The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse Chosen and introduced by Edward Short, with a preface by Dana Gioia (Gracewing, £20.00/€23.50)
Edward Short is a writer and teacher who lives in New York and is already well known for his books relating to St John Henry Newman. This book sees itself as the successor to an earlier anthology by Donald Davie of Christian verse for Oxford University Press.
But the title may be found misleading by readers, or perhaps simply ambiguous, but certainly poorly thought out. This beautiful book contains verses by Christian poets in English, largely by English poets. Christian poets from other cultures, who write in English, have no place here.
It certainly demonstrates, I think, a misunderstanding of the poetry written in these islands by those poets who write in English. It is for Irish readers the familiar old confusion of English with British.
Suffice it to say, there’s nothing John F. Deane or Seamus Heaney here, although Patrick Kavanagh takes a look at it while his contemporaries like Robert Farren don’t.
There is nothing from the Welsh poet RS Thomas, nothing from Canon Andrew Young, the Scottish-born poet. Both were ordained Anglican ministers. Young’s Long Poem Out of the World and Back, which “describes a soul’s journey into darkness”, is a typically Christian work. For all his roughness of face and mind, Thomas spent his life as a poor parish pastor, but his last volumes sold an average of 20,000 copies and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize.
But Short provides a certain number of English poets, many of whom date from the 19th century, and therefore contemporaries of Newman. There is nothing from the pen of Helen Waddell. No translations from Ancient and Medieval Irish, many of which are now very well established in the English language as poems in their own right.
I may well just seem grumpy and captious, and these comments considered unfair. The book certainly contains many beautiful poems, some very familiar and beloved, others much less familiar but still deeply emotional.
But still the horizon of the book seems limited. The author alludes to Donald Davie’s 1980s OUP Christian Poetry anthology, reissued in 2003. But I also draw attention to The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1924), a much older but still excellent compilation. And it opens, moreover, with Amergin’s Song, with which the poetry of these islands begins. Short prefers Caedmon.
Either way, anthologies can be seriously misleading. In the 1920s, Robert Graves refused to have his poems used in anthologies, after his first poem In the deserton Christ in the desert followed by the scapegoat, gave (he felt) a very false impression of his total work, already deeply steeped in Celtic mythology.
A book like Palgrave’s Gold Treasure is still often used to introduce the work of poets, but no one should imagine that they get a correct and complete idea of the whole of a poet’s work from three or four poems of an anthology. Edward’s Short anthology will also serve a teaching role very well, but it gives a very limited idea of the extent of Christian verse in these islands from the time of St Patrick, or whoever it is. composed. The cry of the deerwith which one could say that Christian poetry in these islands began.