Introducing “The Saviour of the World”

Introducing “The Saviour of the World”

This essay is was first published in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, published by Riverbend Press. ©2014 by the Charlotte Mason Institute.

By Art Middlekauff

Charlotte Mason is best known today for her philosophy of education which she presented in a series of six volumes first published between 1885 and 1923. What is less well-known is that Mason also wrote six volumes of original poetry published between 1908 and 1914. Entitled The Saviour of the World, these volumes contain more than 1,000 pages of poetry inspired by the text of Holy Scripture. These poetry volumes were incorporated in the core curriculum of the PNEU schools for the upper forms, which corresponds roughly to junior high school and high school in the United States (Mason, 1954, p. 169).

In her introduction to the first poetry volume (1908), Charlotte Mason explained why she wrote these poems:

We are at present in a phase of religious thought, Christian or pseudo-Christian, when a synthetic study of the life and teaching of Christ may well be of use. We have analysed until the mind turns in weariness from the broken fragments; we have criticised until there remains no new standpoint for the critic; but if we could only get a whole conception of Christ’s life among men, and of the philosophic method of His teaching, His own word should be fulfilled, and the Son of Man, lifted up, would draw all men unto himself.

It seems to the writer that verse offers a comparatively new medium in which to present the great theme. It is more impersonal, more condensed, and is capable of more reverent handling than is prose; and what Wordsworth calls “The authentic comment” may be essayed in verse with more becoming diffidence. Again, the supreme moment of a very large number of lives—that in which a person is brought face to face with Christ—comes before us with great vividness in the gospel narratives; and it is possible to treat what we call dramatic situations with more force, and, at the same time, more reticence, in verse than in prose. (pp. xi-xii)

Charlotte Mason believed that certain truths in the New Testament were becoming inaccessible to modern readers. English readers were losing the ability to derive the sublime concepts from the prose passages. She believed that poetry was the answer to unlock Scriptural truths for her community. Her purpose was not to entertain, to cater to children, or to be artistic. Rather, her purpose was to communicate the sublime using the most appropriate medium.

The subject matter of her poetry volumes generally follows the sequence of readings in The Gospel History, a harmony of the four Gospels developed by C. C. James. One contemporary reviewer (the Dundee Advertiser) summarized the form and structure of the works (as cited in Mason, 1909, end pages):

Miss Mason renders into graceful and original verse part of the story of Christ as found in the Gospels. She seeks to cover each incident in His career, and each notable saying to which He gave utterance, in a single poem, the series to form a complete story.

A. Parish (1923) describes how The Saviour of the World was utilized in Charlotte Mason’s schools. She wrote:

The six existing volumes are in constant use in the Parents’ Union School where the work of the children proves their worth. The passage to be studied is read in the Gospels and then narrated. The children then set to work to understand the passage more fully by comparing the different accounts and by bringing all they know to bear upon it; sometimes the teacher asks questions or points out some new aspect but more often she learns a great deal from the children. When the teacher and the children have found out all they can, the verses referring to it in the “Saviour of the World” are read by the teacher and narrated by the children. (p. 61)

This indicates that The Saviour of the World did not replace Scripture study in school. Rather, it was to be used as a final amplification of Scripture after the “children have found out all they can” from the Gospel text.

One may ask why Mason felt the need to include The Saviour of the World in the core curriculum. If the children “have found out all they can” from the Gospel text, what more can be “found out” from reading and narrating her  poetry? Did Mason believe the Gospel text was lacking in some way? Or did Mason believe that her poetry was improving upon Scripture?

Mason (1909) addressed this question directly in the introduction to her first volume:

It may be said, we have the whole story in the Gospels, and cannot hope or desire to improve upon that which is written. But . . . we know how arresting a new, though inferior, presentation is; no one can read the Gospels in another tongue, though in a poorer translation, without new convictions, new delight. For these reasons, the writer ventures to hope that a rendering in verse which aims at no more than being faithful and reverent may give pleasure to Christian people, may help to bring out the philosophical sequence of our Lord’s teaching, and throw into relief the incidents of His life. (p. xiv)

Rather than improving upon Scripture, she was attempting to provide a new lens by which certain beauties of the Scripture would be made more accessible to her readers.

Did Charlotte Mason have a precedent for using poetry for this purpose? To answer this question, I would like to begin by exploring the use of poetry in the Bible itself and in Christian tradition.

Poetry in the Bible

Anyone reading the Bible soon notices that there are many different literary genres present in the text. For example, it is straightforward to observe that some passages are historical narrative, whereas others are poetry. What may not be as quickly observed, however, is that in same cases the Bible uses separate passages with different genres to describe the same event. Consider, for example, the narrative account in Judges 4 (RSV) about Sisera and Jael:

And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.

This is followed in the next chapter by this account:

He asked water and she gave him milk
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.
Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why do the hoofbeats of his chariots tarry?”

