How Do I Use Thee?

Every so often I get a letter from someone I don’t know, who would like me to give him a syllabus of things he might read to familiarize himself with English poetry. As often as not, the person writing to me has been an English major in college or something of the like.

What’s just as disappointing to me is to find that among those Christians who read a lot of books, very few of them know the slightest thing about sacred poetry in their own language. Perhaps we might lay the initial blame at the feet of modern poets, whose pursuit of obscurity and confusion—at first, as in T. S. Eliot, meant to reflect the confusion of a civilization in ruins—has declared, as with the howl of a beast or the garble of an academic, that poetry is not for ordinary people, who expect sentences to mean things, with clear subjects and verbs.

But eventually we must take care for our own heritage, especially as nobody else will do it. And that should be no onerous task; rather, a delight, the delight of unsuspected riches and recovery. So then, if you are a Christian and a reader—as you doubtless are, because otherwise you would not be reading these words—you should get for yourself, right away, a copy of the collected poems of George Herbert (1593-1633), the young courtier and member of Parliament who left the high life to become an Anglican priest in a poor and far-flung parish, dying of consumption before he turned forty. Such wealth, in so small a place! It may take you a couple of months to read The Brothers Karamazov. It will take you a few minutes to read one of Herbert’s poems, and the poem may remain with you all your life long.


Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

more on poetry from the online archives

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