Garry Wills was just 25 years old in 1960 when he completed Poetry in the Bible, a 63-page booklet that was part of the Catholic Know-You-Bible Program. He was at the start of a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian and journalist.
Poetry in the Bible is rarely mentioned. Few people know that Wills wrote it.
Yet, as one would expect, it’s an interesting little book, filled with insights about biblical verse, most from the Old Testament, and with Wills’ palpable joy in poetry and his religious faith.
This book was written more than half a century ago, a few years before the start of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, there is much that has changed in the Catholic Church, and also a great deal of biblical research that has been conducted. So, there are some aspects to Wills’ text that he might write differently today.
But the core of his book is still vibrant.
“A strange song”
The book’s audience was apparently adults and older children new to thinking about the Bible and its meanings. As a result, Wills writes in a simple style, taking his readers by the hand in a careful, instructive way.
He doesn’t explain how he chose which poems to feature. For instance, he doesn’t include two of my favorites: the start of Genesis (“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”) and the opening of St. John’s gospel (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”).
It seems that he selected poems that enabled him to tell a story, such as “By the streams of Babylon/we sat and wept/when we remembers Sion.”
As Wills explains, this was “a song against singing — against singing in front of the unbelieving Babylonians.” It was, he writes, “a strange song, full of sorrow, but also full of a hard determination — a determination not to sing any songs while the pagan captors were present to mock their religion.”
“My spirit rejoices”
He also tells the story of the annunciation in which Mary accepted the task of being the mother of Jesus. Her response, called the Magnificat, was:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed…
Unlike much of English poetry over the centuries, Hebrew verse isn’t meant to rhyme in terms of the sounds of words at the ends of lines. But, as Wills explains, it rhymes in another way:
Whenever the Hebrews wrote a line of poetry, they added a second line which repeated the idea of the first line. The second line is a kind of meditation on the first one. It makes us dwell on the thought so that we can understand it better.
The first two lines of the Magnificat are an example of that. The next two lines are an example of a similar strategy — instead of saying the same thought, the first line is echoed by the opposite thought. Mary is “lowly” and “blessed.”
“The rhythm and repetition”
Songs — poems — for the Hebrews, Wills writes, weren’t like our popular tunes. They sang “as an aid to thought. They meditated on the meaning of their beautiful songs, just as they did on the one which was composed in the Babylonian camp.”
In fact, he writes that the repetition in these songs and the lessons they transmitted were akin to the repetitions and lessons of the rosary:
The rhythm and repetition of the words in their songs were like the repeated Hail Mary’s which go with our meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s life. The Hebrews meditated on the words as they sang. By chanting these words over and over, they let their minds dwell on the mysteries of God’s goodness to them.
In other words, he writes, the songs comprised a kind of “catechism” for the Hebrews.
Wills’ Poetry in the Bible is a reminder to the modern reader that songs are used the same way in Catholic rituals today. Indeed, many of the prayers at the Mass and other services are from the Old Testament, and they tell stories of sorrow, search, fear, comfort, forgiveness and delight. And many are quoted in Wills’ text.
Consider these words from Isaiah that are repeated often during the Christmas season and are a central highlight of Messiah, the 18th-century oratorio by George Frideric Handel:
For a Child is born to us…
and the government is upon His shoulder.
And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,
God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come,
The Prince of Peace.
Patrick T. Reardon