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Easter is the most poetic moment in all of human history. Christmas is a close second, but much of the meaning of Christmas depends on Easter; Easter’s glory radiates back through time to illuminate Christmas, as well as the Passover and myriad other moments that God placed for us as signs of what was to come.

When I say Easter is “poetic,” I mean that Easter is playful, subversive, and paradoxical. It tosses all our old categories and ways of thinking up into the air and juggles them joyously in and out until they are utterly changed, one into the other. After Easter, there is meaning in a sentence as, “in my death is the beginning of my Life”—before Easter, this is nonsense. Easter transfigures and transmutes the meaning of everything; suffering becomes healing, and death becomes life-giving. As T.S. Eliot says in his Easter-themed poem “East Coker,” Easter allows us to assert that “in my end is my beginning.”  

There were shades and hints of this scattered throughout the world before Easter, like in the turning of the seasons, where the fallow death of winter creates the conditions necessary for the burgeoning of new life. But before Easter, that evocative cycle is nothing but a vague hope. (For more on this, you can’t do better than Susannah Black Roberts’ “The Birth of Comedy,” a magnificent long-form essay on the impotent traces of Easter in pre-Christian myth.)

So as you prepare for your Easter celebrations, why not follow the tradition of the Church and incorporate some poetry into your feasting? Here are some of the most distinctive, stirring, elegant, and triumphant of all Easter poems—pick a few, read them aloud with friends and family, and who knows? Perhaps you’ll be moved to add your own Easter hymn to the great chorus!

“Death is annihilated, night has vanished”

The hymns of Ephrem the Syrian are among the earliest Christian poems, dating from the 4th century. Ephrem’s hymns served much the same purpose as his sermons: he used poetry to express theological truths and to teach people the tenets of the Catholic faith. His glorious “Hymn to the Light” recounts Christ’s victory over death and points us towards his coming triumph at the end of days. “Stand up and be ready!” Ephrem exhorts.

Creatures lying in darkness from ancient times are clothed in light.
The dead arise from the dust and sing because they have a Savior.

Easter is no passive holiday merely designed for looking backward; rather, it is a summons to live in accordance with the coming Kingdom of God.

The poem is available here at Plough, along with a beautiful reflection by Marianne Wright.

“Death and life have done battle”

The ancient poem “Victimae Paschali Laudes” is one of the most haunting, beautiful Easter poems we have. It is sung as the Sequence in the Easter morning Mass to an evocative plainsong chant. The poem makes an intriguing imagination turn; after describing the Crucifixion and Resurrection and urging Christians to praise Christ, it implores Mary Magdalene, the first person to encounter the risen Christ, to tell the story in her own words:

Dic nobis Maria,
quid vidisti in via?

“Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
Et gloriam vidi resurgentis:”

Speak to us, Mary, and say
What you saw along the way?
“The tomb of Christ who ever lives,
The glory his new-sprung life gives!”* 

This poem, so sweeping in its opening lyrics, focuses in the middle on the experience of a single person—a woman—reminding us that the Resurrection not only changes the course of human history but transforms our individual lives. Christ cares just as much about the fate of a single soul as about the salvation of the world.

“O let me rise as larks”

Easter Wings” by the Anglican priest George Herbert is one of the earliest—and best—examples of shape poetry: each of the two stanzas makes the shape of wings. But Herbert doesn’t fall into the trap of twisting his language to accommodate the conceit of the shape; rather, the language seems to naturally assume the wing structure. Each of the two stanzas constricts down in the middle around the language of sin, failure, and separation from God. See the first half of the first stanza:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:

From the expansiveness of the first line, the poem becomes cramped and suffocating as it relates to the story of man’s fall. Then the turn born of grace:

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

This closing line of the first stanza—“Then shall the fall further the flight in me”—irradiates the glorious meaning of Easter: that even the Fall, even sin, even Death itself, has become the means of unimaginable grace. In the words of St. Augustine, “Oh happy fault” indeed! Make sure you read the second stanza and explore Herbert’s other insights into the mystery of Easter.  

“A billion times told lovelier”

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ exuberant sonnet “The Windhover” is not explicitly an Easter poem, but it is a song of the loveliness of Christ, which is the whole theme of Easter anyway. What seems like a straightforward, if remarkably melodious, description of a bird soaring into the morning sky becomes a masterful extended metaphor for Christ, who comes to us, seeks us out (“my heart in hiding, stirred,” as Hopkins says), and reveals the joyous shape of all things, even the things that cast shadows on our lives. Hopkins, whose life was scarred by mental, physical, and emotional anguish, is by grace able to conclude this sweeping sonnet with the lines:

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Sillion is a very specific term for the dirt that is turned up by a plow, dirt that is almost magically made luminous by being crushed and turned over. Embers that are nearly burned out tend to collapse and shatter into pieces that each flare out in brilliant light. Hopkins’ meditation on the windhover in flight leads him naturally to the truth that grace, through Christ’s resurrection, transmutates suffering into glory.

“Sitting so remember yet”

This Easter poem has a distinctly different flavor than the others on this list because it was written by an agnostic. A. E. Housman was a young Englishman who survived World War I, and the horrors he encountered on the battlefield shattered his faith in God. But in his delicately beautiful “Easter Hymn,” Housman draws out an extended comparison between the slain Christ and the companions he lost in the trenches of France. Walking a fine line between his own lack of faith and the deep human yearning for the Resurrection to be true, the doubt expressed in the first stanza makes the hope—which Housman cannot quite own—shine even more brilliantly. The ending plea for Christ, if indeed he lives, to “bow hither out of heaven and see and save” rings out over the aching vision of World War I (“smoke and fire by day and night”) with a simple clarity that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. 

I: Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

“Let us not mock God with metaphor”

On the other end of the spectrum of belief, John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” opens with a challenge:

Make no mistake; if he rose at all,
It was as His body.

 The 19th and 20th centuries saw a trend to understand the Bible as a series of parables, Christ as a wise human teacher, his death as a tragic mistake, and the story of his resurrection as a nice symbol of how Love can continue on even after death. Updike beards these heretic lions in their dens, declaring that if the story of Christ is not historical and factual, it is worthless. “It was not as the flowers,/each soft spring recurrent,” Updike declares, that Christ rose. His resurrection was not some symbol; rather, it was the reality all other resurrection symbols point us to. The stakes, Updike realized, are high. 

If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall. 

This bold, uncompromising poem reminds us that our hope is not in some frail myth. The tale of Christ’s resurrection is not the flotsam of a backward age that we must rationalize and historicize, make “believable.” Rather, it is an explosion of the very stuff of matter itself—an explosion made of the stuff of matter itself. As we hear in the Mass, God “fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,” making the flesh and the death of the flesh the very means of destroying death.

As we celebrate this Easter, I hope we can all spend some time with these poetic responses to this glorious day. May we reflect on the triumph of Christ’s resurrection for all mankind, and on the way his triumph changes each and every one of our lives (and even every moment of our lives). Let us reflect on the material, physical reality of the miracle and grasp more firmly than ever the promise that Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead is restoring our physical bodies and each instant of our lives on earth. As we turn this Easter morning from contemplating Christ’s death on Good Friday and his still body lying in the tomb, let us, as John Updike bids,

… not mock God with metaphor […]
Let us walk through the door.

*Translation is the author’s; there are many others available.