Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Religion

Spiritual questions have been explored in poetry from earliest times. What is our place in the universe? Is there a greater power at work in our lives? Where did the world come from? Most religious poetry in English belongs to the seventeenth century, in the genius of John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan, but faith and doubt were explored again in the nineteenth century when the Romantic poets (especially Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge) brought a new sense of spirituality to the rationalism of the eighteenth century. Later, the Victorian poets lived in an age when faith was under attack from the findings of scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Charles Darwin, whose discoveries cast doubt on the literal truth of the Bible. Tennyson's “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1850) is the most sustained examination of Victorian doubt, but other Victorian poets like Christina Rossetti held firm in their faith. In the twentieth century, also, some poets have taken up the subject of general attitudes to religion while others have expressed an individual faith. In all ages, poetry has been the basis of hymns and songs of worship and praise. A few of the most famous of these are included here. Poems that touch on religious themes will also be found in the Immortality and Death sections of this volume.

The seventeenth century was a time of appalling religious unrest. Following the conversion of England to Protestantism by Henry VIII in the middle of the sixteenth century, Catholics lived under severe restrictions for most of the 1600s. John Donne (1573–1631), who figures largely also in the Love section of this volume, came from a well-known Catholic family that had suffered severe persecution. An exceptionally clever man, Donne attended Oxford University but was not allowed to receive a degree. He converted to the Church of England (Anglicanism), and

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