George Herbert: Two Poems on the Holy Name of Jesus

To commemorate the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus this weekend*, I have selected two poems by George Herbert, both of which deal in some way with that Holy Name. The first of these two is entitled Jesu, and employs an acrostic, so that the letters spelling the name of the title appear at various points throughout the text. Herbert also uses here a technique common at the time (John Donne used it quite a bit in his love poetry for example) wherein the poet uses the image of a fragmented heart to convey a sense of personal disintegration. This is not one of Herbert’s most powerful poems, but the techniques used are redirected toward sacred themes skilfully, and there is a pleasing tidiness to the work:

 

JESU is in my heart, his sacred name

Is deeply carved there: but th’other week

A great affliction broke the little frame,

Ev’n all to pieces, which I went to seek:

And first I found the corner, where Was J,

After, where E S, and next where U was graved.

When I had got these parcels, instantly

I sat me down to spell them, and perceived

That to my broken heart he was I ease you,

And to my whole is J E S U.

 

It is important to remember that the letters ‘J’ and ‘I’ were interchangeable in Herbert’s day, hence the play in the last two lines between ‘JESU’ and ‘I ease you’. Aside from this though, there is little trickiness involved in this poem, and the overall feeling of neatness does itself suggest to the reader a feeling of comfort or ease, both throughout and in its resolution. We begin with Our Lord’s ‘sacred name’ engraved into the poet’s heart, suggesting a deep personal relationship with Him, but upon the advent of some great tragedy, his heart is broken; finally, it is only through recourse to the Name of Jesus that his broken heart is restored. This has a two-fold meaning: firstly there is the way in which faith in Christ can effect healing after personal tragedy, but also it is the Holy Name of Jesus which saves – which puts back together the broken pieces of our disintegrated hearts in His grand work of redemption.

The second poem of Herbert’s on this theme is called Love-Joy, and this too has an acrostic running through it, albeit a simpler one, consisting of the letters J and C. What these letters might stand for is the topic of the poem, as two men stand discussing a bunch of grapes with these letters ‘anneal’d on every bunch’ (suggesting perhaps that they are looking at a stain-glassed window; church architecture is a favourite motif of Herbert’s) and come to different, but complementary conclusions:

 

As on a window late I cast mine eye,

I saw a vine drop grapes with J and C

Anneal’d on every bunch. One standing by

Ask’d what it meant. I (who am never loth

To spend my judgement) said, It seem’d to me

To be the body and the letters both

Of Joy and Charity. Sir, you have not miss’d,

The man reply’d; It figures JESUS CHRIST.

 

Again, there is a satisfying neatness to this poem (something which is not uncommon in Herbert’s poetry overall – he was a mean deeply desirous of order and simplicity, as is most powerfully evidenced in his wonderful poem A Wreath), and it has a certain familiar charm to it thanks to the conversational outline. There is however an added layer here, which makes it a slightly richer poem than Jesu, and which comes from the reference to vines and grapes. This invokes both John 15:1-17 (wherein Our Lord compares Himself to the Vine and the disciples to the fruit which that Vine produces) and of course the Holy Eucharist. The former ends (vv.9-13) with an injunction to both joy and charity, both of which are mentioned here, and the ‘body’ of these is of course the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

Herbert’s companion, in response to the question of what the letters ‘J’ and ‘C’ refer to, is presented to the reader in ambiguous terms (an ambiguity which is surely intended) – when the letters are decided to stand for Joy and Charity, he says in return that they stand for Jesus Christ, which could be thought to suggest naivety at the fact that the Holy Name of Jesus itself is the fullness of Joy and Charity, for His name bespeaks His character. However, that the reply is preceded by ‘Sir, you have not miss’d’ implies that the original interpretation had been correct, and that the addition of a second serves only to make the connection more clear. At any rate, the reader is left with no room for confusion – Jesus is the ‘body and the letters both’, the name and the Holy Sacrament, and He is the source of true joy and the fullness of Charity.

The Holy Name of Jesus, which means ‘God saves’, is not just a title, but a signification of the whole character and purpose of God. This is why Saint Matthew could write ‘you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21) – as was common in the ancient world, names were given to point to the character of the one who received them, and the One who received the Name of Jesus was the Incarnation of God, who alone can deliver us from our sins; by calling on the Name of Jesus in faith, we thereby unite ourselves to this deeper reality. This is a reality that underpins the two poems above – God alone saves, and what we know of God we know in Jesus Christ; we know that He loved us first, indeed that He is Love, and that in Him alone is true joy, true love and true freedom.

 

*Celebrated on the Sunday between the 2nd and 5th of January after the reforms of Pope Saint Pius X, it was removed from the Calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, only to be restored as an Optional Memorial in 2002, and it is now celebrated on January 3rd. Epiphany will be commemorated in many churches this Sunday (also due to Paul VI’s reforms), but I thought it appropriate to write about that topic on its actual date, January 6th.

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