The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse
The Poems of William Cowper
The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper
The editor of an anthology of Christian verse has, at the outset, to decide what the book is for. Pious browsing? Testimony to the predominance of Christianity in our culture, whether religious or secular? Evidence that adherence to Christian doctrine is compatible with the production of poetry that still seems good? An anthology of religious poetry would, you might suppose, be quite a different matter. Yet Helen Gardner’s Faber Book of Religious Verse contains nothing that is manifestly outside the Christian tradition, unless one defines that tradition very rigorously. She includes Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats, but no Jewish poetry, to stray no further from the middle of the road than that. Dame Helen professes to distinguish between Christian and religious, but only to let in a few errant masters like those named above.
The lazy confidence of the English assumption that religious, give or take a few marginal cases, means effectively the same thing as Christian, has its amusing side, especially in these days when it is harder than ever to draw the line. A few years ago the American scholar Charles Anderson prevailed on me to abet him in his campaign to install a monument to Henry James in Westminster Abbey. The main task before us, apart from collecting the cash and commissioning the stone, was to persuade the dean and chapter of Westminster that they should give the enterprise their blessing. We were called upon to make our case with proper ceremony, and in due time waited on the dean with the most impressive group of senior establishment figures we could muster; I remember the late C.P. Snow (a lord) and V.S. Pritchett (a knight) and Iris Murdoch; there were others, all in their best clothes. The dean required an assurance that Henry James could properly be called a religious man. We gave it without reservation; if the question had been whether he was a Christian we should have sipped our sherry with less composure. We succeeded; James was installed with all due observances, and Professor Leon Edel preached a notable sermon to a very grand congregation. More recently, the fans of George Eliot have got her in too, though she was quite positively not Christian; and the two novelists now hobnob with Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden, who satisfy much more rigorous standards.
It is a safe guess that if Donald Davie had anything to do with it neither James nor George Eliot would be commemorated in a Christian church. You will look in vain for Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats in his sacred space. Yet there are obvious reasons why his anthology is enormously superior to its Faber rival. The first is that he is himself a fine poet and critic, admittedly with strong and idiosyncratic tastes, but never likely to call a bad poem a good one. The second is that he has been thinking hard about Christian poetry. In a way his anthology is a companion to his recent book of lectures, A Gathered Church (1978), which argues aggressively that the literature of dissenters has had very unfair treatment in traditional literary history and criticism; to him it seems anything but marginal to English and American culture.
Davie’s choice of verse is illuminated by some forceful doctrinal assertions in A Gathered Church. Having remarked that few of us “would like to live with the Calvinist tenets of election and reprobation in their primitive seventeenth-century ferocity”—to which tenets he attributes both “masculine force” and the power to create “private terror and despair”—he says of Jonathan Edwards that his doctrine (“Calvinism in all its uncompromising rigour”) “has never been controverted, and perhaps it is uncontrovertible.” We have simply set it aside. Davie shows contempt for softened versions of Calvinism, and seems to be sorry that John Wesley, whom he admires, wasn’t a Calvinist. So we know where Davie stands, and also, incidentally, why he shows so much interest in American Christian poetry, including poems by Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Jones Very, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Emily Dickinson. (Gardner shows no sign of having allowed American poetry to come under her notice; some things, and the literary inferiority of Americans is among them, are apparently not negotiable.)
Davie returns to his doctrinal position in the preface to the anthology, but poetry is an even more important test for inclusion than Calvinism. This isn’t a work of piety, but as a matter of personal preference (he is “specially drawn to the plain style”) the editor chooses a lot of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century hymns, and leaves out the un-English baroque of Crashaw’s “Hymn to Saint Teresa.” Most of these hymns are the product of evangelical dissent, and they “preach doctrines more bleakly challenging than most modern Christians are accustomed to”; yet many of them are still familiar, though often in expurgated forms, to modern churchgoers who probably don’t even know they are chanting the words of John Newton, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Cowper. Such hymns treat, as a rule, of “one or more of the distinctive doctrines of the Christian church,” but for the present enterprise they must also satisfy the requirement that they be good poems; and since Charles Wesley alone wrote more than six thousand hymns we can see that the editor set himself no simple task. What he did, he says, was to assume that George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Christopher Smart, and William Cowper were “the masters of the sacred poem in English,” and then ask of each candidate for inclusion whether it deserved “to appear between the same covers as Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ or his ‘Church-monuments’ “—a criterion as admirable as it is surely almost impossibly severe.
