Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination, David Lyle Jeffrey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.
Summary: A collection of essays tracing the influence of the scriptures, and particularly the poetry of scripture, upon poetry in the English language from medieval to modern times.
If you are a Jeopardy fan, you may have noticed how most contestants avoid categories involving biblical knowledge. Friends of mine in university English departments tell me that there is a similar avoidance of Bible as literature courses by university faculty. This is particularly striking given the profound influence of the Bible upon English literature throughout history.
In this work, Baylor University English professor David Lyle Jeffrey focuses on a very specific aspect of that influence–the influence of the Bible, and particularly its poetic character, on English language poetry. He states:
“The central purpose of this collection of essays will be to explore some of the ways Holy Scripture has shaped the English poetic imagination, not merely through subject, cadence, idiom, and various echoes of its diction, but by effecting something deeper in the consciousness of English-speaking poets from Caedmon in the eighth century to Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg among our contemporaries. Essentially, this involves an atunement of the vernacular English poetic imagination to biblical poetics as a wellspring of inspiration.”
Jeffrey begins with poetry in God’s own voice, the passages of scripture where God speaks, whether through the Old Testament prophets or the parables of Jesus up through the final visions of the Revelation to St. John. The remainder of the book then explores the English poetic imagination from the medieval period up to the Reformation, and then from the Reformation to the present time. The first part includes discussions of the works of Caedmon, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. The second part begins with John Donne and George Herbert. In Donne, we see human love transmuted into love for the divine. In Herbert, we find one who has deeply digested the scriptures, whose poetry is a prayerful commentary of scripture as a whole. And what scripture? The following chapter explores the profound influence of the King James Version on poetry from the time of this translation forward, as perhaps the pinnacle of English expression not to be matched by modern translations, however accurate they may be.
The last chapters introduced me to modern poets I have not explored: Margaret Avison, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Foremost of these is Richard Wilbur, named poet laureate of the United States in 1987, one who Jeffrey says, “teaches us to be open ourselves to wonder.” His descriptions left me wanting to read all of them, Wilbur in particular.
He concludes with the contemporary disarray of the humanities that have ceased “being purveyors of high and noble verities for low, and often trivial, advocacies.” He sees in an academy that has dismissed the higher authority found in Holy Scripture, a place given over to the exercise of power. Against all this, he urges the community of those who are people of the Book (harking back to an earlier work) to the task of the preservation of literature in which they recognize expressions of truth that reflect that Book.
This is a book written particularly for those familiar both with the literature about which Jeffrey writes, and the academic language in which Jeffrey’s fellow academics discuss these texts. This is not so much an introduction to the influence of the Bible on poetry, as an extended rigorous disquisition for students and teachers of English literature showing from medieval to modern periods that much of English poetry cannot be well-understood apart from the biblical text that served as the wellspring of the imaginations that crafted these works.
Those without this background may despair after a few chapters. If they are hungering for a deeper engagement with literature, they might begin with other writers like Karen Swallow Prior. This is a more advanced work, especially suitable both for Christians and those who are not who are engaged in literary studies and suspect the Bible has a greater influence on the works they are studying than credited. I think Jeffrey makes a case well worth considering as well as offering a searching analysis of the parlous state of literary studies at the present time.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.