THE DEVIL HATES GOOSE QUILLS
And Why it Matters to the Church
Martin Luther, who said “The Devil hates goose quills,” insisted that in a reformation, “We need poets.” Most of us scratch our heads and wonder what on earth we need them for.
Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-Biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what used to be called poetry. Few deny it; ours is a post-poetry culture. But who cares?
“Poetry is a marginal art form,” wrote poet Campbell McGrath, “in a culture that values neither literacy nor artistic expression in any vital way. America does not persecute poets, it does not seek to smash them like bugs—it just doesn’t care a lot.”
Martin Luther cared deeply about poetry, in the most vital way. But do most Christians today? Most accept the decline of poetry without a whimper, with barely a wafture of good riddance. But does it matter?
Paul Johnson, decrying the decline in literacy, argues that students should “produce competent verse in a wide variety of strict meters, under examination conditions.”
To what purpose should they be subjected to such literary tortures? After all, what good is it? Won’t the machinations of society carry on just fine without poetry? Won’t the church do just fine without it? It’s not like poetry contributes anything vital. You can’t eat it.
So thought Hanoverian King George II. “I hate all boets!” he declared. If you’ve ever been flummoxed at lines you were told were poetry, ones about wheelbarrows and chickens, you may agree with George’s abhorrence of poets.
But are Christians to stand deferentially aside as culture pitches poetry—the highest form—into the lowest circle of hell?
WHAT HAPPENED TO POETRY?
I’ve been accused of the pedagogical unpardonable sin of depriving my writing students of what has become poetry’s sole consideration: individual self-expression. “Why don’t you let them write in free verse?” I’m asked. “I do,” I reply. “We just call it brainstorming.”
Arguably vers libre achieved its foothold with Walt Whitman, a man with new ideas simmering in his bosom, new ideas that demanded a new form. “Through me forbidden voices, voices of sexes and lust, voices veiled, and I removed the veil.” The Devil, no doubt, rubs his hands in glee at Whitman’s goose quill.
Whitman-like free verse dictates against any conventional structure of meter or rhyme. This throw-off-the-shackles impulse creates a blurring of literary genre wherein poetic form is abandoned in favor of irregular bursts of feeling. What often remains is fragmented prose. “Poetry” thus conceived provides a pseudo-form for saying private things about one’s self, things one would never utter in direct speech—until Whitman removed the veil.
Such redefining of what poetry is has led to a proliferation of what one classics professor termed, “therapeutic soul-baring by emotional exhibitionist[s].” Or as John Stott quipped, “The trouble with you Americans is you’re constantly engaged in a spiritual strip-tease.”
Abandoning form for raw emotion is not unique to poets. Most artists are quite pleased with themselves for smashing outmoded forms in favor of new structures, ones better suited to self-expression, the now primary sphere of art.
It’s no coincidence that poetry began its descent into “gaseous emotionalizing” in egalitarian America. Alexis d’Tocqueville placed the blame squarely on the devolutions of democracy. “Nothing is more repugnant to the human mind, in an age of equality, than the idea of subjection to forms.”
As he continues, one wonders if d’Tocqueville was thinking of his contemporary Walt Whitman, “Democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man, and fixes it on man alone. Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.”
Meanwhile, Whitman was working on his signature poem, Song of Myself, the prototype of vacuous praise—of the wrong object. Man-centered praise poetry was born. Instead of “turning us from ourselves to [God]” as Whitman’s contemporary, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, Song of Myself set the mortar of poetic self-referentialism.
Much of Whitman’s poetry was disgusting material. “I believe in the flesh and the appetites,” he crooned. “Divine am I inside and out… The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds… nothing, not God, is greater… more wonderful than myself.” One wishes Whitman would stop. But he does not. Nor have poets since.
When Whittier received his advance copy of Song of Myself, he read a few lines and tossed it into the fire. Unfortunately, vers libre emotive self-expression survived the burning. One tragic result is that we’ve forfeited the ability to measure the quality of poetry, so free verse proliferates without censure as everyone and his cocker spaniel gets in touch with the poet within.
POETRY IN THE BIBLE
The Devil likely applauds Christians who shrug indifferently as genuine poetry twitches into the abyss. Yet the Bible contains the finest poetry of the ancient world. Hebrew poetry, divinely inspired, not only adorned the highest object, it was the greatest lyric beauty ever penned, C. S. Lewis considering Psalm 19 the finest poem of all time.
All people in the ancient world turned to poetry. It is the imago Dei in human beings that they express their deepest longings, their highest joys, and their darkest grief in poetry. Contrary to today’s post-poetry world, if we had lived 3,000 years ago in the ancient near-east under the blessing of the Sovereign Lord, poetry would have played a daily role in our lives.
