Throughout 2024, St Peter’s Anglican Church Eastern Hill will be hosting a series of free, monthly talks on ‘significant poets who have inhabited—or skirted the fringes of—the Anglican and Catholic traditions of Christianity’.

The first of the talks in the ‘Poets and the Faith’ series will, fittingly, focus on Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), a man who was baptised and raised in the Anglican Church but later converted to Catholicism, finding a home and vocation in the Society of Jesus.

On Tuesday 12 March, Rev Prof Dorothy Lee, the Stewart Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity College (an Anglican theological college), will be speaking on Hopkins, whom she describes as one of her favourite poets.

I think what poetry does, among other things, is it refreshes the language and makes it very deeply personal and experiential.

Prof Lee, a poet herself, says the series will be a chance for people to be enriched by poets that they’ve perhaps never read before or even to engage with poetry for the first time.

‘It’s not going to be aimed at academics,’ she says. ‘It’s for ordinary folk in the parish or people who are outside the Church who are anxious to hear more, to know more, and to encounter faith in a very different dimension than we would in a Church context’.

Although some people might feel a bit intimidated by the prospect of reading poetry, Prof Lee believes it can speak to all of us, offering us new and very personal ways to engage with faith and the big questions of life.

‘I think what poetry does, among other things, is it refreshes the language,’ she says, ‘and makes it very deeply personal and experiential … as opposed to, say, reading some theology, which is not necessarily subjective but is trying to talk about truth and so on.’ While poets are concerned with truth too, she says, they are ‘also concerned with beauty and with finding fresh ways, new ways of articulating the experience of faith.’

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Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Another of the poets to be featured in the series will be Peter Steele SJ AM (1929–2012), a prolific and celebrated Australian poet. Steele’s friend and fellow Jesuit Fr Andy Bullen—a published poet himself—will talk about Steele’s life and poetry at the series’ July event.

Steele was mentored early on by Catholic poet Vincent Buckley at the University of Melbourne and was also a friend of poets Chris Wallace Crabb and Evan Jones. Fr Bullen describes him as very much ‘a Parkville poet’. Although he travelled more widely later in life, particularly when he became Jesuit provincial—especially enjoying his travels and the friendships he cultivated in the United States—‘Melbourne University was his base and home, really, his intellectual home.’

Fr Bullen recalls that by the time he and Steele were young scholastics in the late 1960s and early 70s, Steele was already producing poetry of impressive quality—screeds on foolscap paper—including an early poem called ‘Going Steerage in the Ark’. ‘It was so literary, so dense, verbally dense,’ Fr Bullen says. His poems ‘were just overwhelming, but just the psychic and linguistic energy was extraordinary.’

Fr Bullen admits that this verbal and cultural density can make some of Steele’s poetry seem daunting. ‘He’s read everything, and it all comes in, and sometimes in a poem you can feel, “Okay, I’ve got some of these references, but I don’t quite see why they’re all here on the same page.”’

Because of this, Fr Bullen says his approach in the talk will be to begin with some of Steele’s more approachable poems, such as ‘Matins’. ‘Now that [poem] is very accessible,’ he says, ‘but it’s also very layered … There’s a lot going on. And it’s a classic “Parkville poem”. So I’m starting with that. Because you can open it up in sundry ways.

‘But then there’s a sequence of four poems he did on Jesus as air, water, fire and earth, and they are very dense.’ Fr Bullen’s task, he says, will be to take one of these poems and begin to ‘open it up’ for the audience. ‘We’re not going to “get it” round one,’ he says. ‘You come back to it, and you may come back to it in a couple of weeks, and it’ll still be dense.’

Steele Newman
Portrait of Peter Steele SJ at Newman College.

Prof Lee agrees that persistence is often rewarded when it comes to reading poetry. ‘I think it can make faith come alive for people if they persist with poetry,’ she says. ‘And I know, sometimes, some poems can be difficult, but with poetry you just have to read, you just keep reading, and then something strikes you … You’re never lost with poetry. You always get your way through, whether you’re reading John Donne or Mary Oliver; there’s always something there.’

When poetry connects, it connects very deeply, and it stays with you … You can live with a poem for weeks ... Because it haunts you. And you realise you’re susceptible; there’s something in you that you want haunted.

But poetry is also ‘very compact language’, Prof Lee says, ‘so it does need to be unpacked. It needs more patience. You can read an essay in the time that it would take you to read a poem. And I think there’s also a depth in poetry—a depth of experience and a depth of knowledge that is really important for faith.’

Fr Bullen agrees that one of the joys of reading poetry is that there’s always more to discover. ‘There’s always more, and in some ways you’re always back at the beginning. You’re always thinking, “Well I thought I’d cracked this one, and maybe I had in some way, but actually it’s also something [else].” There’s a presence to poetry and you have to negotiate it.