The first passage has the characteristics of a prose narrative, whereas the second may be immediately recognized as poetry. But why is the same historical episode recounted twice?

I insist that it is not accidental. My understanding of the Bible is shaped by this verse:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, RSV)

A key word in this verse is “all”. That means that nothing is in the Bible by accident. Another key word is “inspired”. That means that the Bible is exactly the way God wants it to be, with no mistakes. And finally, the verse says the Bible is for reproof, correction, and training. In other words, the Bible is effective for spiritual formation.  So I believe there must be a way that the two companion passages each contribute to spiritual formation.

Similarly, consider Exodus 14:23-28 (RSV):

The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. . . . Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.”

So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its usual flow when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled into it, and the LORD routed the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.

This is followed in the next chapter by this account:

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
. . .
Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea;
and his picked officers are sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods cover them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.

Again we ask, why is this historical episode recounted twice? What is the difference between the two accounts?

One final example is Genesis 45:4-8 (RSV):

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Compare this to Psalm 105:16-22 (RSV):

When he summoned a famine on the land,
and broke every staff of bread,
he had sent a man ahead of them,
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
His feet were hurt with shackles,
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass
the word of the LORD tested him.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of the peoples set him free;
he made him lord of his house,
and ruler of all his possessions,
to instruct his princes at his pleasure,
and to teach his elders wisdom.

Yet again, why is this historical episode recounted twice? What is the difference between the two accounts?

I am often pressed for time and am always looking for shortcuts to increase efficiency. Since the Bible is effective for spiritual formation, it seems that there may be a way to use it more efficiently. If what matters is the truth conveyed, then one might argue that passages like Judges 4, Exodus 14, and Genesis 45 adequately express their respective ideas. For efficient spiritual formation, just skip over Judges 5, Exodus 15, and Psalm 105.

One challenge to the “efficient spiritual formation” concept is that some poetic passages have no narrative antecedent. For example, consider Psalm 131 (RSV):

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.

The theory of “efficient spiritual formation” can accommodate this by adding a second recommendation: “If you encounter a poetic passage in Scripture, re-express it as a sequence of logical propositions that can be easily assimilated rationally.”

We have plenty of commentaries that can do this for us. For example, the Wesleyan Bible Commentary (Livingston, 1982) gives us an easy-to-assimilate retelling of Psalm 131:

Under the hammering of criticism, [David] had disciplined his spirit so that he was no longer completely thrown off balance and left in utter confusion or turmoil whenever an unkind word was said. Now he could take the worst that could be handed out, and at the same time, retain a stilled and quieted spirit.

Once [David] had been like a suckling child, always under compulsion to draw strength from another source whenever a need arose. Now he was like a weaned child, with a greater sense of security and ability to draw sufficient strength from a stronger food than milk. (pp. 432-433)

Why mess with poetry when you can jump straight to this?

There are so many special Bible editions in print today, I have an idea to publish my own study Bible called The Rational Bible. In this Bible, all seemingly duplicative poetic passages like Judges 5, Exodus 15, and Psalm 105 would be removed, and all unique poetic passages will be replaced by prose distillations like the one above. That way the reader can get straight to the rational content of each passage as quickly as possible.

The problem with my theory of efficient spiritual formation and The Rational Bible is that they are hard to square with this verse:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, RSV)

Or as rendered in the ESV,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. [emphasis mine]

The problem with The Rational Bible is that the passages it would eliminate were actually breathed out by God Himself.

Who invented poetry? Some poetry was inspired by God Himself! Given that Scripture contains poetry, we could say:

[Poetry] is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Or even more simply, “God breathes poetry.”

Why Does God Breathe Poetry?

C.S. Lewis attempted to answer this question. He reflected on Matthew 7:7 (RSV):

Ask, and it will be given you;
seek, and you will find;
knock, and it will be opened to you.

Lewis wrote (1958):

The advice is given in the first phrase, then twice repeated with different images. We may, if we like, see in this an exclusively practical and didactic purpose; by giving to truths which are infinitely worth remembering this rhythmic and incantatory expression, He made them almost impossible to forget. I like to suspect more. It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight, and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry. For poetry, too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible. (p. 5)

For Lewis, the poetry of Christ was not intended to be a simple mnemonic. There is something “more.”

Francis Bacon wrote (as cited in Lowth, 1829):

. . . poetry seems to endow human nature with that which lies beyond the power of history, and to gratify the mind with at least the shadow of things where the substance cannot be had . . . . [Poetry] is deservedly supposed to participate in some measure of Divine inspiration; since it raises the mind, and fills it with sublime ideas, by proportioning the appearances of things to the desires of the mind, and not submitting the mind to things, like reason and history.

