The language of religion, like the language of love, is persistently poetic, if by no means exclusively so. The reasons why religious expression is so often poetic are complex, however, and not always transparent. They can best be adduced by considering the principal ways in which poetry functions in different religious contexts and traditions. It will be useful, however, to begin by examining the overall features of poetry, and its corresponding religious potential.
Poetry has been described as heightened speech. Intensified and ordered through rhythm, sound, and image, such language is designed to be expressive or beautiful, and memorable. Poetic diction varies widely from style to style, and from culture to culture. Yet the language of poetry typically departs from both common sense and plain speech, being often figurative or metaphoric in the broad sense.
Poetry can be divided into three large genres: narrative, dramatic, and lyric. Narrative poetry includes epics, myths, sagas, fables, ballads, romances, and the like. Dramatic poetry includes verse forms of tragedy, comedy, and plays of an explicitly liturgical or ritual sort. As for the numerous kinds of lyric poetry, some of the more familiar are odes, hymns, elegies, laments, haiku, love sonnets, and meditative verse.
Many of the traits normally associated with poetry— meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, for instance—become most vivid in oral expression. Religions have traditionally made much of the very orality of poetry.
Thus the markedly poetic text of the Qur’an (literally, “recitation”), which Muhammad delivered orally, lends itself to beautiful modes of chanting out loud rather than to silent reading. Even in poetry that is unrhymed and irregularly metered, various salient features may come out more fully in oral performance. In the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, for example, oral rendition calls attention to a combined rhythm of meaning, syntax, and stress—something clearly audible in the celebrated parallelisms of the Psalms, a liturgical songbook.
Most of the poetry associated with religion and ritual is actually meant to be sung or chanted, taking the form of hymns, invocations, ritual incantations, and the like. Indeed, virtually all of the poetry in ancient Greece—not only epic and lyric poetry but also dramatic—was accompanied by instruments, and often by dance. The same can be said of traditional poetry in Africa, India, Bali, and elsewhere.
The connection between poetry and music was so intimate in Western antiquity that when Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the most influential of the Christian church fathers, wrote his only treatise on music, he approached the topic by dwelling at length on matters of number and meter associated with prosody. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure how the musical settings of ancient poetry sounded— even the hymns that Augustine confessed moved him to tears. The works of much later Christian hymn-writers— such as Paul Gerhardt (1606–1676), Isaac Watts (1674– 1748), Charles Wesley (1707–1788), and Fanny Crosby (1820–1915)—were, of course, set to music that remains easily accessible; but such verse, however widely sung in churches, is rarely classified now as poetry.
In due course, religious poetry nonetheless came to exploit the possibilities of the written text. The epic narrative of the Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), which traces the pilgrim Dante’s progress from hell to heaven, employs an elaborate rhyme scheme (terza rima), complex allegory, and convoluted similes that are all savored better upon multiple readings than in a single oral performance.
And though the English poet John Milton (1608–1674) was blind when he dictated the blank verse of his Christian epic Paradise Lost, the extended structure and density of the work’s often Latinate syntax favors readers more than mere listeners. Again, the interlinked sequences of poetic stanzas in Japanese renga of the fifteenth and sixteenth century CE, which often touch lightly on Buddhist themes, allow poets to respond to one another in writing. There are even devotional poems by the Anglican priest George Herbert (1593– 1633) that are arranged on the page in such a way as to create a two-dimensional visual image of the primary subject of the poem—as in “The Altar” and “Easter Wings.” Such features of poetry, even when seemingly of minor consequence in themselves, are reminders that the medium of poetry is never merely words in the abstract. Rather, poetry depends on imagination and a kind of embodiment. As with ritual and arts in general, the meaning of poetry registers on the whole self, appealing to head and heart, mind and body.
Despite that sort of immediacy, poetry distances itself from the merely mundane. In a variety of ways poetry estranges itself from the familiar and creates a measure of creative disorientation—something evident in modern poetry in particular. For instance, while Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) is far removed from actual ritual practice or from prayer or other spiritual exercises in the usual sense, the structure of each of the quartets bears some resemblance to classic stages of the mystical path or, more particularly, of the spiritual progress of what Eliot elsewhere calls the “intellectual soul.” The highly metaphoric language, the deferral from plain sense, and the attentiveness to sonic texture all contribute to the spiritual evocativeness of such poetry, influenced in part by the French symbolist tradition of the late nineteenth century. Again, the works of the Welsh poet Dylan
Thomas (1914–1953), far more extroverted in character, have a virtually incantatory quality that is only heightened by the fact that the literal sense can be hard to fathom. It could be argued that creative dissonance likewise results from the often shocking lyrics of the highly rhythmic and rhyming popular music known as rap—originally an urban ghetto genre of African American musical verse but one that, since the late twentieth century, has begun to spread widely around the world and even to be employed in worship.
