On Christian Poetry and Calvin Miller
One of the simplest ways to define Christian poetry is as poetry whose subject is Christ. Christian writers today would be quick to point out that such a definition cannot be exhaustive, for many deeply Christian poems never mention Christ. But historically speaking, Christian poets have, more often than not, written poetry about Christ: his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection: in short, the gospel story.
The earliest attempt to tell the story of Christ in verse dates from the x2nd century AD. Melito, bishop of Sardis, summarizes the gospel story in his easter poem On Pascha. Melito focuses on the passion of Christ and parallels it in detail with the passover story from the book of Exodus. After Melito, two poets of the fourth century—Juvencus and Proba—attempted a more ambitious project than Melito: epic narratives about the whole life of Christ—not just his passion—in the hexameter verse of Homer and Virgil. Proba’s poem was so successful that early medieval Christian schools began assigning her poem in place of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The example of Juvencus and Proba started a whole tradition of gospel-story poems. At least three major poets of the fifth century wrote gospel poems: Nonnus of Panopolis, Sedulius, and the Empress Eudocia. By the sixth century, the great Romanos the Hymnographer was writing dozens of kontakia hymns dramatizing scenes from the life of Christ. Thus in the first five centuries of the Church, the gospel story appeared in the poems of most major Christian poets, either as an epic to rival the Greek and Latin classics, or in shorter hymns of praise and meditative lyrics.
Far from fading as a subject of Christian verse after late antiquity, the story of Christ began to exert even more power in medieval and modern poetry. By the seventeenth century, the protestant poet John Milton still chose Christ as the hero of his epic Paradise Regained, pitting Him against Satan in a game of wits and temptations in the desert.
The nineteenth century American poet Henry Longfellow portrayed Christ in a verse play titled The Divine Tragedy. Like Juvencus and Nonnus before him, Longfellow paraphrases the gospel account in contemporary meters.
Longfellow’s Divine Tragedy was not nearly as popular as his non-biblical poems. By the dawn of the 20th century, it seemed that the gospel story was no longer palatable to the reading public as a topic for popular poetry. It has become common to complain that the 20th century saw the final death of explicitly Christian poetry.
On first glance, Christian thought seems to have only survived in the Modernist era by being subtly weaved into highly fragmented and opaque poems like T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land or the lyrics of Denise Levertov. Further, poetry itself, regardless of subject, became of less and less interest to the Anglo-American reading public over the course of the 20th century. By the 1970s and 80s, it seemed that the common reader, not to mention the common Christian reader, neither read poetry nor was aware of the work of any living poets.
How surprising and refreshing it is, then, to find that this is not wholly the case.
Though it’s too often forgotten now, a gospel epic by Christian poet Calvin Miller enjoyed immense popularity in the 1970s and 80s. Miller’s epic was called The Singer, and it has much in common in subject and shape with both Milton’s Paradise Regained and the gospel epics of the fourth and fifth centuries. Miller’s poem focuses on a Christ-figure called the Singer, who is called by the “Father-Spirit” to sing a miraculous song to the world. Most of Miller’s narrative is in free verse, but when the Singer sings his song, the poem takes on traditional rhyming iambic pentameter:
In the beginning was the song of love
Alone in empty nothingness and space.
It sang itself through vaulted halls above
Reached gently out to touch the Father’s face.
While Miller’s pentameter lacks the virtuosity of Milton’s verse, it is capably written, and shows a respect for the millenium-long tradition of poetry in about Christ in English. Further, Miller uses mid-twentieth century diction in his pentameters, seldom committing the amateur’s mistake of mimicking antiquated, Shakespearean wording
Miller pits his Singer against the World Hater, a Satan figure who cannot sing, but rather plays a silver pipe to delude people into following him. Over the course of the poem, the Singer frees many from the influence of World Hater and heals them with his own song. Finally, he sings before the city authorities, who condemn his song as improper and kill him on the city walls. Of course, the Singer does not stay dead, and appears the next day to his grieving friends, including a Madman who he had healed:
Again the Singer lifted up his
bearded head and sang, “In the
beginning was the song of love…”
And through the trees the Madman’s
strong sound voice sang back, “And
here’s the new redeeming melody, the
only song that can set Terra free.”
Like autumn leaves triumph swirled upward
into sky. The song came on forever.
And distant quasars hurrying in
space marveled that the dull and joy-
less world had finally come of age.
In these penultimate stanzas of the poem, Miller weaves pentameter dialogue with free verse narrative, expanding out from the risen Christ-figure to the rejoicing universe itself.
When Calvin Miller wrote The Singer he was a struggling pastor of a small Nebraska Baptist church. His publisher, Intervarsity Press warned him that his book might not sell much at all, but that they would take a chance on his poem because they liked it. To Miller’s surprise, the first printing sold out rapidly. In his memoir, Life is Mostly Edges, Miller recounts being incredulous upon receiving his first royalty check from sales of The Singer:“When I showed the check to [my wife] Barbara, she was overwhelmed. ‘They must have sent you Francis Schaeffer’s check by mistake,’ she said.”
In its first decade, The Singer sold 300,000 copies, and helped to create a market for Christian literature in the Christian bookstores that began popping up all over the country. Miller himself would go on to publish five more books of narrative poetry based on the Bible, as well as humorous poetry for children.
I got a chance to hear Miller read some of his later comic poems at a Biola University chapel back in 2004. Sadly, by the time Miller died in 2012, most of my generation would not have recognize his name. But in his day, Miller upheld the tradition of New Testament poetic narrative, a genre that has lasted for almost two thousand years, and will last long after our names are forgotten.
Featured Art: La prière, église Saint-Bonnet by Léon Augustin Lhermitte