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Any consideration of the interplay between the predominant religion of European culture and the poetry that developed within its influence should properly begin with the textual legacy of sacred scripture. For in the Bible there is a fund of images, narrative reference, rhetorical formulas, and mythic patterns that for centuries has served as a powerful source for Western poetry, no matter whether a specific work is explicitly religious (or devotional) in nature or whether it is simply presumptive of a Christian interpretative context.

ORIGINS: THE HYMN. The earliest example of Christian poetry, the hymn, is also the most immediately expressive of doctrine and tradition. Its biblical precursors can be traced to the Hebrew psalms and the Lucan canticles (e.g., Magnificat and Nunc dimittis), in addition to fragments of apostolic hymns found both in the Pauline letters (e.g., Eph. 5:19, 2 Tm. 2:15) and in the Book of Revelation (5:13–14). Like the Christian liturgy itself, Christian poetry was first composed in Greek. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, there existed compilations of Latin hymns by Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367) and Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), both of whom composed their texts for liturgical use. Prudentius (d. 410), best known for the allegorical poem that was to have such influence on medieval portrayals of the struggle between virtue and vice—the Psychomachia—also wrote many didactic hymns in a variety of meters not intended specifically for worship. The Latin hymnic tradition continued with works that were to have great influence on subsequent Christian literature: the Vexilla regis of Venantius Fortunatus (d. 610), the hymns of Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and most important of all, the Dies irae, ascribed to Thomas of Celano (d. 1260). To the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306) is attributed not only the Stabat mater dolorosa, but also over one hundred hymns, or laudes, written in Italian. This tradition of vernacular poetry was nurtured in Franciscan circles and traditionally begins with Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and his still renowned Canticle of the Sun.

MIDDLE AGES. In England Christian poetry in the vernacular was inaugurated by Cædmon (d. around 680), whose Anglo-Saxon hymn to God the Creator is also the first extant poem in the English language. Also attributed to him (if not to Cynewulf, a poet of the ninth century) is The Dream of the Rood, a visionary work in which the cross confronts the poet with an account of Christ’s passion and resurrection, bidding him to follow the path of the rood thereafter in his own life. The culmination of Anglo-Saxon poetry, however, is the epic Beowulf (dated between 675 and 750), wherein pagan Germanic heroic traditions show signs of adaptation to the newer Christian sensibility.
The flowering of Christian medieval poetry in England occurs in the latter part of the fourteenth century. Both the Pearl and Piers Plowman, two anonymous Middle English poems, combine dream vision and allegory, a sense of spiritual crisis and the hope of victory in heaven. The most important work of this period, however, is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (begun in 1386 and incomplete at the poet’s death in 1400). Set within the popular medieval framework of a pilgrimage, this collection of Middle English poems represents a wide panorama of character types and narrative forms that draw heavily on French and Italian models. The work as a whole is an intriguing blend of sacred and profane, containing traditional saints’ legends, as recounted by the Prioress and the Second Nun, as well as romances, as told by the Knight and the Squire, and bawdry, as employed by the Miller and the Wife of Bath. Contemporary criticism has argued over the extent to which the Tales should be given a Christian reading; D. W. Robertson, Jr.’s Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1962) offers the most eloquent case for doing so. Suffice it to say that whatever the case in this or that particular poem, Chaucer’s work, as a whole, is unthinkable outside a Christian context.
The same might be said for the dominant form of early French vernacular poetry, the chansons de geste, which date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries and signal the beginning of French literature. Following the conclusions of Joseph Bédier’s Les légendes epiques (1926–1929), most scholars consider that these narrative works, set in the ninth-century Age of Charlemagne, actually originated in churches and monasteries whose monks linked their own shrines to events, at once historical and legendary, that were associated with Charlemagne. The Chanson de Roland, set against the background of war with the Saracens for control of Spain and telling in particular of the battle of Roncevaux, presents characters who have become classics in Western literature: the impetuous warrior Roland (the “Orlando” of later romance epic); the patriarchal monarch Charlemagne; the sage counselor Olivier; the priest-warrior Turpin; the traitor Ganelon.
The twelfth-century Oxford manuscript of the poem, which is its earliest extant version (c. 1170), reflects a Christianization of materials coming from earlier, less religious sources.
It extols Christianity, chivalry, and patriotism; for even though it portrays the folly of Roland’s pursuit of personal fame and glory at the expense of Christian empire and the common cause, nonetheless, when Archbishop Turpin gives the fallen Roland his blessing and commends his soul to the safekeeping of Saint Gabriel, the errant hero is sufficiently absolved to become a kind of epic saint in subsequent handling of the legend, known as the matière de France.
