Friday, April 6

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, April 06, 2012 21 comments
Poetry has long been the favored genre for delving into spiritual topics. Poetry comprises a portion of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs) and poetry is sprinkled throughout narrative and prophetic writings as well. When set to music, religious poems become hymns, canticles and cantatas.

In honor of Good Friday, I give you three poems by contemporary poets that seek to delve deeper into the meaning of this solemn holy day in the Christian calendar.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.

by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001)

We nailed the hands long ago,
Wove the thorns, took up the scourge and shouted
For excitement's sake, we stood at the dusty edge
Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.

But one or two prayed, one or two
Were silent, shocked, stood back
And remembered remnants of words, a new vision,
The cross is up with its crying victim, the clouds
Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose
What we did not know we had
Until this bleak and sacrificial day,
Until we turned from our bad
Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,
The dice still clicking, the voices dying away.

by Geoffrey Hill (1932 - )

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).

If you're interested in reading more of the best Christian poetry, I highly recommend Image Journal, a quarterly literary magazine of arts and faith.

Have a blessed Good Friday!


  1. Wow, these poems are haunting but so good. Thanks for sharing, Laurel. Wishing you a blessed Easter weekend!!

    1. I'll probably do a part II with some good resurrection poems, as a counter balance. A blessed Easter to you as well!

  2. Thanks for sharing these poems. I have to say I have not read contemporary Christian poetry and will have to rectify that.

    1. I have an amazing collection called _Upholding Mystery_ that rocks my socks. Some other poets to look into are Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, David Citino, Richard Wilbur, Daniel Berrigan and Annie Dillard.

    2. Thank you for the recommendations.

  3. Thank you for sharing these poems. I especially liked the middle one. Thank you.

    1. I honestly hadn't heard of Jennings until a new anthology (a review copy) arrived at work earlier this week. I was blown away. Her oeuvre is enormous and much of it is amazing stuff like this that deals with things of faith.

  4. I haven't done my Good Friday reading yet. When I did my reading of the Last Supper last night, I got stuck on the story of Peter's denial. (Every year, a different aspect of the Last Supper-"trial"-crucifixion-resurrection story seems to jump out at me, apart from the overall obvious main theme.) It's so amazing how Peter is all, "I'm ready, my faith is strong, I'll go with you to the grave," and just a few hours later, he's all, "I'm just some innocent guy warming himself by the fire; no, I don't know the prisoner they're interrogating right now ..." It's just so human to protect ourselves, and so very difficult to be brave.

    1. Peter's wobbly and flawed navigation of all the events before and after the crucifixion are so striking. I was especially struck this year by the angel at the tomb telling the women to share the news of the resurrection with the disciples AND PETER. Like Peter's in this suspended state of not quite being with the others or something. What was he going through then, I wonder?

  5. Beautiful poems. As a child it was always hard for me to understand why it was called Good Friday, when it was about killing someone. Didn't make sense to me.

    1. I hope there were grownups around who let you ask and gave you a helpful answer.

  6. I really like Canticle for Good Friday. Man, I wish I could write like that. Such a strong voice, and thank you for reminding me that it's a Holy Day.

    1. I like they way Hill "turns the camera" so we're seeing through Thomas's viewpoint.

      Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I say try some poems of your own in the style of Geoffrey Hill.

  7. Oh, those are some lovely choices. I'm going to reread some Eliot for national poetry month!

    1. I've been reading some of his Four Quartets. Interesting stuff--very layered.