The renowned writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton became known to the broader reading public with his famous spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. The book struck a chord with the reading public in the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the atomic age with is persistent threat of total annihilation. But this wasn’t Merton’s first book. His first work is a collection of poems that appeared seventy years ago simply titled Thirty Poems.
Merton first visited the Abbey of Gethesemani, a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, in April of 1941 as he was wrestling with the issue of religious vocation. He came to stay in December of 1941, and embraced the rigorous routine of manual labor, contemplation, and prayer that were the mainstays of a Trappist monk’s life. He came close to abandoning writing altogether, but continued to write poetry. His superiors, knowing that he had a literary gift, also assigned him writing tasks and one encouraged him to write the book that became The Seven Storey Mountain. Writing became part of his religious vocation.
Thirty Poems appeared in 1944, three years after Merton entered Gethsemani. Some of the poems were composed prior to 1941, and Merton’s former professor at Columbia, the distinguished poet, critic, and teacher Mark van Doren, did some editorial work on the collection.
Much of the collection focuses explicitly on Christian themes, figures, and stories—no great surprise for a young poet and monk who had recently found himself very much at home in the Abbey of Gethsemani. Monastic life is a subject of one poem: “The Trappist Abbey: Matins (Our Lady of Gethsemane, Kentucky).” Other poems with an explicitly Christian focus include “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared To A Window,” An Argument—Of The Passion of Christ,” “Saint Jason,” and “Song For Our Lady of Cobre.”
One of the most powerful and well-known poems from the collection is Merton’s “For My Brother: Reported Missing In Action, 1943,” which is Merton’s elegy for his brother, Sergeant John Paul Merton of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It is a moving and eloquent poem.
Thomas Merton would compose many other poems. In later years his work would become more experimental and comment more directly on social and political issues. But in Thirty Poems we see clearly the spiritual depth that is a hallmark of his work, along with a concern for the suffering of the world, a love of creation and the Creator, and exhilaration at the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.
Thirty Poems, published as an appendix to Merton’s second volume of poetry, A Man in the Divided Sea. New Directions, New York, 1946.