This preface is a strong critical essay, and it includes a subtle study of Cowper’s hymn “Sometimes a light surprises” from the collection he published in 1779 with John Newton (coming upon it in an index of first lines you might want to attribute it to Emily Dickinson).
One may have read this poem, or more probably sung it, many and many a time before realizing that the crucial word in it is the first. “Sometimes”—only sometimes, not always, not even very often! The “holy contemplation” that is thereafter evoked, the sweet security, the unforced adoration—all this is distinctly not what any one, it seems, should expect to experience at all often, in church or out of it. It is not presented as the normal condition of the Believer. Above all therefore it is not the pay-off, the guaranteed reward for going to church and trying to behave well. On the contrary one earns such fitful and infrequent benefits (though “earn” is the wrong word anyway, for a Calvinist such as Cowper) only by first suffering through afflictions and desolations—the “season of clear shining” comes only “after rain,” only “when comforts are declining”; and there is no guarantee that it will come, even then. Similarly, one sings anyway; the consoling words that one sings strike dully and inertly Sunday after Sunday (one is even, so some might say, “insincere” in singing them); it is only sometimes, on one or two Sundays out of many, that “a light surprises” and the words take on heart-felt meaning, “while he sings.”
The emphasis in the preface, once again, is on the doctrinal “bleakness” Davie finds so attractive. For my taste there is a little too much relish in his admiration for the “appalling” certainties of Calvinism, but perhaps he is sure of election and would expect those who have no such confidence to feel some unease or resentment. However, it is undoubtedly in consequence of his beliefs that Davie regards “direct and unswerving English” as the only decent way to talk to God; “any prevarication or ambiguity is unseemly.” And he is beyond question a connoisseur of such English; so the bleakness of the theology contributes after all to the strength of the poetry.
This “New” Oxford book, then, reflects the personality of the compiler much more positively than its predecessor, the superseded volume of Lord David Cecil, or its rival, the Faber Book of Religious Verse. Resemblances are closest, not surprisingly, in the medieval sections; it is after the Reformation that Davie strikes out on his own. He includes three sonnets by the plain but difficult Fulke Greville, five of Mary Herbert’s psalm paraphrases from The Sidney Psalter; Francis Quarles’s one masterpiece which begins
Like to the arctic needle, that doth guide The wand’ring shade by his mag- netic pow’r,
And leaves his silken gnomon to decide The question of the controverted
First frantics up and down from side to side,
And restless beats his crystal’d iv’ry case,
With vain impatience jets from place to place,
And seeks the bosom of his frozen bride;
At length he slacks his motion,
and doth rest
His trembling point at his bright pole’s beloved breast.
E’en so my soul….
He has found two poems by one Thomas Washbourne that satisfy his criteria, nobly unearthed from Grosart’s Victorian edition. The many evangelical hymns seem worth their place. Wordsworth squeezes in with “Resolution and Independence,” on the faintly ridiculous plea that the old leech-gatherer of the poem is a Scottish Presbyterian. (Wordsworth, who says a lot about the old man in his remarkable letter to Sara Hutchinson, June 14, 1802, fails to make this point, speaking instead of “the fortitude, independence, persevering spirit, and the general moral dignity” exhibited by this impressive figure, in spite of “the necessities which an unjust state of society has entailed upon him.”)
The nineteenth century provides more hymns, and more American Christian poetry. From the twentieth century Davie gives us a highly individual selection: the anonymous Ozark Holy Roller song, “The Heavenly Aeroplane,” and, less contentiously, several poems by C.H. Sisson, including the remarkably fine “Letter to John Donne.”
Even if it were to turn out that there aren’t many readers who want Christian poetry so rigorously Christian and so rigorously poetry, this anthology will survive as the work of a distinguished poet when more conventional compilations are forgotten. Given the terms Davie so firmly and lucidly sets down there is, in my view, only one serious complaint to be made. Cowper is one of the heroes of the book, but his best poem, “The Castaway,” is omitted. This can hardly be because the editor thought it inferior as poetry. The reason must be doctrinal.
Cowper had earlier shown some fascination with the idea of death by drowning in the ocean, but “The Castaway,” written at the end of his life, grew out of prolonged meditation on a passage in a book about Admiral Anson’s voyage round the world. A sailor is lost overboard near Cape Horn: “We perceived that he swam very strong, and it was of the utmost concern that we found ourselves incapable of assisting him; and we were the more grieved at his unhappy fate since we lost sight of him struggling with the waves, and conceived…that he might continue sensible for a considerable time longer of the horror attending his irretrievable situation.”