In religious life, the means of poetry serve particular ends, beyond providing purely aesthetic delight. Two of the most important religious purposes of poetry can be termed prophecy and revelation.
Two other religious purposes, which will be discussed subsequently, are devotion and mysticism.
Prophetic utterance is concerned with communicating divine messages, whether about the future or about conditions of self or society that need to be changed, possibly for the sake of justice and righteousness. Thus poetry in many parts of the world has been a medium of spiritual ecstasy or “madness” in the service of prophecy. Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 BCE) and many other ancient Greeks thought of poets not as knowledgeable artists in full control of their craft but rather as seers and prophets mediating mysterious truths and divine directives that the poets might not fully grasp themselves.
In Latin, one venerable term for poet is vates, or “prophet.” Similarly, in Arabic, the word for poetry, shi Dr, is derived from a verb denoting a special kind of knowledge associated with divination. Although the Prophet Muhammad’s critics, in the seventh century CE, dismissed his recitations as mere poetry, Muslims themselves soon came to regard the supremacy of the Qur’an as audible in that very poetry, with a truth and beauty beyond compare.
The aura of divine possession or prophetic inspiration has never completely departed from the role of poet, though in later times, especially in the West, it has become less visible.
The prophet’s call for righteousness and justice survives, for example, in poetry of protest, as exemplified by the war poems of England’s Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) or the long poem Babi Yar by the Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933–), who, in mourning the Nazi massacre of thousands of Ukrainian Jews, also attacks Soviet anti-Semitism.
In addition to having a prophetic function, poetry serves as a medium of revelation—which, in the sense relevant here, is the inspired disclosure of deep wisdom or of holy presence.
In a specifically religious sense, revelation can take place as epiphany or theophany: that which is divine or holy appears in an awe-inspiring form that is nonetheless accessible to human senses and awareness. Whereas prophecy employs exhortation and proclamation, revelation employs vision and manifestation, or sacramental embodiment. At a less lofty level, prophecy and revelation take the form of preaching and teaching, which likewise can employ poetry. Thus, in the sixth century CE, Romanos the Melodist, the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church, chanted his narrative verse sermons in a form known as kontakia, with the congregation joining in a repeated refrain.

Thus, as these examples indicate, when it comes to the revelatory quality of religious poetry, there is often a tension between a religious community’s desire to recognize or acclaim the poetic art of sacred texts and the contrary desire to distance such elevated or supremely truthful texts from merely human poiesis, or poetic making, and from what otherwise might be seen as creative representation, or mimesis.
Indeed, the difference between divine revelation and human expression can be interpreted at times in terms of a divine disregard for the lesser delights of mere poetry. While it is true that, in the West, Augustine and other church fathers were struck by the symbolism, figurative discourse, and rhetoric of the Bible, they were pleased to point out how frequently Scripture seems to disdain the lofty language and the polished poetry perfected by the pagans. Jerome (c. 342– 420), for instance, thought that the language of the Scriptures was “harsh and barbaric” compared with the pagan classics. Christians of the patristic era saw the very roughness of scriptural language as serving a higher wisdom and (as Augustine would argue) a higher, invisible beauty not to be compared with human ornament and decorum.
At other times, sacred texts are valued by their devotees or believers as the very model of poetic excellence and most worthy of emulation. Thus, while an elevated view of the poetry of the Qur’an has sometimes functioned to cast all other poetry in a comparatively negative light, the Qur’an has also helped inspire the extensive repertoire of Islamic poetry, in Persian as well as Arabic. Similarly, in medieval Europe, biblical figurative language and the corresponding typological and allegorical approach to reading Scripture gave impetus to poetic allegory more broadly—and, eventually, to the poet Dante’s adoption of the four commonly acknowledged levels of interpreting sacred texts, which he had the seeming audacity to apply to his own extra-biblical epic narrative, the Divine Comedy. Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, such as Martin Luther, engaged in tirades against medieval allegorizing; but Protestants themselves often looked on the figurative language of Scripture not only as exemplifying the Bible’s poetic excellence but also as providing divine sanction for poetic simile, metaphor, metonymy, catechresis, and so forth. Accordingly, in England, Philip Sidney (1554–1586) defended poetry not only by citing the Psalms of David as divine poems but also by claiming that the poet’s imagination is analogous to the creativity of “the heavenly maker” who “made man to his owne likenes . . . which in nothing sheweth so much as in Poetry.” The seventeenth-century Anglican poet and divine John Donne (c. 1572–1631) likewise found in scripture ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is the supreme poet. God is not only a “direct God,” he said, but also a “figurative, a metaphorical God too.” Such convictions inspired much Protestant lyrical poetry of the seventeenth century. And though the use of figurative language had as much to do with moving and delighting readers as with conveying higher truths, in the seventeenth century those functions of poetry were closely intertwined.
