Essay / Theology

Thomas Ken Does the Math on the Plenitude of Godhead Trine

Thomas Ken (1637-1711), Bishop of Bath, his mind fully stocked with the prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19, wrote a poem that applies the prayer to himself:

I Bow my knee to God on high,
Father of Filial Deity,
To whom the blessed owe their birth,
Inhabiting or heaven or earth,
That from his gracious glories He
Would dart one pardoning ray on me:
That by his Holy Spirit’s aid,
My soul may be his temple made:
That He by faith may in me dwell,
And all terrestrial joys expel:
That I in love may deeply root;
And may with all the saints compute
All measures, length, breadth, depth, and height,
Of his benign, all-saving might;
That I his loves may comprehend,
Which intellectual force transcend,
Filled with all plenitude divine,
Derivable from Godhead Trine.

This poem’s greatest achievement is how well it handles the many ideas of Ephesians 3:14-19. Sometimes it compresses Paul’s thought admirably, sometimes it unpacks a single word at great length and draws numerous meanings from it. Let that be the main thing said about the poem! You have to know Paul’s prayer intimately in order to read this poem intelligently, and when you read this poem intelligently, you know Paul’s prayer even better.

On actual poetic terms, though, it’s more of a mixed bag. After a great, rhythmic opening (“I bow my knee to God on high”) that could be the start of a great hymn, it has a second line that sounds like it didn’t quite get translated from the Latin, and requires an iambic-to-trochaic switcheroo guaranteed to give you whiplash. The five-fold repetition of “That” as an opening line is effective, and there are some beautiful, simple phrasings throughout.

When Ken gets to Paul’s language about measurement, though, he decides to really milk the expressions for all their mathematical imagery. He wants to “compute” these dimensions, which might have sounded better to ears that didn’t have “computer” in their daily lexicon. Even “derivable” sounds too much like calculus at this point.

So this flawed wonder of a poem probably won’t be rescued from obscurity unless somebody composes a tune that can make strengths out of its weaknesses. But try giving it a pray, and you can hardly regret Ken’s craftsmanship.

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