Bacon points out that since we live in a fallen world, prose speaks to us of those things we are familiar with. But God originally created a paradise, and that paradise will be restored in the resurrection. According to Bacon, poetry alone is able to inspire our imagination to see beyond the fallen world and towards the glorious state.

This suggests that some ideas can only be expressed in poetry. Some ideas are sufficiently sublime as to defy prosaic, rational expression. The Rational Bible is out.

Should we Follow God’s Example?

We have seen that God Himself chooses at times to retell Scripture with poetry. This happens, for example, with Judges 5, Exodus 15, and Psalm 105. With God setting this precedent, is it beneficial for Christians to follow the example? It turns out they have been doing so for centuries. For example, Ephrem the Syrian wrote this fourth-century poetic account of Noah (Behr, 2012):

How splendid was Noah, whose example surpassed all his contemporaries:
they were weighed in the scales of justice
and were found wanting;
a single soul with its armor of chastity
outbalanced them all.
They were drowned in the Flood,
having proved too light in the scales,
while in the Ark
the chaste and weighed Noah was lifted up.
Glory be to God who took pleasure in Noah!

Over the Flood the ship of the Lord of all flew,
it left the east, rested in the west,
flew off to the south,
and measured out the north;
its flight over the water
served as a prophecy for the dry land,
preaching how its progeny would be
fruitful in every quarter,
abounding in every region.
Praises to his Saviour!

The Ark marked out by its course the sign of its Preserver,
the cross of its Steersman, and the wood of its Sailor
who had come to fashion for us
the Church in the waters of baptism:
with the threefold name
He rescues those who reside in her,
and in the place of the dove,
the Spirit administers her anointing
And the mystery of her salvation.
Praises to her Savior! (p. 61-62)

Similarly, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote this poetic account of the widow of Zarephath (Behr, 2013) (cf. 1 Kings 17):

This, stranger, is indeed Zarephath of Sidon,
and this is the tower of the widow, who hospitably
received Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of God,
while a plague was vexing the cities.
She had a little oil in her flask
and one drachma of flour hidden in the water jar.
This she unsparingly gave to her guest.
The well that nourished the household she found as a gift.
Elijah, who nourished her son when he was alive,
raised him up from the darkness of the dead.
But the mother, who once bewailed her childlessness,
became a mother again without birth pains.  (p. 79)

More recently, 19th century poet John Keble gave this account of the nativity of Christ (2007):

Yet stay, before thou dare
To join that festal throng;
Listen and mark what gentle air
First stirred the tide of song;
’Tis not, “the Saviour born in David’s home,
To Whom for power and health obedient worlds
should come:” –
’Tis not, “the Christ the Lord:”
With fixed adoring look
The choir of Angels caught the word,
Nor yet their silence broke:
But when they heard the sign where Christ should be,
In sudden light they shone and heavenly harmony.

Wrapped in His swaddling bands,
And in His manger laid,
The Hope and Glory of all lands
Is come to the world’s aid:
No peaceful home upon his cradle smiled,
Guests rudely went and came, where slept the royal
Child. (p. 14)

The historical testimony of the church is “yes,” following God’s example and developing poetic retellings of Scripture can in fact deliver a benefit to the Christian community.

Translation – Problem or Opportunity?

If poetry “raises the mind, and fills it with sublime ideas,” what happens when it is translated? Does it lose any of its artistic or spiritual efficacy? Furthermore, when poetry is translated, can it be enhanced by the poetic conventions of the target language? Lewis (1958) explored the first question by identifying the key characteristics of Hebrew poetry. He wrote

Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern, is fortunately one that survives in translation. Most readers will know that I mean what scholars call “parallelism”; that is, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.  (p. 3)

Interestingly, parallelism is preserved in translation. So Lewis commented:

It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere meter does) in translation. (pp. 4-5)

Parallelism can be easily observed seen in this English translation of Psalm 136:3-6 (RSV):

O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his mercy endures for ever;
to him who alone does great wonders,
for his mercy endures for ever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his mercy endures for ever;
to him who spread out the earth upon the waters,
for his mercy endures for ever;

But English poetry utilizes more than parallelism. English poetry also utilizes devices such as meter and rhyme. What if all of the characteristics of English poetry were applied to Psalm 136? This is found in John Milton (as cited in Gillingham, 1994):

Let us with a gladsome mind,
Praise the Lord for he is kind:
For his mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure.

Let us blaze his name abroad,
For of gods he is the God:
For his mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure.

He with all-commanding might
Filled the new-made world with light:
For his mercies aye endure,
Every faithful, ever sure. (p. 11)

In this English adaptation of the Psalm, the familiar elements of English poetry speak to us in a special way in our language and culture.

The desire to create English poetry versions of Hebrew poetry has proven to be irresistible over the centuries. Gillingham (1994) writes, “And poets throughout the ages, as diverse as Herbert, Wesley, Watts, Wyatt, Vaughan, Milton, Lyte, Keble, and Tate and Brady, have all brought new patterns of psalmody into hymnody” (p. 269).

