After leafing through my collection of George Herbert’s verse last night, I stumbled upon an unintended theme involving four of his poems. These four are favourites of mine, which I have read many times before, but a chance combination of mood and reflection on the day’s events led me to see a connection between them. I am not suggesting that this connection is anything but coincidental, and this is certainly more an act of eisegesis than exegesis. However, I would venture the point that Herbert’s poetry is so rich in imagery and his vision so consistent, that this is not an arrangement that does any violence to the poems, or to their original meaning.
The first is entitled Peace, and in it Herbert asks urgently where one may find peace in life; he looks in vain amongst the things of this world, until an answer is finally given:
Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? I humbly crave,
Let me once know.
I sought thee in a secret cave,
And ask’d, if Peace were there.
A hollow winde did seem to answer, No:
Go seek elsewhere.
I did; and going did a rainbow note:
Surely, thought I,
This is the lace of Peaces coat:
I will search out the matter.
But while I lookt, the clouds immediately
Did break and scatter.
Then went I to a garden, and did spy
A gallant flower,
The crown Imperiall : Sure, said I,
Peace at the root must dwell.
But when I digg’d, I saw a worm devoure
What show’d so well.
At length I met a rev’rend good old man:
Whom when of Peace
I did demand, he thus began;
There was a Prince of old
At Salem dwelt, who liv’d with good increase
Of flock and fold.
He sweetly liv’d ; yet sweetnesse did not save
His life from foes.
But after death out of his grave
There sprang twelve stalks of wheat:
Which many wondring at, got some of those
To plant and set.
It prosper’d strangely, and did soon disperse
Through all the earth:
For they that taste it do rehearse,
That vertue lies therein;
A secret vertue bringing peace and mirth
By flight of sinne.
Take of this grain, which in my garden grows,
And grows for you;
Make bread of it: and that repose
And peace, which ev’ry where
With so much earnestnesse you do pursue
Is onely there.
‘By flight of sinne’ is the answer he receives – only by ridding oneself of vice (and also by implication the root of all vices, the sin of self-love), can one be truly at peace. This is all very well in theory of course, and many of us will have heard this advice ourselves, but in reality, taking flight from sin is not that simple. In the next poem I have selected – Sinne (I) – Herbert gives one of the best descriptions I have read of just how easy it is to give in to the alluring power of temptation, and in doing so, undoing all the good work that goes into protecting us against it:
LORD, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us: then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; They send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares;
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole aray
One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.
That last couplet always leaves me reeling slightly – in this terse but potent expression is captured all the foolishness, waste and regret that is experienced when falling into temptation. Forgiveness of our sins is of course always available, but to make this a possibility, to let God’s grace in to heal our wounds, we must come before God in a spirit of penitence and faith. This next poem, The Method, describes the experience common after falling into sin (particularly if it is a habitual one) of discerning a spirit of genuine repentance amidst the subsequent presumption of God’s forgiveness that often follows initial despair at the sin itself:
Poor heart, lament.
For since thy God refuseth still,
There is some rub, some discontent,
Which cools his will.
Thy Father could
Quickly effect, what thou dost move;
For he is Power: and sure he would;
For he is Love.
Go search this thing,
Tumble thy breast, and turn thy book.
If thou hadst lost a glove or ring,
Wouldst thou not look?
What do I see
Written above there? Yesterday
I did behave me carelessly,
When I did pray.
And should Gods eare
To such indifferents chained be,
Who do not their own motions heare?
Is God lesse free?
But stay! what’s there?
Late when I would have something done,
I had a motion to forbear,
Yet I went on.
And should Gods eare,
Which needs not man, be ty’d to those
Who heare not him, but quickly heare
His utter foes?
Then once more pray:
Down with thy knees, up with thy voice.
Seek pardon first, and God will say,
Glad heart rejoyce.
The act of prayer itself is a great mystery, and our access to it a great gift. In the final poem I shall mention, Prayer (I), Herbert, with a dazzling cavalcade of images and allusions packed into just three stanzas, captures something of this great mystery, and the enormity of what we are doing when we kneel down before God in prayer:
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
It is the almost casual connection made between our earthly acts of devotion, and the bigger picture of cosmic adoration that strikes me most about this poem – the idea that our humble utterances, even the most awkward and half-hearted supplications, are caught up in a grand tapestry of angelic worship, heavenly energies and the unimaginable life of eternity. The idea that church bells are ‘beyond the stars heard’ is an astonishing thought, and well worth remembering next time I commence my prayers!
Taken together, these four poems seem to me to capture a great deal of George Herbert’s poetic, and spiritual (the two are virtually inseparable) vision – that of humility before God and calm recognition of our faults; of finding peace amidst the strains and trials of this life in the way of the cross, and of the deeply sacramental life revealed to us through the Incarnation. Herbert’s world is one soaked in divinity, where everything is consecrated, and any created thing can be a window onto the divine; it is also one held up by an infinitely forbearing and merciful grace. This is a vision that is all too easy to forget, and so I thank God for George Herbert, who brings it to my remembrance more powerfully than most.