Poetry and contemplation

The spiritual poet and the contemplative experience God in the inner world, for if God is a ‘beyond’ of the world then it is in the psyche that we can become closer. There is still our human relationship to the ‘beyond’, our connection to the transcendent through ‘uncertain certainty’.

In her poem ‘I know that he exists’ Emily Dickinson writes:

I know that He exists.

Somewhere – in silence-

He has hid his rare life

From our gross eyes.


Her God is real but hidden and silent as she rejects the comfortable revealed God of traditional Christian teachings and doctrine instead she seems to be stressing the existential upheaval of divine presence which is a mystery that on-going questioning begins to illuminate. Any revelation emerges as doubt-filled and a fragile experience in the immediacy of consciousness. Her poems use words that have been personalised and revitalised through her spiritual experiences.

It is Raissa Maritain who tries to explain the link between God and poetry when she writes:

God. Poetry. An absolutely straight and pure inner activity goes to the one and to the other – goes, sometimes, from the one to the other. The divine silence of the soul breaks out into psalms – and the quiet of the poet sometimes discovers God … Nothing beautiful is brought into existence without love being at work.

For Raissa Maritain’s poems do not come from the imagination but from what she describes as ‘the heart of the most stripped-down silence, when it reaches a sufficient degree of depth and purity.’

It is thanks to Thomas Merton that we have a number of her poems that he translated from the French and these are included in his Collected Poems. Some are short, revealing this stripped down quality:

‘Glass Orchard’

Glass orchard

Snow blossoms

In the firmament

Of tears

The clean star

Guards us

From veils of sleep


Another longer poem called ‘Autumn’

Branch on bird

Singing and losing leaves

Autumn held the bow

Of the whimpering violin

In wind out of the west

Murmuring sad things

The bird wept by itself

Flowering the dark elm

With tears in blossoms

Of glass and new gold

Both branch and sparrow

In mist grey and pure

Marry their homesickness

With the night’s mystery

This poem written in 1947 is set in the natural world but immediately offers another level of meaning which is the mystical. As readers we move from the image of nature with the branch on bird through a musical movement accompanying the wind towards the transformation of a scene in the natural world into a metaphor for the soul’s longing for home and release.

The bird is the soul, the tree is the cross and the flowering out of season is God’s grace manifested in creation. Merton commenting on her poetry wrote about the ‘transcendent and immanent presence’ of ‘the Three Divine Persons’ in her poems and indeed in her life. ‘This is the real root of her poetic experience, even when her poetry seems to say nothing explicit about God.’ So in Autumn God’s presence is in the simplest of natural scenes, so crossing as Judith Suther (Raissa’s biographer) writes ‘ the invisible line between the natural and the supernatural, the material and the immaterial, the profane and the sacred.’