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.
Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, London, and a Priest Vicar
of Westminster Abbey
*This title will be available from 3 December.