Book Review: The Poems Of St. John Of The Cross

The Poems Of St. John Of The Cross, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft

While St. John of the Cross is best known for his famous poem “Dark Night Of The Soul” [1], a poem whose mystic discussion of the rapturous love between God and believers has inspired many people, even those whose religious identity is somewhat dark and mysterious, he wrote a fair amount of other poetry as well during his imprisonment by other Carmelites who were against the reform efforts he and St. Theresa of Avila spearheaded during the troubled times of the late 16th century.  I greatly enjoyed these poems, and think that they are the sort of works that could easily be appreciated by many readers who have at least some tolerance for Catholic mysticism.  That is not to say that I liked all of these poems or share the worldview of the poet, but that I find a great deal to enjoy in poetry that often shows an awareness of the Bible as well as a deep amount of passion.  It is clear that this author writes from a high degree of religious enthusiasm of the sort that would make one a reformer of a Catholic order that seemed at least somewhat reluctant to be reformed.

In about 80 pages, this book provides a diglot edition of the poems of St. John of the Cross with the even numbered pages being in Spanish and the odd numbered pages being the English translation.  Both of the versions scan well and are a joy to read.  This particular book of poetry is not large, even by the standards of poetry books, which are often somewhat short, but it is pretty clear that this author was definitely a master of Castilian Spanish.  Included are poems about dark nights of love, the way that one lives a mystical life, and plenty of songs about pining and longing, and even a reference to the Song of Solomon (Spiritual canticle) and Psalms (By the rivers of Babylon), as well as poems about the the Word.  This is the sort of book that makes one want to read more from the author and translator and that is something to behold.  This is a book of poetry that puts the best face on mysticism, as opposed the way that others do [2], and I must admit that a Christian with an interest in these matters will find much to enjoy here.

St. John of the Cross is the sort of writer that gets a lot of love from readers who share the author’s interest in ecstatic union with God and his reflection of love and devotion in other aspects.  It is easy to understand that, and even if the author does not necessarily have a great deal of mass popular appeal, this book is clearly aimed at an audience of those who appreciate religious poetry in English and/or Spanish.  The translator does great work and the poems themselves are something to behold.  They certainly do raise the bar for religious poetry.  Best of all, the poet is not someone who drones on endlessly, but has a certain degree of efficiency in how he writes.  He writes as long as he needs to in order to get the point of cross in lyrical, gorgeous poetry and then ends it.  This is not a man in love with his own words, unlike many people who write, but he is also just as obviously in love with God, at last as he understands God.  Even where one disagrees with a lot of the presentation–the author’s ode to the Trinity most notably–there is still a lot to appreciate here.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: The Poems Of St. John Of The Cross

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