The Soul in Paraphrase is “an anthology of the best devotional poetry in English” edited by Leland Ryken, a long-time professor of English at Wheaton College, now retired. It takes its title from a line in George Herbert’s “Prayer,” which describes praying as “The soul in paraphrase,” among other things. The anthology presents 98 poems from “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the oldest extant English poem) to works by T. S. Eliot. Ryken’s scholarly remarks follow each poem.
Ryken defines devotional poetry in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, it “takes specifically spiritual experience for its subject matter,” which for Christian poets can include topics such as “the person and work of God, conviction and confession of sin, forgiveness, worship of God, and the church calendar with events like Christmas and Easter.”
Subjectively, devotional poetry has an “effect on a reader.” It “fixes our thoughts on the spiritual life and inspires us toward excellence in it.” Because of this subjective effect, Ryken includes in his anthology poems of what he calls “the poetry of common experience or clarification.” Such poetry “does not signal a specifically Christian identity but is congruent with Christianity.” Because of this, it need not be written by Christian poets.
As noted above, each poem is followed by Ryken’s “Notes on selected words” and “Commentary.” At first, I thought the definitions and commentary had an unweaving-the-rainbow quality to them. However, the deeper into the volume I got, the more I valued Ryken’s scholarly remarks because they helped me better understand what I had read.
Because of that, I would recommend that you read the poem first, then read Ryken’s explanatory words, then go back and re-read the poem. Doing so will help you better appreciate the literary art and spiritual insight of each poem. These poems repay careful and repeated reading.
I should add that I took two courses on English literature from Prof. Ryken when I attended Wheaton College (1987–1991). I thoroughly enjoyed both classes, especially the one on John Milton’s poetry. If you like this volume, I would encourage you to read his books on reading the Bible as literature, especially Words of Delight, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to Books of the Bible.
One final note: Crossway is to be commended for printing an anthology of poetry in a beautiful hardcover with thick pages. Good poetry is a marriage of form and content, so it’s nice to see a publisher recognizing that good books are too.
Leland Ryken, ed., The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).
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