Dickinson, the hymn tradition, and the theology of poetic forms

In his entry for “hymn” in A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch quotes literary critic and poet Susan Stewart as saying, “Common meter [the hymn quatrain*] presents itself as the most suitable for group singing –– the coordination of song and the coordination of social life under a common temporal framework emphasize integration and solidarity.” Hirsch continues, “Think, then, of what it meant for Emily Dickinson to fracture the common measure, thus invoking the hymn tradition and responding to its communal nature with a radical individualism of her own.”

I compare this with the anecdotal evidence of people my age and younger who have commented that hymn quatrains often bother them because they are theologically too “cute” and “tidy.” In no way is their experience or knowledge of God reflected by a perfectly gift-wrapped four line poem.

I’m not going to defend Dickinson from the charge that her poetry represents a revolt of individualism against the confines of organized religion. I love her poems, but she is guilty as charged. But even if her motives were promethean and sinful, I find myself agreeing with her formal impulses. Wouldn’t it be much more honest to sing about God in free verse than in a sanded-down quatrain? And this isn’t just a silly juvenile quest for “authenticity.” It’s also a revolt against the idolatry of a construct, even if that construct is the safety of a four line poem. It’s also a recognition of human finitude. A quatrain gives an illusion, at the level of poetic form, that God has been boxed. (In a way, a quatrain is a four-sided enclosure.) Free verse, in contrast, doesn’t have to only represent the “freedom” of the liberated artist; it could also represent the freedom of a God who acts in freedom in history.

This of course does not answer the charge that free verse is not singable by a congregation. But it’s worth asking if the church could use some freer verse, if not totally free verse. Also, for the record, I love a good quatrain as much as the next hymnal nerd, but it’s good to be aware of its limitations, and also think about the potential implied theology of poetic forms in general.

* a quatrain is a four line poem, often with the rhyme scheme ABAB. Here’s a familiar common meter hymn quatrain to give you an idea:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise
The glories of my God and King
The triumphs of his grace.
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