5 Catholic Poets You Should Know

As an art form, poetry has faded into the background in recent years. It is often considered the domain of children, elite intellectuals, or bookish literary types, and our exposure to it is usually limited to reading a few poems by Emily Dickinson in high school. It certainly isn’t a genre most of us pursue when we have a few minutes of quiet time.

But this was not always the case. In fact, for centuries, poetry had an incredibly important role in society, and poets were considered influential and powerful people, possessing a unique ability to shape the culture . Percy Shelley, a poet himself, even went so far as to say, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” If one wanted to change the culture politically or morally, one would be come a poet.

Poetry was also considered a highly masculine art, and many of the greatest poets, from Shakespeare to Lord Byron, were men.

As with every great art form, the Catholic church has contributed more than her share of great poets. I’d like to share five of them with you today, along with one of their poems. While poetry may not be your favorite genre, take a moment to learn about these authors. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Joyce Kilmer

HS_KilmerAJ1918_01When most of us think of the Catholic literary giants of the last century, we think of Englishmen like J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, or Hilaire Belloc. But the Englishmen were not the only great men of letters— an American, Joyce Kilmer, should be included among them.

Kilmer was a soldier, essayist, prolific poet, and literary critic, and while he is largely forgotten today, he was considered one of the greatest literary figures of his time. Interestingly, like many other great Catholic literary giants, Joyce Kilmer was a convert to Catholicism. He is largely remembered for his poem Trees, and many of his poems deal with his faith or with the beauty of nature. He died in 1918.

As Winds That Blow Against A Star

Now by what whim of wanton chance
Do radiant eyes know sombre days?
And feet that shod in light should dance
Walk weary and laborious ways?

But rays from Heaven, white and whole,
May penetrate the gloom of earth;
And tears but nourish, in your soul,
The glory of celestial mirth.

The darts of toil and sorrow, sent
Against your peaceful beauty, are
As foolish and as impotent
As winds that blow against a star.

Siegfried Sassoon

Shellshock-poet-Siegfried-Sassoon-8Curiously enough, the carnage of World War I produced a number of great poets— far more than the wars that were to follow. These men were scarred by the horrors they saw, and many of them struggled to reconcile their trauma with the ordinary events of daily life through their poetry.

One of the best of the poets produced by World War I is Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was born in 1886 to a moderately wealthy English family, and much of his youth was spent in diversions like endless games of cricket. He received an excellent education, and began to write poetry at a young age.

When World War I began, he volunteered for the British Army. He was decorated for his bravery in battle, and he earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his seemingly insane acts of valor. The war, however, left him depressed, and this tone is reflected in his poetry, which took on a bitter edge.

Many years after the war, Sassoon converted to Catholicism, due much to the influence of a fellow literary figure and convert he admired—Msgr. Ronald Knox. While much of his poetry is shrouded in beauty and mystery, here is one of his darker war poems that satirically mocks the pompous politicians who sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths.

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell-
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Gerard Manley Hopkins

GerardManleyHopkinsGerard Manley Hopkins is yet another convert to Catholicism who left a legacy of incredible poetry. During his lifetime, he was almost completely unknown as a poet, but his bold, fresh, and unique style brought him posthumous fame.

Hopkins came from a family of artists and lovers of literature, and his father was a poet. In college at Oxford, he studied classic literature and showed himself a brilliant student. In July of 1866, after a period of soul searching (largely prompted by the influence of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement), Hopkins decided to become Catholic, consulting with another famous literary convert—John Henry Newman. His conversion estranged him from his family, but he was determined.

Two years later, Gerard decided he would become a priest, and to mark the occasion, he tragically burned all of his poems, which he deemed unsuitable for a religious. Fortunately, some of his early poems survived, and later, after more study, he determined that poetry was not incompatible with religious life and he continued to write. Hopkins is mostly noted for his unique imagery and his use of sprung-rhythm, a form of poetry he largely developed himself. I have decided to share the poem God’s Grandeur, one of his most famous and evocative poems.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Joseph Mary Plunkett

Joseph_Mary_PlunkettJoseph Mary Plunkett is mostly known for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising and his constant crusade for Irish independence. Nevertheless, he was also an accomplished poet and journalist. He came from a wealthy and privileged family, but he eventually caught a passion for Irish nationalism that was to determine the course of his short life.

After joining the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he became embroiled in negotiations for Irish freedom, which ultimately led to the planning of the Easter Rising—an armed insurrection. Plunkett was instrumental in planning this uprising, and it was largely his plan that was followed. After the rebellion was crushed, Plunkett was imprisoned. He was executed by firing squad on May 4, 1916 at the age of 28. While remembered as a revolutionary, Joseph Plunkett left a legacy of incredibly stirring poetry, which I highly recommend you read further.

I see his blood upon the rose

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

Richard Crashaw

thThe son of prominent and highly anti-Catholic Puritan minister, Richard Crashaw was one of the English metaphysical poets and a convert to Catholicism. The metaphysical poets were known for composing poetry that was highly complex, intellectually dense, and intricate in imagery. While Crashaw is not considered among the greats of this tradition, he is nevertheless remembered for his earthy poems that captured the inner workings of ordinary things.

