Poetry in Motion

Michael Metzger

We’d read more poetry if we recognized that we’re God’s poetry, poetry in motion.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph.2:10). The Greek word for handiwork is poeima, also translated as poem. We are God’s poetry, his poetry in motion for good works. But why poetry? The answer lies in the friendship between Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis grew up finding poetry a pleasure to read. But he prided himself on his rationality. Myth and metaphor are nice in poetry but in the real world they’re “lies breathed through silver” he told Tolkien before his conversion. Lord Chesterfield felt similarly, calling poetry a form of flattering lie. One time he urged his son to tear a couple of sheets from a book of poetry and take them with him to the “necessary-house,” where, once he had read them, he could “send them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina” (the goddess of sewers).

Lewis’ view of poetry began to change when he met Owen Barfield in 1919. They were fellow undergraduates at Oxford. At that time, Barfield’s “intellectual scheme of things” was materialistic, as was Lewis’. No God, no myth, no magic, no “hidden” meanings. But then Barfield started reading poetry. He had a “felt change of consciousness,” what he later described as some kind of magic. A poem, particularly its metaphor, “seemed to say things to me that nothing else did.” It touched “the overriding materialism of my outlook. So I started to write about that.”

After securing his degree at Oxford (in 1920), Barfield began to work on what would become “Poetic Diction” as a dissertation for a post-baccalaureate degree (received in 1927), eventually publishing it as a book in 1928. That was around the time Lewis introduced Barfield to Tolkien. Barfield would soon join the Inklings, making a major contribution to Lewis’ thought on poetry and myth. Barfield noted how “our sophistication” (scientism and materialism) “has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity.” He felt this “hidden” unity, “of which Shelley spoke, is in a sense forgotten… and imagination can help us see it again.”[1]

Shelley wrote that poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar … It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.”[1]

I find it fascinating that Iain McGilchrist says the left hemisphere majors in reiteration. It believes the way to “get the meaning across is apparently to repeat the words endlessly, drumming it further and further into the realm of the over-familiar, the domain of the left hemisphere.”[2] (I’ve sat and listened to many a sermon that felt this way). But, in a sense, this is what Lewis was doing until he met Barfield—trying to get the meaning across by reiterating the over-familiar. Later, when Barfield joined the Inklings, Lewis came to recognize imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination precedes reason. If we don’t start with the right image (metaphor), reason does not reveal “hidden” truth.

Which brings us back to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He writes that his mission is “to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along” (3:8-10). And what’s hidden? Later, in that same letter, Paul says it’s to reveal what’s behind the “reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a mega mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:31-32).

This is why we’re God’s poetry, poetry in motion: to reveal the triune God’s eternal “hidden” plan to “wed” their love with us. It’s written on the parchment of our flesh, our bodies, just as it’s written on “the Word became flesh,” the parchment of Jesus’ body. Poetry, which was initially sung, depicts this. Hence, the Songs of Songs, depicting male-female nuptial union, is the song, the climatic poetic depiction of God’s “hidden” wisdom.

Which is why the Inklings were drawn to sacramental traditions. Tolkien was Catholic and in the liturgy of the Mass, the psalms, which are poetic, are sung responsively. It’s the Bride of Christ, singing and making melody with our heart to the lord, lifting one voice to the Bridegroom, Jesus. It’s poetry in motion, which is what God created us for in Christ Jesus.


[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Wesleyan University Press, 1984), 86-87.

[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays”

[2] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, 2010).


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One Comment

  1. What a lovely reflection to begin my day. I am God’s poetry in motion. My wife and I together are God’s poetry in motion. That is something to wonder about.

    Do you know the Anglican poet and priest Malcolm Guite? I highly recommend his recent book of poems David’s Crown. I have been reading it alongside the Psalms this year. Read just the first poem reflecting on Psalm 1 and you will be hooked. It’s a real gift.

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