During the eighteenth century, by contrast, the increasing prevalence of empirical or scientific standards of truth in Western culture spawned, in many settings, a relatively rationalist approach to religion. Since the language of poetry conformed neither to the clear and distinct ideas of science nor to the kind of self-evident or revealed absolutes required in different ways by both deist and dogmatic religion, poetry lost some of its esteem as a serious medium of either truth or revelation, though it was still thought suitable for edifying instruction.
During this era, particularly under the influence of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), poetry and the other arts were granted a large degree of autonomy, apart from science, morality, or religion. Ironically, however, the price was that the beauty of poetry was often conceived of not as participating in divine beauty but as delighting in an ornamental way or as providing simply an appealing guise in which to clothe social commentary or instruction in matters of morality.
During the revolutionary age of European Romanticism, which commenced near the end of the eighteenth century and continued well into the nineteenth, poets and critics such as Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803– 1882) reacted against both scientific rationalism and religious dogmatism, partly by taking a very high view of works of poetic genius. Poetic imagination, according to many of the Romantics, transcends both scientific fact and religious dogma, becoming in a real sense revelatory of the highest truths available to human beings. William Wordsworth (1770–1850), for instance, could be found referring to the poet or bard as the “holiest of men.” The Romantics, often enamored with the cult of the artist as genius, made the poetic Muse an ally of, or occasionally even substitute for, the Holy Spirit. “A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, and Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian,” wrote the English poet and artist William Blake (1727–1857). Imagination, he said, “is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed for ever.”
In the Victorian era, when the creeds and prescribed rituals of religion further weakened under the assault of social change and scientific revolution, it began to appear to various shapers of culture that, if anything was going to remain of religion at all, it would be its “poetry.” Now that fact and dogma were failing religion, wrote Matthew Arnold (1822– 1888), people would increasingly need to turn for consolation to poetry, which he thought of as the “breath and finer spirit of knowledge” that could sustain humanity in the absence of secure creeds. At times, in the hands of theorists such as Walter Pater (1839–1894) and, later, Clive Bell (1881–1964), poetry—or art in general—became virtually a surrogate for religion.
Even the so-called New Critics of the mid-twentieth century, for all their preoccupation with the formal and self reflexive features of poetic art, carried forward certain of these tendencies. For they viewed poetic language not simply as constitutive of its own world but also, paradoxically, as revelatory of a unique kind of knowledge unavailable to other modes of discourse.
Meanwhile, in the work of philosophers and theologians such as Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and Paul Ricoeur (1913–), truth and symbolic imagination were treated as intimately interrelated. Truth that is most important to human life and meaning, according to such thinkers, is not subject to propositional logic but appears in the simultaneous veiling and unveiling inherent in symbolic or poetic thought. In a related vein, the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984) suggested that, ideally, the priest and poet should become one, though that fusion of roles is likely to remain an eschatological hope more than a present reality. To other theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), that kind of hope would seem to transgress the necessary boundary between artistic inspiration and God’s self-revelation. Yet Balthasar himself wanted to reclaim beauty as a transcendental, essential attribute of whatever is real and true, and he acknowledged that divine beauty can, by way of analogy, graciously manifest itself in artistic beauty as well.
All along, however, one whole line of modernist poetics, associated with formalism in particular, had resisted any attempt to think of poetry as concerned with truth at all, or with anything other than itself and the sheer play of language.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, postmodern theorists such as the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) took such skepticism about poetic truth and applied it to language as a whole, wherein they found all meaning to be in some degree deferred, and all representation to be artificial and unreliable to an indeterminate degree. But even then, Derrida appeared to leave room for something more—something still related to religion— to emerge from language and symbol and to entice belief. Truth might be elusive, but there was still something worth trusting in the darkness of unknowing, as Derrida would hint from time to time. Not surprisingly, this open-ended, postmodern approach, pushing to the limits of language and beyond, sounded to some students of theology and religion like a kind of negative theology—a via negativa— and sometimes almost like poetry, itself.
