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The Soul in Paraphrase by Leland Ryken, ed.

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, by Leland Ryken, ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018, 262 pages, $35.00.

As a collector of anthologies of poetry, I recognize this slim volume as unique. Harold Bloom’s Anthology of American Religious Verse[1] is loaded with excellent choices but lacks the brilliant commentary of his The Best Poems of the English Language.[2] He also covers religions other than Christianity. The Oxford Book of Christian Verse[3] covers a narrower terrain, but also lacks commentary. James Trott’s A Sacrifice of Praise[4] is a more contemporary anthology covering a wide range of Christian poetry from Caedmon to the mid-twentieth century. His tome (804 pages) contains commentary with biographical sketches of the poets, like Bloom’s Best Poems. Ryken’s anthology is a study in conciseness rooted in a keenly developed taste for the best sacred poetry. Leland Ryken brings all his poetic experience as a master teacher to bear on this selection. His poetic sensibilities have enabled him to make impeccable choices.

The title is from George Herbert’s poem “Prayer” (88). In a mere 262 pages, ninety-one poems comprise this superb anthology; one third of the poems (by three of fifty poets) are by Ryken’s favorites. His The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton[5] is a prelude to the present book. His work on these three poets in the former volume is largely reworked here. In The Soul in Paraphrase Ryken uses all of the poems of the three, adding two to Herbert and three to Milton. It is not merely personal preference that lead Ryken to favor these three, but rather the high quality of their devotional poetry. Their stature among English poets is without equal, as this selection demonstrates. Harold Bloom agrees regarding Donne and Herbert, “There are only a few extraordinary devotional poets in the language, including Donne, and the Victorians Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti. By any standard, George Herbert is the devotional poet proper in English.”[6]

Each poem, from Caedmon (seventh century) to Emily Brontë, is adorned with “notes on selected words” and a brief, but sagacious, commentary. Biographical notes on each poet, along with Scripture and person indexes are collected at the end of the book.

This is truly a treasury, housed in a beautifully bound hard cover edition. Gold-tooled cloth with a dust cover is rare in Christian publishing. Bound in signature with a red cloth book mark makes this a distinctive contribution to devotional poetry and will thus edify a generation of Christian readers.

Endnotes

[1] Harold Bloom, ed., Anthology of American Religious Verse (New York: The Library of America, 2006).

[2] Harold Bloom, ed., The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[3] Lord David Cecil, The Oxford Book of Christian Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940).

[4] James Trott, A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2006).

[5] Leland Ryken, The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).

[6] Bloom, Best Poems, 183.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2019.

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