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A Century of Poetry: 100 poems for searching the heart by Rowan Williams

by
25 November 2022

Malcolm Guite reads a poetry compilation with plenty of searching

THIS is, as we might expect from its compiler, a fascinating, wide-ranging, and, in many ways, surprising anthology of poetry written in the past 100 years, which does indeed “search the heart” and set the heart once more on its own search for God.

There are, of course, many poetry anthologies out there, and many which, like this, collect comparatively recent verse. There are a number, which, like this one, confine, or extend themselves to 100 poems.

But what gives this anthology its distinctive — one might almost say forensic — edge is all there in the title. Williams makes it clear in his introduction that his choice of the word “century”, rather than “anthology” is not simply because he has chosen 100 poems, or because they were written in the past “century”, the past 100 years, but because he hopes to evoke the earlier use of “century” as “a genre of spiritual writing, as most famously in Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation”.

That puts this book in a whole new light. It’s not a neutral survey of what’s out there; it’s not a collection of famous poems or individual poets’ “greatest hits” (there is no Heaney, no Yeats, no Ted Hughes), but, rather, a carefully compiled collection intended to pierce through the surface clutter of our lives and open up the heart and soul. Williams calls them “poems for searching the heart”, but it becomes clear as we read that he is using the word “searching” almost surgically, as Eliot famously put it, as Christ, “the wounded surgeon, plies the steel That questions the distempered part”.

That passage, in Four Quartets, is not in this anthology, nor are there any “extracts” from longer poems. Every poem is complete in itself; some poems are so complete that they seem hermetically self-sealed, and there seems no way, at least on a first read, of prising them open. But this is where the real value of this book comes in, the real gift that it offers; for every poem is followed by a brief prose piece from Williams, opening out the poem and both clarifying and intensifying the kind of searching questions that a poem asks of our heart.

In some instances, Williams’s little essays are frankly better than the poems they explicate, which is not to say that there are not many extraordinarily good poems in this collection; poems which one is glad to have found, and which might never have come one’s way were it not for Williams’s reading, as wide as it is deep.

For sheer diversity and depth, there is nothing else like this book, and it will offer new layers and depths with many future rereadings.


The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is a Life Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge
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A Century of Poetry: 100 poems for searching the heart
Rowan Williams
SPCK £19.99
(978-0-281-08552-1)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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