The inaugural work of Spanish literature, the Cantar de mio Cid (c. 1140), shares with the Chanson de Roland not only certain literary models but the memory of feudal Germanic custom as well as a substratum of historical event. The poem, based on the life of an eleventh-century military leader, relates the misfortunes and ultimate triumph of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar ([1]), who, although unjustly exiled by the sovereign of Castile, remains a faithful vassal, one who continuously sends back booty from battle with the Moors; when grossly misused by perfidious noblemen, he leaves the retribution of justice to King Alfonso, the monarch who has banished him. In the course of the poem (and subsequently in Spanish mystique) Díaz, or “el Cid,” becomes a paragon of justice and bravery. A pious deathbed scene, attributed by scholars to a later (and monastic) hand, attempts to bring the poem more resolutely within a Christian framework. And yet, like the Chanson de Roland, Spain’s epic is more a celebration of battle against “the Infidel,” as well as of loyalty to the anointed lord, than it is a seriously Christian poem.
A later development in narrative poetry, which turned its attention from battlefield to court, is the romance. Critics disagree over whether it arose as a sentimentalization of earlier epic materials such as the chansons de geste or whether, on the other hand, it represents a hearkening back to late classical models. In any event, it concerns itself with the characters and events of King Arthur’s court (known as the matière de Bretagne) and has at its center an ideal of chivalry and a preoccupation with love, which it portrays as ennobling when sublimated in the chaste pursuit of excellence, but disastrous (both personally and socially) when acted out in adultery. Although Chrétien de Troyes (d. around 1180) was certainly not the originator of romance poetry, it is he who brought the genre to flower in French with his poems Erec, Yvain, Lancelot, and the unfinished Perceval—the story of a simple knight whose feudal service, transcending that owed to king or lady, is given to the pursuit of the Grail, a complex symbol of religious mystery associated with Christ’s passion and resurrection.
A fuller and far more profound working of this material is offered by Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. around 1220), whose Parzival, written between 1200 and 1210, introduced the Grail theme into German literature and brought both epic and romance to a new level of spiritual profundity that places Wolfram in the same lofty sphere as Dante. Building on Chrétien’s tale of the “guileless fool” who through innocence and faithful commitment attains a goal that evades those who are wise in the ways of the world, Parzival describes a quasi-allegorical pilgrimage through error, pride, despair, and repentance, undertaken in order to attain the most distinctive of Christian virtues, humility. In its possession, Parzival is able not only to be keeper of the Grail—a paradisiacal stone representing the love of God—but also to assume the role of king among a circle of knights whose ideals are set infinitely higher than the loves and adventures that characterize the traditional Arthurian court. The poem is notable for its inauguration of the Bildungsroman, which, along with the Grail story itself, has had such a powerful impact on subsequent German literature. Parzival also shares some of the essential qualities (though none of the superficial) that distinguish the greatest medieval poem of pilgrimage and vision, Dante’s Commedia. Written between the time of Dante’s exile from Florence in 1302 and his death in 1321, the Commedia is an unparalleled synthesis of theological reflection and literary form, in which hymn and allegory, epic and romance, spiritual pilgrimage and personal Bildungsroman are all brought together in a narrative of enduring appeal, as well as of profound religious depth. Set against a typology of Exodus and Deliverance, which is enhanced by the story’s unfolding between the evening of Good Friday and the Wednesday of Easter Week in the year 1300, the poem recounts Dante’s exploration of the state of the soul after death in a journey that takes him from hell through purgatory to paradise, and culminates in the beatific vision (left undescribed, of course, at the close of the final canto). In the course of this experience, which unites the journeys of Aeneas and the apostle Paul even as it surpasses them with its own totality, he is guided first by Vergil, the paragon of poetry, natural reason, and the dream of empire, and then by Beatrice, the woman who in life represented for Dante the transforming love of God in Christ and on whose behalf the poet promised earlier in the Vita nuova (1295) to offer such praise as no other beloved had ever received. Critics have noted Dante’s debt to classical poets (whom, indeed, he draws on extensively— especially Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius—at the same time that he transforms them for his own Christian purposes), as well as his connection to medieval accounts of earthly pilgrimage and heavenly vision. Theologically, he unites Thomistic clarity with the ardor of Augustinian and Franciscan traditions. And yet what remains astonishing is the sheer originality of the work, which mixes what the fourteenth century knew about the ancient world with a very contemporary appraisal of the poet’s own time—all of it filtered through the personal experience of Dante Alighieri himself (who, like Augustine in the Confessions, is both the wise author and the developing subject of the same work).
