Shelf Life: A Short Practicum on Poetry

When we think of reading poetry, one classification frequently overlooked is that of the wonderful hymns of the ages. There are hymns for meditation upon every state of the heart.  Hymns divide the seasons of the year, and they speak eloquently for us when we can’t find words of our own in times of celebration, in grief, in worship, in repentance, and in introspection. 

When forgiveness is only an act of will with no concurrent feeling, hymns reminding us of our own forgiveness and instruct our emotions in the way they should go. 

When crying out for a wayward child, over an empty womb, or over financial duress, hymns express the guttural sensations of our very souls. 

Perhaps this is why the book of Psalms in the Bible, composed in great part of the hymns of the very human King David, is the most common devotional book in the sacred text.  It is poetry for the soul, full of expressions of fear, anger, euphoria, self-congratulation, fealty and worship, heroic tales, and awe over creation’s beauty.  Incorporate hymns into your own reading of poetry and be the richer for it as you discover and rediscover kindred spirits in the path of life.

• Obtain a copy of the Psalms in meter.  Long included in the back of service books in many churches, metrical Psalms are Psalms reworded into the common meter.  You will be able to sing them to familiar tunes.

• Take a hymn book outside early in the morning and sing through the pages of familiar old hymns in preparation for the upcoming day.

• Keep a hymnal at bedside and prepare your mind and spirit for rest by meditating over one hymn each evening.

• Find a favorite Psalm and rewrite it as a hymn in your own journal.

• Collect old hymnbooks from diverse traditions in used bookstores.  They are not expensive, and what a valuable collection it will be to you!

• Look up the hymn writer of a favorite hymn in the back of the hymnal and trace his or her growth in other hymns included in your hymn collection.

• Collect CD’s of instrumental versions of your favorite hymns.

• The very best anthologies of poetry ever assembled in any language are arguably The Oxford Book of English Verse and The Oxford Book of English Ballads, both edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944). 

Q, as he was best known, was a brilliant novelist, poet, essayist, and university lecturer in his own right.  What makes his anthologies so delightful, is not only their breadth and depth and width, their undeniable scholarship, and their immediate accessibility, but their deep appreciation for hymnology as well.  By all means, find, keep, and enjoy Q’s greatest legacy.

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