The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Poetry Of Doubt And Belief


Poetry Of Doubt And Belief

presentation at Adult Forum by
Rev. Dr. Hugh Knapp
Congregation member
April 3, 2011


A "child of the Oxford Movement." In 1866,he was received by John Henry Newman into the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1868 entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuit). Served as a parish priest in towns from London to Glasgow. He became indignant by the squalor of the British industrial towns.

Hopkins was influenced by Welsh poetry and the beauty of consonant chime, and internal rhyme. These create intense pleasure in the mind, or the voice, if read aloud. Hopkins gave an example of alliteration, chime, and repetition in his own words: "The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation." So the first poem is a poem which praises God, although praise emerges out of the reality of a smeared, trodden on, and broken world. "God's Grandeur."

[Available as page 17 within Project Gutenberg's presentation of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Gerard Manley Hopkins .]

God's Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins
1844 - 1889

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  These lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


"Dover Beach" is a classic poem of religious doubt written at about the time of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species." A poem of thoughtful mood. The images of light, the sound of waves, the lack of light, and dimness all evoke a sense of loss. Whether the ending of the poem resolves much in response is a very good question.

[Available as page 66 within Project Gutenberg's presentation of Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum and Other Poems by Matthew Arnold .]

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold
1822 - 1888 (1867)

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Priest in the Church of Wales (Anglican) where he served rural and remote parishes. The poems presented today are taken from Poems of R.S. Thomas, U. of Arkansas Press, 1985. Contributed to The Christian Century. Winner of the Queen's Medal for Poetry, 1964.

The Belfry
R.S. Thomas
1913 - 2000

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

R.S. Thomas
1913 - 2000

I emerge from the mind's
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?


Poems presented are from The Ninety Third Name of God, L.S.U. Press, 2O1O. Silver's poems reflect her struggle with and treatment for breast cancer. Her background is Eastern Orthodox. Married to a Jew, she sometimes reflects the two faith traditions.

Laying On of Hands
Anga Krugovoy Silver
born 19__



The congregation's small,
so we take turns.
My hands press firm
on someone's crown
as though my warmth,
this moth-wing health,
could pause the hum
of spinning mind,
or bind the fraying body.


Shaken to tears by a stranger's back,
bent thin beneath his moss-green plaid,
Grace flowing not out (too proud,
imagining myself God's pipe and syringe)
but up into my palms, these needy hands.
Why can't I stop crying? A woman murmurs —
The scan I had last week was bad.
Her shoulder blades, her pearled spine.


Not through oil does Christ heal,
but through the aged, obese,
those requiring help to stand or kneel,
through all of us who crave the grease
and spice of unction smeared on skin,
these offered hands, these bodies leaning,
bent, and cresting toward (against) God's will.
Speaking wick and chaliced breath.
Grant us, Lord, our life and health.

Anga Krugovoy Silver
born 19__

What would I trade to regain
my life the way it was?
The word is everything.

Looking at photographs from three years ago,
I see that woman I was, her smile
the stupid, thankless smile of the lucky.
A cloth has been dropped between our faces.
My body's coastline, convulsed and reconfigured
bears its single breast, its twin now frozen or burned.
And yet, when I lower myself into the bath
and receive from my husband's hands the naked body
of our infant son, the curve of his back nestling
against my belly, his head against my scar,
I remember the crescent of skull I saw emerging
between my legs, its damp promise of life.
Sitting in the tub, my toes turning water off, then on,
what would I trade for the life I live now?

The word is nothing.

Canticle of the Washing Machine
Anga Krugovoy Silver
born 19__

Be praised, my Lord,
for the washing machine,
whose swingle Hails the soiled and stained.

For he ministers to the splot, the blotch, the spattered cuff.

Be praised, my Lord,
for your spirit that comes upon him,
for his jump and whirl and jug jug jug.

(My infant son slept on his shaking back.
The meek love him and cling to his sides.)

For the flange, which shakes the floorboards,
sends the cat beneath the bed.

Be praised, my Lord, for the agitator,
through whose pivot and plunge into tub
many of the most smudged are cleaned.

Be praised, my Lord, for the delicate cycle,
in which lace and wool can eddy.

Blessed is the soapy breath
that sweetens each room of my house.

Praise and bless the Lord, whose will is done by these God's servants:

wringer, pulley, drum.


A friend, and classmate at Yale Divinity School, class of 1964. Shepherd, now retired, served for some time as Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, Pa. He has contributed many times to The Christian Century, as well as having published several volumes of poetry, Shepherd has written many poems celebrating days in the Christian Year, such as Easter, Christmas, and Lent. Faces at the Manger is a beautiful collection of poems on the Nativity of Christ.

