Discovering Jesuit Poetry for World Poetry Day
“Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures … [It is] the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.”
The British Province of the Society of Jesus can count many poets among its members. In previous blog posts we have already celebrated the verses written down and often beautifully decorated by philosophy students in the Blandyke Papers, particularly in Christmas and May editions. This philosophate journal, founded in 1888 at St Mary’s Hall and continued at Heythrop College until 1965, regularly published essays of the philosophers on diverse topics. An announcement in Letters & Notices in early 1888 promised an issue that would include original sonnets and essays on the poet and essayist Walt Whitman, amongst other things.
As a part of this intellectual tradition the philosophers graced the pages of the Blandyke Papers with a number of essays on Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, who was arguably one of the Victorian era’s most revered poets and whose works focused on the themes of nature and religion. A domestic tradition of Hopkins studies can be seen in the Blandyke Papers covering the period 1930-1955, at a time when mature critical interest in Hopkins was developing, showing that the Heythrop philosophers were keeping pace with the professional literary critics, particularly in the 1930s. On the 50th anniversary of Hopkins’ death, a special issue was dedicated to the poet (No 358, February 1939) and includes several essays with titles such as ‘The Life and Message of G M Hopkins’, ‘The Asceticism of G M Hopkins’, and ‘The Ignatian Inspiration of G M Hopkins’. Dated 1882, Gerard Manley Hopkins' vows are particularly valued by scholars and enthusiasts as the vows are in Fr Hopkins’ own hand.
No reflection on the Jesuits and poetry could be complete without mention of St Robert Southwell SJ, whose all-too-brief literary career flourished during the years he spent as a clandestine missionary in post-Reformation England, and includes prose and poetry. Southwell was arrested and imprisoned in 1592 and eventually tried and convicted of high treason. He was executed 21 February 1595 and canonised in 1970 as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. Southwell’s poetry is entirely religious, and the circumstances of his mission in England, where state power required Catholics to deny their religion, invested his themes with extraordinary pathos and drama. By 1636 14 editions of his poetry had been published in England.
The above poem, 'Newe Prince new pompe', comes from an early manuscript collection of Southwell's poems, believed to be the work of two scribes of the late sixteenth century.
World Poetry Day is March 21. If you are interested in the Jesuits and poetry, or any of the individuals or material mentioned above, please contact the British Jesuit Archives.