After receiving his education and beginning his career, Crashaw fled to France during the chaos of the English Civil War, which followed in the wake of the English reformation. In France, he received the Catholic faith. He never returned to England, which was highly hostile to Catholics at the time, but instead entered the service of a Cardinal Giovanni Pallotta in Rome. He died in 1649 in Loreto, Italy at the age of 36.

The Recommendation

These houres, and that which hovers o’re my End,
Into thy hands, and hart, lord, I commend.

Take Both to Thine Account, that I and mine
In that Hour, and in these, may be all thine.

That as I dedicate my devoutest Breath
To make a kind of Life for my lord’s Death,

So from his living, and life-giving Death,
My dying Life may draw a new, and never fleeting Breath.

Bonus: Dame Edith Sitwell

4149_edith_sitwellWhile this is a men’s blog, and I like to focus on male subjects, I had to include Edith Sitwell in this list for the simple reason that she wrote one of the most powerful modern poems I have read, which I will share below. You can look up her biography yourself, but all I will add is that she is yet another English convert to Catholicism. Do you notice a trend?

Still Falls the Rain

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet

On the Tomb:
Still falls the Rain

In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear—
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh… the tears of the hunted hare.

Still falls the Rain—
Then— O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune—
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,—dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

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31 Responses to “5 Catholic Poets You Should Know”

  1. I am sad that Chesterton didn’t make the cut. For those interested, he has many of his works for free on ibooks. One is simply titled “Poetry”.

  2. One more, Shakespeare’s Cousin St. Robert Southwell.

    The Burning Babe
    As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
    Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
    And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
    A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
    Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
    As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
    Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
    Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
    My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
    Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
    The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
    The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,
    For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
    So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
    With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
    And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

  3. Ademir Jr. de S. Amaral Reply

    Thank you very much. I’m learning English and I love poetry. I intend to include these poets in my study. These site is very helpful in a religious and intelectual sense to me.

  4. Can someone provide links to where we can find more poetry from these people? Or even preferably a book of their poetry? Amazon didn’t seem to have anything good for once.

  5. Author or life, whose breath we breathe,
    to Thee be praise and thanksgiving.
    Make known in due time Thy will —
    as above, so below, inside as out.
    Give us our part, withhold what is not
    and forgive us our hurts,
    as we forgive others’ and our own.
    Be our light in the night
    and shield us from blindness at noon.
    Glory be to Thee, Amen.

  6. Congratulations for the site. I think T. S. Eliot was not Catholic, he belonged to an arm of anglicism that was close to us, but not integrated.
    I miss David Jones (The Anathémata) and all the great Spanish poets (Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Santa Teresa de Jesús, San Juan de la Cruz), I am not sure if there is any translation of them.

  7. How sad that our supposed Catholic faith is so anemic as to be no longer productive of poetry. We may as well discard History altogether, like the modernists, if by continually referencing it we gain no more knowledge than we already possessed and fail to restore the social reign of Christ the King with works of our own. May I please suggest my own Sonnets for Christ the King to show that Catholicism does not end with Belloc and Chesterton? Here is the link: https://mackenziepoet.com/. All good wishes!

  8. What a wonderful post! I am going to delve deeper into these poets and others suggested. Thank you for sharing this and Happy Easter to you and your family! 🙂

  9. The post is not Catholic because it makes poetry into a kind of musty old antique store, not a veritable, vibrant tradition. It is also uncritical.

    Hopkins was a proto-modernist Jesuit who set out to dismantle and tear down traditional poetry through a number of liberal innovations, such as “sprung rhythm”—a black stain on poetry in general. Hopkins should never be counted a Catholic. Crashaw is, at best a quasi-illustrious minor who is outdone by Dryden and many others, a very poor poet who utterly lacks refinement, perfectly unreadaqble. Plunkett is a little too dainty, even by the standards of his own day.

    This is the kind of “traditionalist” article that simply affirms the liberal dogma that Catholicism ended with Chesterton and Belloc.

    There is a world of difference between a truly vibrant Catholic tradition, such as lyric poetry, and empty nostalgia for the past. This whole article is anti-tradition, and therefore anti-Catholic. What? There are no 21st-century Catholic poets? Why not do a bit of research? One might discover something about poetry—and even learn to think about Catholic poetry more critically and deeply, rather than caressing one’s nostalgia.

    I also attend the Latin Mass. This does not mean that I retreat into the Edwardian period and suck my thumb in a closet.The Church is not a candle snuffer. “Lights out after Belloc, you can stop thinking now.”

  10. Joseph Charles Mackenzie.. It seems like your comments conflict. On the one hand you offer your own writing as an addition, on the other you call the post anti-Catholic. Strange. Also, I as a reader (perhaps not the intended audience, as I am not a Catholic GENTLEMAN) did not get the sense that anyone in the post or the comments was hinting that Belloc and/or Chesterton were the end of Catholicism, let alone outright claiming so. It seemed to me a simple acknowledgement of their greatness/skill. Re: modern poets and a narrowly focused blog post (only five, of many many many more), I would hazard that it’s just simpler to look at those in the past, whose work is more accesible, more likely to have crossed one’s path.

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