bible. Taken from his modern epic, Genesis, the poem "Sarah," gives us Delmore Schwartz's take on Sarah's laughter from Genesis 17:1-18:15.

The angel said to me: 'Why are you laughing?'

Laughing! Not me! Who was laughing? I did not laugh. It was

A cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas laugh.

It was the cold I caught nine minutes after

Abraham married me: when I saw

How I was slender and beautiful, more and more

Slender and beautiful.

I was also

Clearing my throat; something inside of me

Is continually telling me something

I do not wish to hear: A joke: A big joke:

But the joke is always just on me.

He said: you will have more children than the sky's stars

And the seashore's sands, of you just wait patiently.

Wait: patiently: ninety years? You see

The joke's on me!

A portion of Alicia Ostriker's "The Story of Joshua," based on Joshua 3:9-11, questions the incongruity of obtaining God's promise through the murder of the land's inhabitants.

We reach the promised land

Forty years later

The original ones who were slaves

Have died

The young are seasoned soldiers

There is wealth enough for everyone and God

Here at our side, the people

Are mad with excitement.

Here is what to do, to take

This land away from the inhabitants:

Burn their villages and cities

Kill their men

Kill their women

Consume the people utterly.

God says: Is that clear?

I give you the land, but

You must murder for it.

A portion of Byron's "Jephtha's Daughter," based on Judges 11:30-35, offers us a glimpse of what she might have said to her father as he fulfilled his promise to God by sacrificing his daughter for the victory of Israel over the Ammonites.

Though the virgins of Salem lament,

Be the judge and the hero unbent!

I have won the great battle for thee,

And my father and country are free!

When this blood of thy giving hath gushed,

When the voice that thou lovest is hushed,

Let my memory still be thy pride,

And forget not I smiled as I died.

Modern poets have been as inspired and troubled by the New Testament as by the Hebrew Bible. D.H. Lawrence's "The Body of God," based on John 1:14, ponders the mystery of the Incarnation.

God is the great urge that has not yet found a body

but urges towards incarnation with the great creative urge.

And becomes at last a clove carnation: lo! That is god!

and becomes at last Helen, or Ninon: any lovely and generous woman

at her best and her most beautiful, being god, made manifest,

any clear and fearless man being god, very god.

There is no god/apart from poppies and the flying fish,

men singing songs, and women brushing their hair in the sun.

The lovely things are god that has come to pass, like Jesus came.

The rest, the undiscoverable, is the demiurge.

The psalms are probably the most popular form of biblical poetry, and perhaps the most imitated by religious poets. The lyric grace of these poems announce reflection on subjects as diverse as mourning, celebration, coronation of a king, the misery of exile, the might of God, and the glories of God's creation. Contemporary poet and memoirist Kathleen Norris declares that "there is much beauty in the Psalms to stir up childlike wonder: the God who made whales to play with, who calls the stars by name, who asks us to drink from the stream of delight.... The height and depth of praise urged on us in the Psalms can heighten our sense of marvel and awaken our capacity to appreciate the glories of this world." ("The Paradox of the Psalms," in Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, edited by Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel, New York: Ballantine, 1994, 232) At the same time, Norris tells us, "what the Psalms offer us is the possibility of transformation, of converting a potentially deadly vice such as vengeance into something better. What becomes clear when one begins to engage the Psalms in a profound way...is that it can come to seem that the Psalms are writing us." (231)

In her own poetry, Norris meditates on the beauty and transformative power of the Psalms and other biblical texts. In "A Prayer to Eve," for example, Norris invokes the mother of all humankind as both her muse and her companion along her spiritual journey.

Mother of fictions

and of irony,

help us to laugh.

Mother of science

and the critical method,

keep us humble.

Muse of listeners,

hope of interpreters,

inspire us to act.

Bless our metaphors,

that we might eat them.

Help us to know, Eve,

the one thing we must do.

Come with us, muse of exile,

mother of the road.

(Journey: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001, 3)

Norris, along with Annie Dillard, Reynolds Price, and a number of other poets, continue to look to the Bible for inspiration in the twenty-first century. They are our Miltons and Donnes. As long as they are writing poetry, we will continue to hear the echoes of scripture in poetry. As Robert Alter once wrote: "poetry is special way of imagining the world...it strikes me that this is a generalization that holds as true for Jeremiah or Proverbs as for Byron or Baudelaire." (The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985, 205)

Citation: Henry Carrigan Jr., " Poetry and the Ages: Finding the Bible in Contemporary Poetry," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=147

 
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