Religion has to do not only with prophecy and revelation, but also with devotion and spirituality: the response and expression of personal or corporate piety. In intense forms, that can entail mysticism— seeking and celebrating an experience of union (or intimate communion) with the divine or with ultimate reality transcending all imaginable qualities. Devotion that is corporate and public is usually termed worship. When private, devotion is known more often as personal prayer, meditation, or contemplation.
As noted earlier, the greater portion of poetry that has played a role in public worship has been accompanied by music. Some of that musical poetry is narrative in kind, reciting stories of the acts of deities, avatars, and exemplary human beings. Mostly, however, the poetry of worship is lyrical.
Among the more complex and formal lyrics are odes praising or petitioning the divine, as occurs in cult hymns from the Alexandrian period in Greek literature (c. 300–30 BCE). In the Christian New Testament, the letters of Paul make reference to the singing of “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs”—seemingly imprecise terms that nevertheless emphasize the lyrical mode, including canticles such as Mary’s Magnificat, found in the book of Luke. Original lyric verse, once it has been set to music, has also been employed widely in public prayer, as one sees in the poems of the now celebrated Symphonia of Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179).
The extra-biblical church hymns of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as the Stabat Mater and the Dies Irae, are among the high marks of liturgical poetry. In Judaism, similarly, there is an extensive tradition of piyyutim, or liturgical poems and prayers, mostly composed between the early centuries of the Common Era and the eighteenth century.
While religious poetry that is not sung or chanted has not generally found a major place in liturgy or corporate worship, such poetry has served as a medium of private devotion and personal religious expression. The works of one of the greatest Hebrew poets of the medieval period, Judah ha-Levi (c. 1075–1141), generally fall into that category. In Christian circles, from the late sixteenth century through much of the seventeenth, meditative or metaphysical lyric poetry was in many instances deeply informed by the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). Other lyric poetry of the same period, especially in Protestant England, was shaped—as already noted—by the poetry of the Bible itself, which at that time was thought to have been composed in regular meters.
Modern counterparts of such poetry can be found, but are seldom so openly devotional in character, and rarely so explicitly prayerful. Particularly notable examples in the West include lyrics composed by the American Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), the Russian Anna Akhmatova (1889– 1966), the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844– 1889), Ireland’s William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), the Ger German Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), and the Welsh Anglican priest R. S. Thomas (1913–2000). Americans such as Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962), Anne Sexton (1928–1974), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–) composed poetic exhortations and confessions, both lyric and narrative, that are still further removed from conventional Western religious norms—being panentheistic, feminist, “Beat,” and Zen in their respective spiritualities. The works of the Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920–1970) constitute some of the most evocative and shattering uses of poetic language to have emerged in response to the Holocaust….
The poetic traditions of Christianity and Judaism are generally less rapturous and mystical than those considered above, and are mostly inclined to seek communion with God, rather than union. But notable examples of the mystical poetic impulse can be found. The poems of the Spaniard John of the Cross (1542–1591) are classics of mysticism, known for tracing the path to God through the dark night of the soul. Many works of Jewish mystical poetry reflect the influence of medieval Qabbalah. Other Jewish poetry has been inspired by the Hasidic tradition of pietism and mysticism originating in the eighteenth century.
The mystical, and even the devotional, strands within religious poetry receive relatively little attention in the major Western theories of poetry. Although Western theories have sometimes related the poetic sense of the sublime to the religious experience of the holy, they have generally valued poetry as instruction and delight, as creative or beautiful making
(poiesis) and artful representation (mimesis), and as self-expression.
By contrast, Indian poetic theories have more frequently discerned a genuinely religious and potentially mystical purpose inherent within the experience of poetry itself.
Thus various ancient theorists in India discuss eight or nine major aesthetic rasas (core sentiments or moods), one of which they commonly identify as profoundly peaceful (santa) and, as such, also religious. No later than the sixteenth century, a specifically devotional rasa is identified, which is called simply bhakti. Centuries before then, the great eleventh century theorist Abhinavagupta had said that a rasa produced by a drama (normally in verse and dance) can afford a kind of metaphysical bliss integral to, though not identical with, the experience of utmost spiritual liberation, or moksa.
