5 Great Poets Every Catholic Should Know

An appreciation of the creative genius of Dante, St. John of the Cross, Alexander Pope, St. Ephrem the Deacon and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Attilio Runcaldier (1801-1884), “Portrait of Dante Alighieri,” against a background featuring Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Chart of Hell’ from Dante’s Inferno.
Attilio Runcaldier (1801-1884), “Portrait of Dante Alighieri,” against a background featuring Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Chart of Hell’ from Dante’s Inferno. (photo: Public Domain)

Nobody reads (let alone buys) poetry any longer. Poets are now the province of college English departments and the reverse side of the new U.S. quarter, which features Maya Angelou. Still, for centuries, if not millennia, poets were looked upon as visionary sages, chroniclers of their age and the kind of people who could put into words what the rest of us mere mortals merely aspire to come up with. The short list is impressive: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton — and that’s just up to the 17th century.

We live in a culture that has a fetish for ranking everything from college football teams to movies, and in that vein, I offer this list of Catholic (or at the very least Christian) poets who still matter to us today.

1. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them — there is no third.” Thus said T.S. Eliot (himself a poet and convert to Anglicanism), and he probably wasn’t wrong. Even if Dante hadn’t written his Comedy (the adjective “Divine” came soon after his death), his more manageable poem La Vita Nuova would have been enough to secure his place in posterity. However, he did indeed write the great Christian trilogy epic (though most people stop after The Inferno), and during the 1990s, Dante had translators from Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney to poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and W.S. Merwin.

Part of the attraction is that Dante does what we’d all like to do: descend into Heaven and Purgatory, ascend to Heaven — and live to tell the tale. The fact that he tells it in a crazy rhyme-scheme known as terza rima (which makes translating it into English especially difficult), makes parts of it particularly memorable — indeed, St. Bernard’s prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary re-appears in the Divine Office. Dante himself was a serious Catholic and popes from Benedict XV to St. Paul VI to Francis have lauded his genius and contribution to Catholicism.

2. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

St. John composed, of course, Dark Night of the Soul, a title so universally well-known that the use of the phrase has almost become a cliché. However, St. John was one of those poets who “saw the skull beneath the skin” and the soul inside the brain. His laboriously titled “Songs of The Soul in Rapture at Having Arrived at the Height of Perfection, which is Union with God by the Road of Spiritual Negation” (more commonly called “The Soul’s Union with God”) charts, with remarkable celerity and clarity, how quickly the soul — that begins “Upon a gloomy night” — can end in a mystical union with Our Lord: “With his serenest hand/ My neck he wounded, and Suspended every sense with its caresses.” This poem, too, can be found in the Liturgy of the Hours. The fact that St. John composed most of his poetry while in prison at the hands of the Carmelite Order he was trying to reform gives them even greater sinew and wings.

3. Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Alas poor Pope. He was basically a dwarf, a hunchback and, since he refused to capitulate to the Crown of England’s spurious new “Church,” he was not allowed to live in London — and thus was left outside the canon of England’s Augustan Age, featuring Jonathan Swift, Dr. Samuel Johnson and Samuel Pepys.

Pope’s revenge? He wrote poetry so quotable that you don’t even know you are quoting him, even today: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” “to err is human, to forgive divine” and the unforgettable “damn with faint praise.” Not content with crafting some of the most famous lines of poetry in English, Pope also built his famous Twickenham Gardens, thus allowing his literary circle to get out of London and visit him.

4. St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)

Also known as St. Ephrem the Deacon, and “The Harp of The Holy Ghost,” Ephrem was the churchman who understood the importance of hymns, inspired songs and poetry not just in popular piety but within the liturgy itself. Like Pope, it’s the entire body of work of St. Ephrem that matters, not so much the individual works. And like St. John of the Cross he certainly was a mystic, but also an ascetic. Alban Butler’s portrait of him is telling:

His appearance was indeed that of an ascetic: he was of small stature, we are told, bald, beardless, and with skin shriveled and dried up like a potsherd; his gown was all patches, the color of dirt, he wept much and never laughed.

Despite his extreme abstemiousness and the fact that he shrunk from ordination, even to the diaconate which was imposed on him much later in life, ironically St. Ephrem gave and gives us joy through his songs and hymns, which are the glory of the Syriac Church, and his inspired poems which, even in translation, are still edifying.

5. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

One of the rare innovators of Victorian Poetry, though his fame and innovations — namely “sprung-rhythm” — would not come until after his death. Hopkins, more than any other poet of his age, was so far ahead of his time in terms of poetic invention, no one knew what to make of it — until Modernism (1900-1950) recognized that in Hopkins, English poetry had taken a huge leap forward.

His use of enjambment (running one line into another) is impressive — and impulsive. For example: in the poem “God’s Grandeur”: “it gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” In any other age, the word “Crushed” have appeared on the same line as “oil.” But Hopkins understood the visual (as well as the sonic) level of poetry, and the dropping down of that one word makes it all the more effective. Read out loud, Hopkins makes language so tortuously beautiful it borders on tongue-twisting: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in / his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding” (from “The Windhover”).

Hopkins himself was a British convert to Catholicism (like St. John Henry Newman), and his joining the Society of Jesus estranged him from his family for a time. However, his influence on poets of the first half of the 20th century cannot be overrated and a half-dozen of his poems appear in the four-volume Divine Office.