Thanksgiving in Advance
J. Barrie Shepherd
born 19__

Thanks seem to flow more easy
as the years go by, they blend
with fond remembering — forgetting too —
so that survival's healing influences
come to bear and wipe away so much
that has been difficult, the fear
and sad betrayals; leave behind
a residue of sweet nostalgia,
scarcely a trace of tears.
Problem is to turn and face
what lies ahead with eyes and
life wide open, as the veins contract
the eyes draw tighter and the pains begin
to settle in the bone. Giving thanks
for all that is to come demands more
grace than usually is murmured over
turkey and the trimmings.

J. Barrie Shepherd
Swarthmore Presbyterian Church,
727 Harvard Avenue, Swarthmore, PA 19081


Poet, Activist, Agrarian, Academic. Berry lives and farms in Lane's Landing Kentucky, near where his family has resided for five generations. He believes human beings need an attachment to place, a connection with nature, and small-scale agriculture. He has written extensive poetry. As a social activist, he has taken parts in protests against the Vietnam War, strip mining for coal, and the death penalty. Berry belongs to the Southern Writers Conference and has received the National Humanities Award,

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry
born 1934

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of
the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and
my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where
the wood drake rests in
his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace
of wild things who do
not tax their lives with
forethought of grief.

I come into the presence
of still water.

And I feel above me the
day-blind stars waiting
for their light.

For a time I rest in the grace
of the world, and am free.


Attended Ohio State University, and Vassar College and graduated from neither. Lives on Cape Cod, Mass. Oliver searches to understand "both the wonder and pain of nature" (Hollu Prado, LA Times). She "can be considered among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey." (Alicia Ostriker in "The Nation")

Poem presented is from New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press, 1992.

Mary Oliver
born 1935

Sweet Jesus, talking
  his melancholy madness,
    stood up in the boat
      and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
  So everybody was saved
    that night.
      But you know how it is

when something
  different crosses
    the threshold — the uncles
      mutter together,

the women walk away,
  the young brother begins
    to sharpen his knife.
      Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
  like the wind over the water —
    sometimes, for days,
      you don't think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
  after the multitude was fed,
    one or two of them felt
    the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight,
  before exhaustion,
    that wants to swallow everything,
      gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
  as they are now, forgetting
    how the wind tore at the sails
      before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
  as he always was —
    a thousand times more frightening
      than the killer sea.


Jubilate Agno "Rejoice in the Lamb" (A Song from bedlam). Smart left fragments of a 34 page poem which he composed while confined in an asylum in London.

Christopher Smart may have been composing a massive, antiphonal, Hebrew Psalm like chant as a "call and response." The verses on his cat, Geoffrey, begin with "For." Another large set of verses begin with "let". So he may have been creating verses akin to a Psalm as in Psalm 95:

"LET us come before his presence with thanksgiving and make a jouful noise unto him with psalms of praise.
FOR the Lord is a great God and great King above all gods."

Poem (and excerpt of commentary) presented is from Edward Hirsch How To Read a Poem: and Fall in Love With Poetry, 1999, p.69.

Jubilate Agno
Christopher Smart

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way,
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps tip to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more proper begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually - Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that JeofFry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himielf neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho' he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

This poem (or fragment) has enthralled me for thirty years. When I first started reading it as a teenager I wondered if I had stumbled into a brillinntly whacked-out version of the psalms. The poem felt ancient and biblical to me and also English and a couple of centuries old and also and contemporary. I was entranced by its repetitions, its euphoric Jogs so giddy and excessive, so incantatory. I loved the poet's outlandish religious fervor and enthusiasm, which seemed funny, and more than a little desperate and dangerous. I felt smart and subversive reading him. I felt as if a prophet had walked out of the Hebrew Bible and focused all his attention on an English cat.

Anyone could see that the entire passage radiates with the joyful spirit of that cat, with what I wanted to call a divine catfulness. I liked everything Smart said about Jeoffry, beginning with his name. It's worth noting that, anthropologically speaking, we humanize animals by giving them names, but then use those designations to distance them a bit from our human neighbors. It's one more way of defining and organizing the natural and social worlds, thus distinguishing cats from kings. But Smart gave his cat the same name as a good friend, precisely because he treated him as an equal — not an inferior, not a pet — and gave him the same consideration he would have given a king. It's a way of talking back to ....

(Some of my interpretations rely on Edward Hirsch How To Read a Poem: and Fall in Love With Poetry, Harcourt Inc., 1999.