The One Year Book of Poetry: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Classic Christian Verse, Compiled and Written by Philip Comfort and Daniel Partner
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good repute, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – think on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
I’m not what I would call an avid poetry-lover, but with my education in literature, I do appreciate and enjoy it, and I have some favorite poets. This book was recommended by a friend, and I liked the idea of reading about the things of God written in verse form. This volume provides exactly what the sub-title states: a short poetry reading accompanied by some devotional commentary for each day of the year. The writers often include some background about the poet and some interpretive help (particularly for those older works which use more archaic language). They then draw a connection between the ideas and emotions expressed in the poem to the related ideas or doctrinal teachings found in Scripture, and end with a word of application to the reader and a relevant scripture passage.
This collection of poetry represents 102 different writers, ranging from as early as the 3rd century (Clement of Alexandria) to the early 20th century (T. S. Eliot). You have to keep in mind that not every writer represented here was necessarily a true Christian (of course, only God knows the heart), but even some who were not true believers and followers of Christ expressed thoughts that cause one to contemplate God, His Son, His works, and man’s relationship with Him. Some of the poets found here are to be expected, such as George Herbert, John Donne, John Milton, Anne Bradstreet, William Cowper, and Christina Rossetti. But there are some surprise contributors as well, such as Lord Byron, John Keats, William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Rudyard Kipling. Other poets here whose names you may recognize are William Blake, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Some people might think: Why would I want to read about how other people think or feel about God when I can just read the Bible itself? To give us the Bible, God used many different writers to record His works and truths in a variety of styles, poetry being one of them. Poetry is a beautiful and artistic way of expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas as well as historical facts and truths about life. Poetry lends itself to reflection and even memorization. The literary devices used in poetic language help the reader to think about ideas in a moving and memorable way. Personally, I’m more of a “thinker” rather than a “feeler,” so reading poetry is somewhat outside of my natural comfort zone, but I have come to value the beauty and creativity of the use of poetic language to express things that are worth thinking about. God created language, and I admire those who have a gift for writing, and use this gift to draw the thoughts of others to the Creator.
Some of the subjects and themes touched on in these poems are God’s works of creation, providence, and redemption, His Word, prayer, faith, hope, love, heaven, service and obedience. Some poems focus on a specific incident or character from the Bible. Of course, often a person is moved to write poetry during dark times, so there are also poems that address subjects such as sorrow and affliction, temptation, death, sin, repentance, and judgment. There are poems for the seasons of Easter and Advent, and many that are simply verses and hymns of praise, thanksgiving and worship for who God is and what He has done.
Consider for example, this first of three stanzas of “Long Barren” by Christina Rossetti, in which she compares the barren tree on which Christ died with her barren life which she asks the Lord to make fruitful:
Thou who didst hang upon a barren tree,
My God, for me;
Tho’ I till now be barren, now at length,
Lord, give me strength
To bring forth fruit to Thee.
“The Man of Sorrows” is a longer poem of 46 stanzas by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), which traces the life of Jesus from his birth, through his life of ministry, and finally to the cross. Here are the first and last two stanzas:
O ever homeless Stranger,
Thus, dearest Friend to me;
An outcast in a manger,
That Thou might’st with us be! …
We worship, when we see Thee
In all Thy sorrowing path;
We long soon to be with Thee
Who bore for us the wrath.
Come then, expected Saviour,
Thou Man of sorrows, come!
Almighty, blest Deliverer!
And take us to Thee — home.
In this poem, Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) draws our attention to the blessed Scriptures that hold the very words of life:
Welcome dear book, soul’s joy, and food! The feast
Of Spirits, Heaven extracted lies in thee;
Thou art life’s charter, the dove’s spotless nest
Where souls are hatched unto Eternity.
In thee the hidden stone, the manna lies,
Thou art the great elixir, rare, and choice;
The key that opens to all mysteries,
The Word in characters, God in the voice.
There are quite a few poems by an English poet who was a contemporary of John Milton named Francis Quarles (1592-1644), whom I had not heard of before. In one of his shorter poems, “On Jacob’s Purchase,” the poet observes the foolishness of Esau when he traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. But he ends with remarking that many of us are no different, giving up things of eternal value for things of temporal worth.
How poor was Jacob’s motion, and how strange
His offer! How unequal was th’ exchange!
A mess of porridge for inheritance?
Why could not hungry Esau strive t’ enhance
His price a little? So much underfoot?
Well might he give him bread and drink to boot:
An easy price! The case is even our own;
For toys we often sell our Heaven, our Crown.
The writers begin their Introduction of this collection with these words:
Reading poetry. Some people do this with pleasure; others, with difficulty. Either way, if you spend one year with this book, you will love poetry more or begin to like it for the first time.
The purpose for reading a collection like this one is not primarily to learn more about God or Scripture, although that may happen. You shouldn’t pick up this volume with the goal of learning doctrine or gaining instruction for godly living. What you can hope to come away with is reflections on the ways that God has worked in the lives of men and women, including your own. You will at times find the writers expressing thoughts and feelings you yourself have experienced, and their verses may touch a corner of your heart that may have otherwise remain untouched.
Related Sites and Articles
- 3 Classic Poems Every Christian Should Read (thegospelcoalition.org)
- Why you should read Devotional Poetry (thegospelcoalition.org)