The sixteenth century was to call the Commedia “divine,” an adjective that later centuries have continued to find appropriate. Indeed, in the intricately constructed plan of the hundred cantos of this epic, Christian poetry attains a scope of reference and a depth of resonance that are rivaled (if at all) only by John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

With the exception of the fourteenth century English works noted above, the great religious movements and controversies of Europe did not after Dante produce poetry of major significance until the mid-sixteenth century. In the latter years of that century there is unmistakably evident a Christian poetic renaissance in the form of both long narrative works and meditational, or devotional, lyrics. Within the former category is found the Portuguese Os Lusíadas (1572), a Vergilian celebration of the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India and of his return via the Cape of Good Hope. This national epic, composed by Luis de Camoes (d. 1580)[2], tells its near-contemporary tale in mythic terms, mingling together history, Catholic religion, and the pagan Roman pantheon of the Aeneid. In this poem West meets East and attempts to conquer a paradise otherwise lost to Europe. Within its epic machinery, moreover, there is the working of Camoes’s own curious syncretism: his blending of Christianity with Neoplatonism and of pagan religion with Portuguese national (and religious) piety.
Writing at almost the same time, but closer to the censorious arm of the Counter-Reformation, Torquato Tasso (d. 1595) published his Gerusalemme liberata in 1581. Although he was heir to the secular romances of Boiardo and Ariosto, with their reworking of the old Arthurian material, Tasso set out instead to produce a truly Christian epic, and for this purpose he chose the subject of Godfrey of Bouillon’s retaking of Jerusalem from the Saracens during the First Crusade.
Although replete with the requisite battle scenes and amatory interludes of the romance-epic, he intended the poem to be read allegorically as the struggle of the soul to overcome every sort of temptation (and perhaps especially those of the flesh) in order to achieve salvation. Whatever his noble intentions, the text caused him difficulties with the Inquisition; consequently he republished it in revised form under the title Gerusalemme conquistata (1593), thereby achieving the requisite piety, but only at the cost of poetic interest and integrity.
The epic poem (like the Renaissance itself) came relatively late to Protestant England, but found its belated poet in Edmund Spenser (d. 1599), whose Faerie Queene (published in parts between 1590 and 1609), although unfinished according to its original plan, nonetheless succeeded in realizing its partial goals: the incorporation of Vergilian epic into medieval (as well as Italian) romance, a multileveled allegory, an expression of the Reformed religious sensibility, and a celebration of Elizabethan England and its Virgin Queen (the model for that Gloriana who, while never seen in the poem’s Faeryland, motivates all virtuous action). Book 1, the “Legend of Holiness,” is the most explicitly theological of the six books that Spenser lived to complete. Its Red Cross Knight struggles against the various avatars of wickedness in order to champion Una, the true (English) church, and in so doing to realize his identity as England’s patron, Saint George. The rest of the poem is preoccupied with the vicissitudes of the moral life and the cultivation of the virtues of temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy, each of which is championed by a representative knight and exercised in a successful combat with evil. Pervading the entire work, however, is the sense of incomplete victory and of an unfulfilled longing, the desire for a vision of peace that can never be attained in this life, whether in the Faeryland of the poem or in the sixteenth-century world to which its “dark conceit” refers.
In the end, in the fragmentary “Mutabilitie Cantos,” the poet places his sole faith in a heavenly city built “upon the pillours of Eternitie.”

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY. In the first half of the seventeenth century there is evident an enormous and rich outpouring of religious verse, lyric rather than epic, which is commonly characterized, after Samuel Johnson, as “metaphysical” or, since Louis Martz (1954), as “the poetry of meditation.” It is distinguished by its delight in wit, learning, and paradox, and most especially by its cultivation of farfetched metaphors or “conceits.” Examples can be drawn from the poetry of Italy, Spain, France, and Germany, but it is in England that the metaphysical poem found its fullest Christian expression; its foremost exponents were John Donne (d. 1631), George Herbert (d. 1633), Richard Crashaw (d. 1649), Thomas Traherne (d. 1674), and Henry Vaughan (d. 1695). With the exception of the Welsh doctor Vaughan, all were ordained priests in the Anglican church (but Crashaw later became a Roman cleric). To a greater or lesser extent, all drew upon the techniques of religious meditation that mingle a vivid reimagining of biblical scenes, intense self-scrutiny, and an orientation of the self toward God. In this group Crashaw is in every way the anomaly, drawing as he does on the more extravagantly Baroque continental sensibility typified by the convolution and artificiality of, for example, Giambattista Marino (d. 1625). But even among the more thoroughly English Anglicans, there is a wide range of feeling: the splendid self-absorption of Donne as he worries about his own salvation; the artful self-diminution of Herbert, with his exquisitely wrought lyrics of surrender to a loving Master; the mystically esoteric Traherne; the meditations of Henry Vaughan upon nature, a preoccupation that links him in anticipatory ways to William Wordsworth and the High Romantics.
