Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination

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The God of the Bible often speaks in poetry. Beginning with an illuminating exploration of eloquence in the divine voice, a highly acclaimed professor of literature opens up the treasury of biblical tradition among English poets both past and present, showing them to be well attuned not only to Scripture's meaning but also to its music. In exploring the work of various poets, David Lyle Jeffrey demonstrates how the poetry of the Bible affords a register of understanding in which the beauty of Holy Scripture deepens meditation on its truth and is indeed a vital part of that truth.

Contents

Introduction
1. Poetry and the Voice of God
Part 1: Medieval Poetry and the Bible
2. Paraphrase and Theater: Bonaventure's Retracing the Arts to Theology and Literary Evangelism
3. Quotation and Inflection: Dante and Chaucer on the Sermon on the Mount
4. Egyptian Gold: Biblical Transformations of Ovid in The Canterbury Tales
5. Irony and Misreading: Courtly Love and Marriage according to Henry VIII
Part 2: Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination after the Reformation
6. Poetry in Preaching, Prayer, and Pastoral Care: John Donne and George Herbert
7. Habitual Music: The Influence on English Poets of the King James Bible
8. Conclusion and Form for the Personal in Modern Poetry
9. The Conversion Poems of Margaret Avison
10. Meditation and Gratitude: The Enduringly Beautiful Changes of Richard Wilbur
11. Epiphanies of a Father's Love: Anthony Hecht and Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Appendix: Can Faustus Be Saved? The Fragile Future of Our Common Book
Index


Endorsements

"God, David Lyle Jeffrey reminds us (with a little help from John Donne), is a poet: 'a very figurative and metaphorical God.' In this learned, insightful, and beautifully written book, Jeffrey leads us from Caedmon through Dante, Chaucer, Donne, and many others, all the way to the contemporary poetry of Margaret Avison, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. The result is a book that, like poetry itself, deserves to be read slowly and savored. Throughout, Jeffrey makes a compelling case that the Bible has been the 'perennial touchstone' that has animated English poetry for more than a millennium, even in the case of poets who haven't been particularly religious. The loss of scriptural literacy in more recent days, therefore, constitutes a singular crisis for the production and interpretation of literature. But it is also a crisis for the soul since, as Jeffrey eloquently shows, Scripture provides a structure for poetry that can 'lift broken hearts to a hope beyond themselves.'"

Brent A. Strawn, W. R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Old Testament, Emory University

"This is a book of immense learning and of profound significance for our understanding of English literature and its biblical sources and fabric. In little more than two hundred pages, David Lyle Jeffrey ranges with fluency and insight from the ancient world to the twenty-first century--from the Bible itself to Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Marlowe, Donne, Herbert, and on through Margaret Avison and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Jeffrey's capacity to speak alternately with rustic humor and in high prophetic strains makes his study not just exceptionally illuminating but also richly entertaining. Every chapter uncovers unexpected gems. His powerful writing repeatedly moved me to laughter as well as tears."

Dennis Danielson, professor emeritus of English, University of British Columbia; author of The Tao of Right and Wrong

"In this stunning and magisterial work, the fruit of a lifetime's love of literature and Scripture, David Lyle Jeffrey combines an extraordinary depth and range with a keen scholarly, cultural, and literary sensibility to trace the influence of the Bible's language and spirit on literature. Apart from subjects, idiom, or diction, a scriptural consciousness pervades English literature from Caedmon to Wilbur. But given the current lack of coherence, Jeffery ponders how literary criticism can regain its authority or literature can offer a hope that is communal and responsible. This book is a must for all lovers of literature."

Micheal O'Siadhail, author of The Five Quintets

"David Lyle Jeffrey's exploration of how Scripture has shaped the poetic imagination of the English literary tradition, from the medieval Caedmon through Donne and Herbert to the modern Richard Wilbur, is a valuable addition to the shelves of anyone who appreciates--or is curious about--the enduring effect of God's written Word on our written words. Jeffrey's sensitive and insightful analyses of his chosen texts, with valuable cultural and literary context provided, are a model of what literary criticism should do: enrich the reader's experience of familiar poems and provide an inducement to read new discoveries."

Holly Ordway, professor of English, Houston Baptist University; author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith

"To a remarkable degree, the English poetic tradition constitutes a response to the call of Scripture. Many readers today, however, have little familiarity with the cadences and images of the biblical revelation; hence, their ears hear only half the song. Jeffrey's book, the fruit of a lifetime of scholarship, gives readers ears to hear the rich, antiphonal music resounding through centuries of poetry. Jeffrey is the ideal guide to this tradition, as what he writes of George Herbert is equally true of himself: not only his mind but also his heart is unusually saturated with the language of Scripture."

Jeffrey Bilbro, associate professor of English, Spring Arbor University; editor in chief at Front Porch Republic; and author of Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Forms

"To read David Jeffrey's book is to sit at the feet of a wise teacher, learned in both literature and the Bible, ever ready to attune his students to the ways Scripture's music plays in and through centuries of great poetry--from Dante and Chaucer, Donne and Herbert, Coleridge and Hopkins to contemporary poets like Avison and Hecht. A timely contribution to all who till the field of the humanities, and a vital reminder that so much of our great literature is built upon the foundation of a Greater Book."

Paul J. Contino, professor of great books, Pepperdine University

"Jeffrey inspires the imagination. I turned each page with excitement and anticipation. Through his contemplation of English poets, Jeffrey unveils our clouded eyes and unclogs our stuffed ears, preparing us for the beatific vision and the voice of the true God."

Jessica Hooten Wilson, associate professor of literature and creative writing and director of the Giving Voice Festival of Writing & the Arts, John Brown University


The Author

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey

    David Lyle Jeffrey

    David Lyle Jeffrey (PhD, Princeton University) is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Ottawa. He has written numerous books, including...

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