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In Keble's footsteps

23 November 2012


WHAT is poetry for? Is it there to please, or to instruct, to edify, or to entertain? Is it there to do a job, or is it gratuitously wonderful, not "for" anything at all?

The answers to those questions will be as complex as their subject-matter. Human creativity has never been a simple process of doing a thing for a single reason, or with a single outcome: Bach is not the only composer to have produced the most astonishing and sublime works because his patron needed something for next Sunday. It was his job to get something down on paper quickly, so that he could feed the children or pay the rent. W. H. Auden's view of the poet's calling was distinctly unromantic: you are there to do a job; so get on with it.

In the 19th century, John Keble's collection of poetry The Christian Year was hugely popular, and was reprinted many times. Beautiful as well as didactic, some of Keble's poems (such as "New every morning") live on in our hymn books today. Is Malcolm Guite's collection Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian year (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-84825-274-5*) a worthy successor?

Yes, I think it probably is. Sounding the Seasons is a collection of 70 sonnets, basically arranged around the ecclesiastical year, with extended pauses to consider the "O" Antiphons (Advent), and the Stations of the Cross (Holy Week). The sonnet is a good form in this context, because it can be both read or declaimed to good effect. This makes the book suitable for public as well as private use (there are suggestions how the poems might be used liturgically, in an appendix).

Guite acknowledges his debt to Herbert and Donne as well as Keble in his forward, and he stands in a distinguished line. There are good religious poets around at the moment (Elizabeth Cook and David Scott, for instance), but there is always room for more. Guite has produced a collection that manages to be edifying and pleasing. Used wisely, it will be very useful, too.

Peter McGeary
Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey

*This title will be available from 3 December.

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