The Devotional Gift of Poetry: A Review of Poetry of Redemption by Leland Ryken
Dr. Leland Ryken has done it again. After recently completing a trilogy of devotionals on the best of Christian hymnody, Ryken and P&R have partnered once more to release—in time for this year’s Lenten season—a beautiful anthology entitled Poetry of Redemption: An Illustrated Treasury of Good Friday and Easter Poems.
Ryken served for decades as professor of English at Wheaton College and has established himself as an authority of the subjects of literature and poetry in particular. In addition to the aforementioned 40 Favorite Hymns series, he has written such edifying works as How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, and The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, just to name a few. Now Ryken brings his expertise to guide us through the wonderful poetic works that focus on the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Savior.
The book offers even more than the title suggests: Ryken includes in this collection a series of biblical texts, Anglican prayers, and even The Apostles’ Creed—all of which he argues are poetic in their own way. Christian readers will recognize a number of the poems which have come to us in the form of some of our most beloved hymns, like “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” or “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.”
Less familiar, perhaps, would be the non-hymnic poems of Edmund Spenser, Joseph Addison, George Herbert, and John Donne. All of the poems have been previously included in Ryken’s The Soul in Paraphrase (Crossway, 2018). Likewise, most also appear in Ryken’s chapter in The Pastor’s Book (R. Kent Hughes, Crossway, 2015), “Poetry to Enhance Preaching and Worship.” One might at first assume this is a deficiency on Ryken’s part—that his exposure to poetry is limited such that he continues to reuse the same handful of pieces in his published works. But Dr. Ryken’s academic pedigree prohibits such a conclusion. The realization dawned on me: the reason Ryken returns to these poems—especially those by Herbert, Donne, Milton, and Rosetti—is because they really are the best—and we still don’t know them! Here is a master on the subject leaving a legacy that pleads with us, “Do your soul a favor, memorize these greats!”
Why do these rise to the top? Because of their devotional quality, Ryken would answer. He has handpicked for us those works throughout the history of the church which will best cause us to mourn over sin and rejoice in our Savior. He is a physician, giving us the medicine that will cause our sin-heavy hearts to soar once again. The Christian’s desire should be—must be—to draw near to God. We thirst and hunger after him, and we are eager for anything that will give us more of God. Dr. Ryken has enriched the church these past several years by consistently pointing us back to those words which will “orient us toward God and ultimately unite us to him” (20).
Why We Need Poetry
Perhaps you lightly object: “That is all well and good, but poetry isn’t my thing.” I readily acknowledge that we do not all need to be avid readers or writers of poetry—I myself confess to have been more often asleep than awake in an introduction to English poetry course back in my sophomore year. But Christians don’t have the liberty to ignore the poetic form; we need it.
Why is that? Well, for one reason, God’s revelation comes to us in poetic form. Not only is poetry a specific genre within the scriptural canon, but the entire work itself reveals the careful composition of a literary Artist. Beyond that, God has gifted us with poetry as a unique tool that can unlock the mind and elevate the soul. Poems deepen our understanding of God with images and metaphors that we never thought of before, and give us words to bring to God in prayer and praise that we could not have necessarily come up with on our own. Ryken writes, “Acting as our representatives, poets say what we too wish to say, only they say it better” (94). How poetry does that is something of a mystery, though Ryken briefly introduces readers to techniques such as rhyme, meter, cadence, and theme (12–14).
Through playful use of the English language, devotional poems do not give us new revelation, but open our eyes to understand old revelation in a new way. The Scriptures tell us Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Saying nothing more than this fundamental truth, Jacob Revius (1586–1658) is yet able to get us to grasp it in such a personal and affective way that we might not have otherwise:
No, it was not the Jews who crucified,
Nor who, Lord Jesus, spat into your face,
Nor who betrayed you in the judgment place,
Nor who with buffets struck you as you died.
No, it was not the soldiers fisted bold
Who lifted up the hammer and the nail,
Or raised the cross on Calvary’s curséd hill,
Or cast the dice to win your seamless robe.
I am the one, O Lord, who brought you there,
I am the heavy cross you had to bear,
I am the rope that bound you to the tree,
The whip, the nail, the hammer, and the spear,
The bloody, thorny crown you had to wear:
It was my sin, O Lord, it was for me.
I will expand on these ideas of the Christian’s need for poetry in a forthcoming article in MR’s print edition. For now, I will simply say that if our goal as Christians is to know Christ better (Eph. 1:17, Phil. 3:10), can we exclude God’s gift of good poetry when it is such an effective means of enabling us to do just that? It is the redemptive events of Holy Week that particularly leave the believer speechless in thankfulness, and the poems that Ryken has collected aid us in our worship and wonder when our words seem to fail us.
A Useful Resource
That all being said, poetry can still seem foreign to many of us. Literally, some of us feel as though we might as well be reading another language. Poetry of Redemption eases us into the world of classic and devotional poetry in a very accessible manner. In other words, this is not simply Dr. Ryken’s personal collection of favorite poems. This is a resource he has provided where he explicates their meaning so that we can understand them better, and so that they can become beloved by us as well. After each poem, Ryken provides insightful historical, literary, and theological reflections. One representative example would be his treatment of George Herbert’s piece “The Agony,” which sets out to define two concepts: Sin and Love. In the second line we read the definition to the former:
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Ryken explains, “The bulk of the stanza makes us feel the pain that Christ experienced in the garden of Gethsemane. To make his pain vivid, Herbert employs imagery of machines (press and vice) that squeeze juice out of plants to portray the extreme mutilation of Jesus’ body.” If this is what sin looks like, where do we see God’s love? “Given the poem’s title, we are inclined to say, ‘In Christ’s suffering and death.’ But the poem surprises us by answering, ‘In the Communion cup.’” Ryken refers to Herbert’s breathtaking conclusion:
Love is that liquor sweet and most Divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I as wine.
The poem “paints a picture of divine leniency: Christ shed his blood in agony, while we partake of the Lord’s Supper in the comfort of a church” (66). When we understand the meaning in these words, we will cherish them—not just for their poetic brilliance, but for their devotional warmth.
Another aspect that makes this work accessible is that it is an illustrated collection—nearly every page is adorned with beautiful artwork, from both classic and contemporary sources. The visual quality—not just the art, but also the superb and eye-catching layout—serves to draw us in to admire the literary quality of the poems. This reviewer appreciated the publisher’s sensitivity to second commandment convictions about images of Christ in that, in a book filled with art related to the passion of Christ, there is actually no explicit image of Jesus.
This thoughtful editing and design, embellishing the exquisite poetry and Ryken’s rich insights, results in a gorgeous book that many Christians would benefit from, keeping it out on the coffee table or incorporating it into family worship in the weeks leading up to Easter. Considering the need we have for good poetry, could we really do without such a resource? Devotional poetry is a gift to the soul, and this superb anthology is a gift to the church.
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christian’s True Identity and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
Note: A summary version of this review appeared in New Horizons, April 2023 edition, pgs. 22-23.
 Jacob Revius, “He Bore Our Griefs,” trans. By Henrietta ten Harmsel.