‘And some days, you’re on the ball; other days you’re too tired, or it’s just not working,’ he says. ‘It’s about connection, isn’t it? But when it connects, it connects very deeply, and it stays with you … You can live with a poem for weeks.’

Fr Bullen thinks this partly answers the question of why we bother to read poetry at all. ‘Because it haunts you. And you realise you’re susceptible; there’s something in you that you want haunted.

‘And there are, of course, special times when a poem is particularly appropriate,’ he says. ‘There are times when poems are the only kind of language we have that can get to where we have to be.’

Ministering to people in an increasingly secular world, he has learnt the pastoral value of ‘specifically religious poems that take you into the religious dimension of life, wherever that is—we’re all negotiating that more and more … Whatever’s happening to the practice of faith, poetry is one of those things [where] you think, “Well, at least we’ve got a poem we can bring to this wedding, or to this funeral, or to this baptism.”’

Prof Lee doesn’t profess to be an expert on Hopkins but comes to the task of speaking about his poetry as a biblical scholar. Of course, ‘some biblical texts are poetry,’ she points out. ‘The text that I mainly live in is the Gospel of John, which is not poetry but is profoundly poetic. So I am approaching Gerard Manley Hopkins not as a scholar of Hopkins but … as a biblical person.

‘And I’m very aware of the imagery, for example. That always strikes me because I’m dealing with imagery and symbolism all the time in the Gospel of John, and as a biblical person, we’re trained to exegete, to read slowly through a text, a short text, and find out its meaning. We’re not just looking at the big picture all the time. We are actually focused on small texts, or narrower texts. And that means that I just bring the same or similar skills to the reading of a poem.’

While Hopkins often draws his images from the natural world and uses them in startling ways, Prof Lee says his poetry ‘begins and ends with God. I don’t think he begins with nature; I think he uses nature to see God. But he also uses the Church. That’s the underpinning of his poetry … He’s not doctrinal. He doesn’t try to portray Church teaching, but it underpins it. And it’s the foundations on which he builds.’

There are moments of terrible desolation in his poems ... but there are also moments of sublime consolation … He did not lose his faith in God; he addresses his angst, his anguish to God.

For Hopkins, Prof Lee says, nature is ‘a form of revelation’, but not the only one. ‘He also sees revelation in the Bible and in the Church tradition, but he sees it in nature as well.’ His nature poetry, then, is a way for him ‘to encounter God, to see something of the face of God’.

Since Hopkins destroyed most of his early poetry when he became a Jesuit, almost all the poetry we have now is from his Jesuit period, and Prof Lee says you can certainly discern traces of Ignatian spirituality in these poems, including Ignatian notions of desolation and consolation.

‘There are moments of terrible desolation in his poems—his terrible sonnets,’ she says, ‘but there are also moments of sublime consolation … and he’s able to articulate them, and … the Spiritual Exercises encourage the articulation … And Hopkins knew darkness, but … he did not lose his faith in God; he addresses his angst, his anguish to God.

She points out that Jesus’ cry of desolation on the cross was addressed to ‘my God’. ‘And I think there’s something of that quality in Hopkins’ poetry,’ she says, ‘his capacity, even in his darkest moments, to know that he’s always in conversation with God … Also I think the Ignatian insight of finding God in everything is very much part of his poetry.’

Fr Bullen says this is also true of Steele. One of the keys to his poetry, he says, is ‘to go to the conversational tone, and that opens up the tonal richness of it … I think the conversational, actually, is the richest form of language’. With this tone, he says, Steele invites the reader into a shared experience of being human.

‘It’s the incarnational vision,’ he says. ‘And then somehow that’s got to hone in on Christ. It doesn’t have to every time, but … that’s the deep drift of it. So it’s there in Peter and there in Hopkins, of course—’The wind hover’, I mean, [Hopkins] looks at a bird and he says, “Oh, it looks like Christ to me”—and it’s there in the Spiritual Exercises, the centrality of Christ.’

Other poets to be explored in the ‘Poets and the Faith’ series will include Denise Levertov, James McAuley, Gwen Harwood, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rossetti, Emily Brontë, TS Eliot, WH Auden, RS Thomas and Annie Dillard. You can book here.

Prof Dorothy Lee’s first volume of poetry, Poems of Lament and Grace, will be published shortly by Coventry Publishing, with a foreword by former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams—another of the presenters in the ‘Poets and the Faith’ series.

Etiquette with Angels: Selected and New Poems by Andrew Bullen SJ was published in 2018 by David Lovell Publishing.