If we grant that certain sublime truths can only be expressed in poetry (or are best expressed in poetry), then it seems likely that English poetry is best poised to speak to English-speaking hearts. So we might say that Hebrew poetry in Scripture, or Hebrew and Greek prose in Scripture, when passed through the prism of English poetry, lead to a deeper comprehension of those ideas that are best expressed in poetry.

Charlotte Mason and the Tradition

We see that Charlotte Mason has actually continued a long tradition of using poetry to unlock Scriptural truths. Along the same pattern as Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory Nazianzus, John Keble, and even the Bible itself, she retold the Gospel narratives in poetic form. A specific example of Mason’s poetry in this tradition is her treatment of the Magnificat. This is one of the rare examples of Greek poetry in the New Testament, and is translated into English as follows (Luke 1:46-55, RSV):

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.

Mason (1908, pp. 23-24) utilized many characteristics of English poetry in her rendering of this song:

My soul rejoiceth in the Lord,
My spirit triumphs in His word;
He looked upon my low estate,
And, looking, made His handmaid great:
To God, my Saviour, be the praise,
Who lowliest men doth highest raise!

Henceforth the generations shall
Name me for Blessed, one and all;
He that is mighty hath to me
Done great things, low though my degree:
His mercy is for ever sure
While tribes and nations shall endure!

Holy His name, and full of grace
To them that fear, and seek His face:
His arm with ready strength is found
To cast the high ones to the ground,
Scatter the proud, the meek upraise,
And nourish all their sheltered days:

The rich go empty, and the poor,
Filled with good things, shall leave His door;
Princes from thrones He putteth down,
To raise those meek who be His own:
To His servant Israel brought He aid,
The promise He of old hath made;—

That mercy should remembered be,
That Abraham his race should see
Countless as sand on the seashore,
Blessed by their God for evermore!
The promise that hath been of old
To Abraham and his sons foretold,
To kings and prophets dimly shown—
His secret—now, He maketh known:
The promised SEED is come, and I,
Poor Maid, by God, am set on high!

In light of this tradition, and given the prominent role of The Saviour of the World in the curriculum of the first Charlotte Mason schools, it seems to me that Christian educators of today should increase the use of poetry in classes on Scripture, theology, and spiritual formation. This would include Bible poetry from the sacred text itself, Bible-based poetry written by believers through the centuries, and perhaps even the Bible-based poetry written by Charlotte Mason herself. Sadly, however, I am not aware of a single curriculum or school today that employs Mason’s poetry volumes. I think that is most unfortunate because these poems contain spiritual treasures which provide as much insight and devotional value as they did for readers nearly 100 years ago.

Many in the Charlotte Mason community express a certain affection for Mason as a heroine, role model, or guide. Mason poured her heart into her poetry volumes. W. H. Draper (1923) wrote:

I had good ground for knowing also that to her, more than literature, more even than poetry was Religion itself. This was proved in that work to which she gave much time and effort — the verse paraphrase and comment of much of the Gospel record, and to which she gave the title, “The Saviour of the World.” Others will write upon and commemorate her system of education. To me let it fall to mention the work dearer to her heart, perhaps, than all the rest. (p. 21)

This work was the dearest to her heart. Therefore it deserves the serious attention of those who wish to prolong and sustain her legacy.

References

Behr, J. (Ed.) (2012). Treasure-house of mysteries: Explorations of the sacred text through poetry in the Syriac tradition. (Brock S., Trans.). Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Behr, J. (Ed.) (2013). Poems on Scripture: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. (Dunkle B., Trans.). Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Draper, W. H. (1923). Official Tributes. In In Memorium: Charlotte M. Mason (21). London: Wadsworth and Co.

ESV. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Gillingham, S. E. (1994). The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible [Kindle Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Keble, J. (2007). The Christian Year. Gloucester: Dodo Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1958). Reflections on the Psalms. San Diego: A Harvest Book / Harcourt, Inc.

Livingston, G. H. (1982). Psalms 73-150. The Wesleyan Bible commentary: Volume two (3rd printing). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. (Original work published 1968)

Lowth, R. (1829). Lectures on the sacred poetry of the Hebrews. (G. Gregory, Trans.). Boston, MA: Crocker & Brewster. (Original work published 1753)

Mason, C. M. (1908). The Saviour of the World: I. The Holy Infancy. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Retrieved from http://personalpages.tds.net/~amiddlek/TSotW.htm

Mason, C. M. (1909). The Saviour of the World:III. The Kingdom of Heaven. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: Lowe & Brydone. (Original work published 1925)

 Parrish, E. A. (1923). Miss Mason’s Message. In In Memorium: Charlotte M. Mason (60-66). London: Wadsworth and Co.

RSV. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.