We would have sung it, danced to it, memorized it, prayed it, written it, accompanied it on our lyre, hummed it as we herded sheep, shouted it charging into battle, and lifted our voice with inspired poetry in corporate worship with the grand assembly of Israel, the accelerating wonder of the presence of the Almighty thrilling our souls. At last, we would have parted this life with the Psalms on our lips in our final sigh.
Throughout every season of our existence, our lives would have revolved around grand poetic expressions of adoration, ones such as my father’s favorite (Psalm 34) as he was dying of cancer:
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and he delivers them.
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Line upon line, the Psalms are full of passionate expressions of hope and adoration, rich, exuberant poetry that appears throughout the historical and prophetic books as well.
The Apostle Paul, Hebrew of the Hebrews, not only knew the Psalms, he understood pagan verse. Speaking before the Areopagus ( Acts 17:28), he recited from pagan Greek poet, Epimenides of Crete, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and from Aratus’s Phainomena, with the line, “For we are indeed his offspring.” And Daniel was “competent to stand in the king’s palace” for his wisdom and to have it augmented by being taught “the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4), literature which in the ancient world would have been exclusively poetry.
POETRY IN GENEVA
While Luther searched for German poets, Psalms versified for singing became central to the progress of the gospel in the French Reformation. Calvin employed the fugitive court poet, Clement Marot, to create French Psalm versifications for the Geneva Psalter (1551). Calvin himself may have inked his goose quill to craft the Psalm-like hymn I Greet Thee Who My sure Redeemer Art. Though not a strict versification of any Psalm text, it was included in the Psalter.
So central was Psalm singing to the Reformation that by Calvin’s death there were sixty illegal French Psalters in circulation throughout Europe. Without a doubt, some of these versifications were of considerably better poetic quality than others. However faithful to the original Psalm in theology, and however sincere the poet, many of these versifications were poetically crude material.
Nevertheless, biblical Christians will always want to sing the Psalms, and there are fine existing Psalm versifications to sing. But ought we to keep singing the ones that contort syntax to fit the meter, the ones that are clearly not words set in delightful proportion, as the inspired Psalms so clearly were?
Poet physician, Elliot Emanuel, observed that “poetry is what eludes translation.” Though original truths can be translated, the subtle nuances of poetic language are another matter. Unique cadences and conventions inevitably must give way to those of the new language. Though raw content remains, the words in the new language rarely can convey the soul of the poetry.
Poetry’s role is to adorn truth by creating pictures with words, figurative language; and by creating music with words, employing sound devices like alliteration, rhyming, and enjambment. Though parallelisms of idea translate from Hebrew to other languages, the mysterious and wonderful images and music created with words in the original poetry are often lost.
Hence, when faithful men labored to make strict, metered English verse from Hebrew Psalm poetry, complications arose. To their credit, these men intentionally paid much greater attention to the inspired content than to the lyric devices of English poetry. But must it be either or?
POETRY THE DEVIL HATES
Though there are enduring versifications in English Psalters, we’ve all stumbled along attempting to sing some versions. Let’s be honest. There are Psalm versifications that are clumsy poetry. I hasten to add that this is no criticism of Psalm singing—and certainly not of the inspired text. Nothing could be further from my intention. It’s simply candor.
Consider an illustration. Determined to worship God biblically, the Massachusetts Bay Colony employed linguist and missionary John Elliot to versify Psalms directly from the Hebrew original. The resulting Bay Psalm Book (1640) was the first book published in the New World, a monument to the priority of Psalm singing in Christian worship. But clearly poetic beauty in English was not a prominent objective:
O Blessed man, that in th’advice
of wicked men doeth not walk:
Or stand in sinners’ way, or sit
in chair of scornful folk.
Though the original Psalm is divinely inspired poetry, the Bay Psalm Book version of Psalm 1 is indisputably not an example of “words set in delightful proportion,” as Sir Phillip Sidney defined poetry in his Defense of Poesy.
Herein is the great dilemma for educators: We rightly train our students to appreciate the grandeur of the canon of English poetry, words and meaning set in delightful proportion by John Donne and others, while we require them to sing sometimes awkward English poetry back to God in corporate worship. Like teaching them to craft fine wine but making them drink purple Kool Aid.
Certainly, the Devil hates it when we get the theological content correct. But I’d wager he’s content when we leave poetry to musty book shelves. I suspect he beams with delight when a generation attempts to worship the God who made a universe of stupendous beauty with halting poetic efforts.
Meanwhile, the Psalms call us to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to be dazzled at his loveliness—and they do so with inspired poetry, the finest ever penned, adorning glorious truths about God’s perfections and redemptive ways, set in the most surpassingly delightful proportion.
Just as the musicians chosen to accompany Psalm singing in old covenant worship were to be men of unrivalled musical skill, so much more in new covenant worship, the content and the form of the poetry ought to be the finest. Imagine the diabolical hand-wringing when it is so.