John Milton (d. 1674) tried his hand at this sort of meditational poetry in the early ode entitled On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. But the religious lyric was never to engage his poetic imagination. To be sure, religious controversy and theological reflection preoccupied him his entire life and filled many volumes of prose as well. But it was not until his political hopes in Cromwell’s Commonwealth had been frustrated and the monarchy subsequently restored in 1660 that the “sacred muse” returned—and then with an astonishing afflatus of poetry that took its “graver subject” from moments of scriptural history: the fall of Adam and Eve, the death of Samson, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Following the example of the Huguenot Guillaume du Bartas (d. 1590) in the composition of a biblical epic, Milton made in Paradise Lost (1667) a deliberate decision to turn away from classical or romance themes, at the same time, of course, as he incurred openly a vast debt to Vergil on the one hand and Spenser on the other. (His later works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, both published in 1671, draw upon Greek dramatic form.) At the center of all three poems there stands an individual “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” and in each case Milton undertakes an exploration of exactly what this sufficiency consists of: the exercise of right reason over against the appeal of lesser appetites. As in his prose writings against monarchy and episcopacy and as in those advocating freedom of speech and of divorce, the author of the poems assumes the role of prophet. This voice is especially audible in Paradise Lost, where again and again he claims the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his articulation of what scripture has chosen to say little (or nothing) about.
Dante too claimed enormous authority for his poetic undertaking, but while he dared to speak prophetically to his age, he did so as a Roman Catholic, as a loyal (if contentious) son of the “universal” church; Milton, by contrast, was in the composition of his great poems a denomination of one, a solitary church.
Milton’s poetic enterprise is strangely Janus-faced. Late in the seventeenth century, almost as if he were resolutely looking backward, he chose unfashionable biblical subject matter and an epic genre so played out that by the end of the century it could only be mocked in satire. On the other hand, his portraits of divinity (and perhaps especially of God the Father in Paradise Lost) have an Enlightenment chill, as if they had passed over into a pantheon of deities no longer believed in. But perhaps the authentically religious note in Milton’s poetry is rather to be found in his magnificent evocation of the physical beauties of heaven and earth as well as in the poignancy of his presentation of humanity itself— poised between innocence and experience and between obedience and rebellion, engaged in the process of choosing a self to become. It is in such emphases as these that one can anticipate the Romantic movement that was to follow upon Milton’s death by a century, arriving at a time when poetry throughout Europe seems to have cut loose from the moorings of Christian tradition in order to explore new unorthodoxies of the spirit and imagination.

Christianity is so interwoven into the fabric of European poetry up through the seventeenth century that any worthwhile study of Dante, Chaucer, or Milton will of necessity explore the interconnection between poetry and belief. In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York, 1982) Northrop Frye begins with the Christian ur-text and suggests the degree to which scripture informs literary culture in the West. Ernst Robert Curtius in his European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages (Princeton, N. J., 1953) and Erich Auerbach in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, 1953) have produced classic studies of the foundations and development of European poetry, which also offer invaluable insight into the interaction of Christianity with its pagan inheritance. Helen Flanders Dunbar’s Symbolism in Medieval Thought and Its Consummation in the Divine Comedy (New Haven, Conn., 1929) establishes a religious and cultural context not only for Dante but for medieval poetry in general. Sensitive study of the role of Christianity in the formation of European poetry is also offered in R. S. Loomis’s The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian
Symbol (New York, 1963), C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love (Oxford, 1936), Louis L. Martz’s The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven, 1954), Helen Gardner’s Religion and Literature (Oxford, 1971), and A. D. Nuttall’s Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante, and St. John (New York, 1980).
New Sources:
Atwan, Robert and Laurence Wieder, eds. Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible. Oxford and New York, 1992. Bradley, Ian C. The Book of Hymns. New York, 1989. Curzon, David, ed. The Gospels in Our Image. New York, 1995. Keyte, Hugh, and Andrew Parrott, with Clifford Bartlett. The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford, 1998. Newman, Barbara. God and the Goddesses: Visions, poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia, 2003. Troeger, Thomas H. Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems. New York, 1994.[3]
See also: English throughout the World[1]
[2] Epitafio para Luís de Camões
[3] Hawkins Peter s. (1987), POETRY: CHRISTIAN POETRY, in Lindsay Jones, Editor in Chief, 2005, Encyclopedia of Religion, Second edition. Thomson Gale, a part of The Thomson Corporation.