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Theological | 4 Minutes

Poetry: A Divine Conversation

Carrie Cannon Written by Carrie Cannon
Poetry: A Divine Conversation

Poetry: A Divine Conversation

“Not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine” (Plato, Ion 534c).

Historically in Classical education, scholars studied the Seven Liberal Arts. During the

Middle Ages, the Liberal Arts were crowned with Philosophy. Renaissance Humanists added

History. Since then the disciplines of the Liberal Arts have continued to multiply. With such a

diverse multitude of subjects competing for a limited amount of time, why should students study

Poetry? The mythology of the Norse, the philosophy of the Greeks and the history of the English

reveal the belief that poets are inspired by God. Poetry should be studied because it is a divine

conversation.

In Norse mythology, poetry came to earth as a gift from the god Odin. Gnomes brewed a

magical mead from herbs, honey and the essence of knowledge. Whoever drank this powerful

elixir could speak with the sweet tongue of a poet. Odin stole the mead from its underground

hiding place by drinking it and flying back to Asgard in the form of an eagle. Chased by an

enemy and weighed down by the mead, Odin spewed a shower of honey-rain on the Aesir who

collected the brew in buckets. Spilling from Odin’s mouth some drops fell to the earth, but once

there the potion lost its power and the men who drank it spoke only doggerel. In Asgard, Odin

guarded the magical mead giving it on earth only to the chosen – the poets. Poetry, according to

Norse mythology, is a gift from god to humanity.

The Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, teach that “beautiful poems are not

human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God'' (Plato, Ion 534e). Plato writes a

dialogue Socrates has with the first-place winning rhapsode, Ion, a professional reciter of poetry.

Socrates questions Ion about his art while arguing that a rhapsode speaks through inspiration.

“There is a divinity moving in you,” Socrates explains (Plato, Ion 533d). Like metal links held

together by the invisible force in a magnetic chain, a rhapsode is inspired through a poet who is

inspired by the Muse. “For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems

not by art, but because they are inspired” (Plato, Ion 533e). The poets, Socrates says, are not

speaking of themselves, but “God himself is the speaker, and that through them [the poets] he is

conversing with us” (Plato, Ion 534d). According to Socrates, poetry is a conversation with God.

While these two examples from Classical history may be familiar, the story of the

miraculous beginning of English Devotional poetry is not as well known. In the ecclesiastical

history of the Anglo-Saxons, poetry is the result of a divine intervention. Bede tells the story of

Cædmon. Just a simple man cleaning cow stalls one night to avoid singing poetry in the pub

with his friends, he sees a vision. A man commands Cædmon, “Sing me something!” Cædmon

responds that he cannot, after all, this is why he is hiding in the barn with the cows. Refusing to

be dismissed by Cædmon’s excuses, the mystical messenger declares an impossibility as

accepted fact, “Nevertheless, you will sing” (Bede, HE IV.xxiv). Miraculously Cædmon sings the

first poem in the Anglo-Saxon style about the Christian God, “Now we must praise the Guardian

of the kingdom of heaven” (Cædmon 1). In the morning, Cædmon sings for the abbess and

other scholars of the abbey. They recognize Cædmon’s song as the work of God. Cædmon lives

the remainder of his life at the abbey composing poetry on Biblical subjects. Recorded In the

margins of the Latin text, Cædmon’s song is written in Old English – the first Christian poem

written in the English language. Poetry is a miracle.

Combining these three ancient stories about the conception of poetry reveals a timeless

truth. Poetry is a miraculous gift from God – a conversation with Him. Amidst all the choices for

modern students, the purpose for studying poetry is founded on an ancient truth – studying

poetry is a study in prayer. In the first line of his gospel account, the apostle John uses a poetic

device, metaphor, to explain the first ancient Truth, “In the beginning was the Word.” Scripture is

the arms of God reaching out to humanity; poetry is the arms of humanity reaching out to God.

“For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing” (Plato, Ion 534b).