CHRIST CENTERED PREACHING—AND SINGING
We would rightly consider a preacher of the gospel to have missed the point if he preached through a book of the law and concluded that finally what matters is our obedience, as if Paul never wrote that the law was a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, our righteousness, the fulfillment of the law.
Moreover, if he preached from an old covenant poetic book but taught it as nothing more than ancient, near-eastern love poetry, devoid of redemptive typology, devoid of Christ the lover of his bride the church, we would rightly feel that Christ had been dishonored in such preaching—and we had been cheated.
Redemptive-historical preaching is not a hermeneutical option, a matter of methodological taste that works for some and not for others. In his book Christ-Centered Preaching, Brian Chappell wrote, "The redemptive-historical method… is a vital and foundational tool that expositors need to accurately and gracefully interpret texts in their full context." No other method gets at the burden of the biblical text—Jesus.
So when Paul writes that we are “in word or deed” to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, in the immediate context of singing “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16-17), perhaps we ought to consider that what is true of preaching in new covenant worship is equally true of singing in new covenant worship.
“The hymns of Luther,” a Jesuit critic said, “killed more souls than his sermons.” Preacher Isaac Watts is not remembered for his sermons; like Luther, poet Watts is remembered for his hymns. One reason is that he vigorously combined his redemptive-historical interpretation with vital poetry adorning the highest object. Watts’s versification of Psalm 72 provides a concise example. “Give the king your justice, O God,” fashioned by Watts’s redemptive-historical theology and his poetic skill, became, “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun / Doth his successive journeys run.”
Poets like Luther and Watts, who used their goose quills to adorn the loveliness of Jesus—the Devil abhors. Let’s give him more to hate.
LET’S SHARPEN THOSE GOOSE QUILLS
“We need poets,” said Luther, as does the church today, poets laboring to master that mysterious human expression that flows directly from our being God’s image bearers. Excellence in poetry is supremely a gift of God, but honing poetic skill requires study, imitation, submission to form, practice, and experience, just like playing the cello or the banjo.
Poetry, as with all gifts of God, ought to be used for its highest purpose. “The highest form of poetry is the hymn,” wrote Whittier, arch critic of Whitman—whose object was himself. If poetry adorns and delineates the ideal, what possible higher ideal could there be—than Christ himself?
Even French Catholic d’Tocqueville felt uneasy about American poets using their quills to gush about streams and mountains—and themselves—instead of celebrating “the providential designs that rule the universe, [that] show the finger of the Supreme Governor, [that] reveal the thoughts of the Supreme Mind,” notably themes appearing in Psalms and the finest hymn poetry.
I wonder how many of us have thought of the words we were singing in worship as the highest form of poetry. There may be reasons for this. It may be because much of it is “gaseous emotionalism” with vague Bible words—so unlike inspired Psalm poetry. Or, though the words may be true, it may simply be mediocre poetry, uninspiring pedestrian verse.
We may be tempted to assume that we already have good enough hymns—and there are many fine ones—so how important can it be to produce poets and new hymns? Maybe Luther got it wrong. I suspect the Devil nods approvingly at this reasoning.
But aren’t there plenty of great sermons? Why not simply read from the vast wealth of existing sermons preached by able expositors like Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon? Yet Christians understand that every healthy age in the church will produce preachers—skillful men who preach God’s Word afresh and with Spirit-imbued power.
Without straining the comparison, won’t every age want to frustrate the Devil by producing poets who honor Christ anew in their poetry? The Devil hates goose quills, including ones wielded by able poets who train their pens to the highest use—crafting Psalm-like hymns that lift the heart, mind, and imagination from our puny selves, and enthrall us with Christ alone.
The Devil probably enjoys what Whitman and his offspring spew, but he hates real poetry. Judging from the vast quantity of poetry in the inspired canon of the Bible—God loves poetry. And so must his bride, the church.
Imagine the Devil’s despair when Christians train their children to know and love God’s Word and render to their Redeemer the most stupendous words of gratitude and adoration—highest register words, worthy of the highest object. Let’s sharpen those goose quills and discover the Cowper and Rossetti lying dormant in this generation.
We rise and worship you, our Lord,
With grateful hearts for grace outpoured,
For you are good—O taste and see—
Great God of mercy rich and free.
A chosen son of God on high,
I trembling bow and wonder why
This Sovereign Lord—O taste and see—
In love stooped down and rescued me.
Your Son obeyed the Law for me,
Then died my death upon the tree.
O Jesus Christ, I taste and see
And marvel that you purchased me.
In might, your Spirit drew me in,
My quickened heart from death to win.
O Holy Spirit—taste and see—
My comfort, hope, and surety.
With thankful praise our hearts we give;
By grace alone we serve and live.
O Trinity, we taste and see
Your sovereign goodness full and free.