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What Are the Different Types of Religious Poetry?

By Greg Caramenico
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Religious poetry is one of the oldest genres of literature, and consists of many different types, depending on the culture and era in which it was written. In the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, many of the earliest works of literature are poems with religious content. Classical Islamic literature had a type of religious poetry featuring mystical uses of love poems and standardized rhymes and imagery. A major form of English poetry of the 17th century was the devotional poetry written by many authors, including John Donne.

In the ancient Greek communities, a type of epic religious poetry was written during the early phases of classical literature. This sometimes described the actions of gods and of human-divine heroes like Hercules. Hesiod wrote about the creation and origin myths of the ancient Greeks within a partly, but not completely, religious format. Eventually, much of the poetry within this genre secularized, as Greek writers came to explore aspects of human psychology and history while using religious characters and themes. In ancient India, the poems known as the Vedas could also be considered a kind of religious poetry, since they were used in religious ceremonies.

In classical Islamic literature, a major artistic type of religious poetry flourished from about 1000 to 1500 in a genre influenced by the Islamic mystical movements of Sufism. These poems used the same styles of writing as love poetry, sometimes symbolizing the relationship between the soul and God through various romantic themes like the moth and the flame or the rose and the nightingale. Much of the mystical poetry written in the Islamic tradition was composed in Persian, the main language of poetry in the Islamic empires of the Middle East and south-central Asia. The most famous religious poet to come out of the Islamic world was the Sufi mystic Rumi, who lived in what is now Turkey.

One variety of English religious poetry is the devotional poem, popularized in 17th century verse by the later works of John Donne and by the minister-poet George Herbert. Some devotional poetry involved rhyming translations from the Bible's Book of Psalms, or meditations on themes of divine providence, death, and redemption. This genre of religious literature favored prayers or affirmations of Christian faith in the form of sonnets — as in Donne's Holy Sonnets. Devotional poems were written for congregational use as part of church services and for personal meditation.

Some modern poets working in English have also written devotional poetry. T.S. Eliot dabbled in this style, and his later poetry includes a lot of Biblical and liturgical subjects. Some scholars consider aspects of hymn writing to be poetic composition. Working within that framework, the tradition of African-American hymns known as spirituals largely assembled in the 19th century United States could also be considered religious poetry.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Jan 14, 2014

@bythewell - I'm not particularly religious, so maybe that's why I prefer Christian poems that have some doubt in them. I guess I can relate to them better and somehow the idea of someone with doubt who is still hoping and acting with faith is more inspiring to me.

I also really love the poems that use bits of history, from the bible or from other times, in order to illustrate some point.

By bythewell — On Jan 13, 2014

@clintflint - As much as I like songs, the problem with them is that they are supposed to inspire people to a particular emotion and they often only have one emotional tone because of that.

While, with poetry, you can really express a range of emotion and create a journey for the reader. Since I feel like religious expression should often be based around the idea of a journey, religious poems do more to fulfill that for me than songs do.

I like the deeper and complex poems written by literary poets though. The sweet devotional poems that you sometimes find online are cute, but they don't often have that deeper meaning that you can ponder during the day.

By clintflint — On Jan 12, 2014

There are some journals that are dedicated to spiritual poems that might be worth checking out if you are interested in exploring this kind of poetry.

I think there is a lot of value in the lyrics of older hymns. Back then poetry was often considered basically the same thing as song, so the lyrics are more complex and beautiful than you might find in a lot of songs today.

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