Christian poetry is any poetry that contains Christian teachings, themes, or references. The influence of Christianity on poetry has been great in any area that Christianity has taken hold. Christian poems often directly reference the Bible, while others provide allegory.
Poetic forms have been used by Christians since the recorded history of the faith begins. The earliest Christian poetry, in fact, appears in the New Testament. Canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which appear in the Gospel of Luke, take the Biblical poetry of the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as their models. Many Biblical scholars also believe that St Paul of Tarsus quotes bits of early Christian hymns in his epistles. Passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 (following) are thought by many Biblical scholars to represent early Christian hymns that were being quoted by the Apostle:
Within the world of classical antiquity, Christian poets often struggled with their relationship to the existing traditions of Greek and Latin poetry, which were of course heavily influenced by paganism. Paul quotes the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides in Acts 17:28: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his offspring.'" Some early Christian poets such as Ausonius continued to include allusions to pagan deities and standard classical figures and allusions continued to appear in his verse. Other Christian poems of the late Roman Empire, such as the Psychomachia of Prudentius, cut back on allusions to Greek mythology, but continue the use of inherited classical forms.
Other early Christian poets were more innovative. The hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus wrote a number of important poems that are still used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Vexilla Regis ("The Royal Standard") and Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis ("Sing, O my tongue, of the glorious struggle"). From a literary and linguistic viewpoint, these hymns represent important innovations; they turn away from Greek prosody and instead seem to have been based on the rhythmic marching songs of Roman armies.
A related issue concerned the literary quality of Christian scripture. Most of the New Testament was written (or translated from a semitic language) in a sub-literary variety of koinê Greek, as was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Old Latin Bible added further solecisms to those found in its source texts. None of the Christian scriptures were written to suit the tastes of those who were educated in classical Greek or Latin rhetoric. Educated pagans, seeing the sub-literary quality of the Christian scriptures, posed a problem for Christian apologists: why did the Holy Ghost write so badly? Some Christian writers such as Tertullian flatly rejected classical standards of rhetoric; "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he asked.
The cultural prestige of classical literary standards was not so easy for other Christians to overcome. St Jerome, trained in the classical Latin rhetoric of Cicero, observed that dismay over the quality of existing Latin Bible translations was a major motivating factor that induced him to produce the Vulgate, which went on to become the standard Latin Bible, and remains the official Bible translation of the Roman Catholic Church. A fuller appreciation of the formal literary virtues of Biblical poetry remained unavailable for European Christians until 1754, when Robert Lowth (later made a bishop in the Church of England), kinder to the Hebrew language than his own, published Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, which identified parallelism as the chief rhetorical device within Hebrew poetry.
In many European vernacular literatures, Christian poetry appears among the earliest monuments of those literatures, and Biblical paraphrases in verse often precede Bible translations. In Old English poetry, the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on Christ's crucifixion which adapts Germanic heroic imagery and applies it to Jesus, is one of the earliest extant monuments of Old English literature. Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy represents one of the earliest monuments of Italian vernacular literature. Much Old Irish poetry was the work of Irish monks and is on religious themes. This story is repeated in most European languages.
The Protestant Reformation stimulated hymn writing, e.g. Martin Luther's "Ein Feste Burg". In England, the Dissenting and renewal movements of the 18th century saw a marked increase in the number and publication of new hymns due to the activity of Protestant poets such as Isaac Watts, the father of English hymns, Philip Doddridge, Augustus Toplady, and especially John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism. In the 19th century hymn singing came to be accepted in the Church of England, and numerous books of hymns for that body appeared. In America with the Second Great Awakening, hymn writing flourished from folk hymns and Negro spirituals to more literary texts from the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Women hymn writers gained prominence including Mrs C. f. Alexander, author of "All things bright and beautiful." Anna B. Warner wrote the poem "Jesus loves me," which, put to music, many Christian children learn to this day.
Christian poetry figured prominently in the Western literary canon from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. However with the progressive secularization of Western Civilization from about 1500 to the present, Christian poetry was less and less represented in literary and academic writing of the 19th and 20th centuries and scarcely at all in the 21st century.
Twentieth and 21st century Christian poetry especially suffers from a difficulty of definition. The writings of a Christian poet are not necessarily classified as Christian poetry nor are writings of secular poets dealing with Christian material. The themes of poetry are necessarily hard to pin down, and what some see as a Christian theme or viewpoint may not be seen by others. A number of modern writers are widely considered to have Christian themes in much of their poetry, including G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot. Modern Christian poetry may be found in anthologies and in several Christian magazines such as Commonweal, Christian Century and Sojourners.
The following list is chronological by birth year.
Anna B. Warner (1827 - 1915)