As the preceding discussion has shown, poetry serves a variety of religious purposes, even as it heightens awareness of the power, beauty, and figurative play of language itself.
Prior to the modern era, the poetry with the widest sphere of influence was mythical, epic, or quasi-historical, in the manner of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, the Indian Ramayana, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Such poetry speaks for and to the wider community, in both religious and moral terms. Poetry in that public sense of establishing and exploring core communal values has largely been eclipsed in contemporary life, especially in the West. Some cultural critics have wondered whether theatre and prose fiction may also be fading from public significance in a phase of culture that seems preeminently visual and musical.
Nevertheless, if one includes song itself in the category of poetry—something for which there is historical precedent— then it can be said with some justification that the poetic medium, if less often poetry itself, still plays a role in public. Popular songwriters such as Bob Dylan (1941–), Paul Simon (1942–), Bob Marley (1944–1987), and the Indigo
Girls (first recorded in 1989) have had a communal role with discernible moral and religious dimensions that go beyond entertainment per se. At a less popular level, but with a sizeable multinational audience, the morally engaging films of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) and the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941–1996) are certainly not without poetic qualities. Meanwhile, in their widely acclaimed contemporary operas and large-scale choral works, composers such as John Adams (1947–), Philip Glass
(1937–), and Tan Dun (1957–) employ poetic texts from Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Mayan traditions, partly in an attempt to recover a global sense, however mysterious, of purpose and hope.
In a postmodern culture, then, it appears that the larger social and communal dimension of moral and religious imagination is still being conveyed poetically, but more often by the poetic qualities of media such as music and film than by poetry.
Two invaluable reference sources for the study of poetry and poetics, religious and otherwise, are The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton, N.J., 1993), and Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms, edited by Irena R. Makaryk (Toronto, 1993).
The following studies, although centered on one particular period, genre, or text, provide insights into the overall relation between poetry and religion: M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism:
Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York, 1971), Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York, 1985), Guy L. Beck, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Columbia, S.C., 1993), Giles B. Gunn, The Interpretation of Otherness: Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination (New York, 1979), O. B. Hardison, Jr., Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1965), David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1992), Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton, N.J., 1979), Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, rev. edition (New Haven, Conn., 1962), Vijay Mishra, Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime (Albany, N.Y., 1998), Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word: Language, Poetics, and Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1986), John Renard, Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley, Calif., 1996), James H. Sanford, William R. LaFleur, and Masatoshi Nagatomi, eds., Flowing Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan, (Princeton, N.J., 1992), and Nathan A. Scott, Jr., Visions of Presence in Modern American Poetry (Baltimore, 1993).
These studies reflect more broadly on religious dimensions of poetry and poetics: Vincent Buckley, Poetry and the Sacred (London, 1968), Frank Burch Brown, Transfiguration: Poetic Metaphor and the Languages of Religious Belief (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983), Giles B. Gunn, ed., Literature and Religion (New York, 1971), Hans Küng and Walter Jens, Literature and Religion (New York, 1991), Justus George Lawler, Celestial Pantomime: Poetic Structures of Transcendence (New Haven, Conn., 1979), Paul Mariani, God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable (Athens, Ga., 2002), William T. Noon, Poetry and Prayer (New Brunswick, N.J., 1967), Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York, 1982), Nathan A. Scott, Jr., The Poetics of Belief (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985), Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, translated by David E. Green (New York, 1963), and Robert Wuthnow, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist (Berkeley, Calif., 2001).
While there is no truly representative reader in the poetry of the world’s religions, three collections that cross traditions are Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania, edited by Jerome Rothenberg (New York, 1968), The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, edited by R. S. Thomas (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1963), and Modern Religious Poems: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Jacob Trapp (New York, 1964). A major, two-volume anthology in English combining Jewish and Christian poetry, along with poetry from the margins of those traditions, is Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder (New York, 1993). Similar in nature, but focusing on modern poetry and the Hebrew Bible alone, is the anthology Modern Poems on the Bible, edited by David Curzon (Jerusalem, 1994). For what is possibly the most religiously diverse collection of poetry about any one religious figure, see Divine Inspiration:
The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, edited by Robert Atwan, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal (New York, 1998).[1]
[1] BROWN, FRANK BURCH (2005), POETRY: POETRY AND RELIGION, in Lindsay Jones, Editor in Chief, 2005, Encyclopedia of Religion, Second edition. Thomson Gale, a part of The Thomson Corporation.