Seamus Heaney and the Monks of Clonmacnoise

In Seamus Heaney’s long, meditative poem Lightenings, there is a section (number VIII) which relates a strange occurrence at the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise. The monastery (founded in 544 by Saint Ciaran, but which sadly fell into decline during the twelfth century*) was one of the greatest in medieval Ireland, visited by scholars from far abroad because of its reputation for piety and the promotion of learning (the annals – which we only have a 17th Century copy of now – mentioned by Heaney in the poem recorded Ireland’s history from its earliest times right up to 1408). Of most significance here though, is that Clonmacnoise was also known for being a site of miracle – from the time of Saint Ciaran onwards, many wonders had been reported, and it was also known for the great holiness of its monks.

Heaney’s poem reinvents a story of the tenth-century King Congalach, one of several in Irish folklore which records ships sailing through the air, by placing its events at Clonmacnoise. In doing so, he makes more prominent the essential point of the original narrative – namely that the world we live in is much more mysterious place than we realise; that our air is, for those who sail in the air (or in the ether?), heavy with improbability and wonder. For creatures unused to the strange world of mankind, our life is too rich, too thick with strangeness, and this strangeness is concentrated to an even greater extent in the life of the monks of Clonmacnoise:


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise

Were all at prayer inside the oratory

A ship appeared above them in the air.


The anchor dragged along behind so deep

It hooked itself into the altar rails

And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,


A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

And struggled to release it. But in vain.

“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”


The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed


Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


By setting this story in a notably holy place, renowned for its wonders, Heaney is able to shift our frame of reference. We hear of miracles performed and lives of holiness lived, and are enthralled; but the visitors who sail through our air find our whole existence unbearable, not because it is a horror to them, but because it is too marvellous. From our perspective, the idea of men sailing through the skies in a ship is marvellous, but to those otherworldly sailors it is human life in general, and the life of humans joined together in prayer in particular, that amazes them – they cannot cope with such wondrous things as this. The glory of Clonmacnoise (and of all monasteries) then is not due primarily to its miracles, but to the intensity of its humanity. The monastic life may seem strange, even insane, to some of us, because of the decision to opt out of ‘real’ life but to the visitors it is unbearably strange because it represents an intensification of what being human is all about – it shows them, with great focus, the weight of glory which we all carry.

One could also consider what C. S. Lewis discusses in his series of essays on the medieval world and imagination (collected as The Discarded Image) – that the visitors (who more than likely represent some sort of angelic life; certainly something unfamiliar with material being) find our world oppressive because of the shadow of sin that hangs over it; they cannot ‘breath our air’ because we have been separated from the fullness of divine life by the Fall. However, interesting an idea as this is in and of itself, I think Seamus Heaney is more concerned with the essential wonder of our existence – that the ‘drowning’ sailor is returned to his ship ‘out of the marvellous as he had known it’ is the thematic key to this piece. Looking at the life we enjoy in this way is a reminder of two things – firstly, that whilst we might sometimes envy the life of angels, who are freed from all the problems of embodied existence and therefore seem more pure and/or more glorious to us, in reality it is we that are to be envied, we who are to be marvelled at.

Secondly, Heaney’s poem reminds us that the religious life is not an abstraction from reality, or an escape. It is right that we see it as something strange, because it is – but it appears to us to be so because it signifies a call to become more real, more human, more as we were intended to be. A life lived in complete integrity, with the will aligned with that of God; a life that is truly able, in all things, to ‘pray without ceasing’ is the life we were all intended to live. It is only because of the degree to which we have fallen away from this goal and become accustomed to the mediocrity of sin that we see such a path as insane – in reality it is the sanest thing in the world, and this showing of a life lived in harmony with God and neighbour is the pinnacle of all that humanity should and can be. Let us therefore reflect on how marvellously strange (and strangely marvellous) our world really is, and let us look with gladness at those who choose to be living signs of the true glory humanity is capable of – signs of the marvellous as we have known it.


*After surviving several Viking raids and being plundered by the English in the twelfth century, as well as the impact of the growth of Athlone to the north and the arrival of newly popular continental religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Cluniacs, Clonmacnoise was finally destroyed by the newly Protestant English during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552.

Henry Vaughan: ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’

Looking forward to tomorrow’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (also known as Candlemas) in which light plays a predominant theme, the following poem seemed fitting. Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695) was a physician who, after much time examining the ills of others and a protracted period during which he came close to death himself, converted to Christianity, and thereafter began to write poetry, becoming one of the most notable of the metaphysical school. Vaughan also credited his conversion to the writings of George Herbert, and the former certainly owes the latter a good deal in terms of style and outlook; however, Vaughan can be seen as providing a valid and original contribution to poetry himself, his reflections on the natural world setting him apart in particular, and laying much of the ground for romantic poets such as William Wordsworth.

In the poem ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’ Vaughan meditates on the loss of those who have been close to him, and the bitter transience of our earthly existence. He uses the image of light to represent the fading memories (‘faint beams’) of the life of dead loved ones, which retain their lustre and clarity only as seen in light of a greater and more permanent luminescence – that of Eternity. Though their memory ‘doth trample on’ the poet’s days, bringing to mind again the pain of loss, the intensity of that memory is also due to the identity of the deceased having been taken to the place of final transformation, where they walk ‘in an air of glory’ animated by the divine light of Love. The weight of loss is paradoxically both intensified and qualified by the knowledge that the dear departed are with God in this new and wondrous glory.

For Vaughan though, and for us, the knowledge of that bright new world remains something that, though we might desire it deeply, and that brings us comfort to know of our loved ones being in its midst, is a mystery – that, as Vaughan writes in The Night, another of his poems, ‘there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness, as men say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear.’ This mystery is perhaps, in part at least, what lies behind the strength of our desire for Heaven – not only do we see in it the fulfilment of all we have found good and true here and now, but the knowledge that what we hope for will exceed our every expectation also adds profoundly to that initial sense of longing. Such a spirit animates this poem, in which grief for the departed is married to a spirit of intense desire to be with them, bathed as they are in the eternal light of God, which feeds and warms the souls, and surpasses every earthly hope:


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.


It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast

Like stars upon some gloomy grove,

Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,

After the sun’s remove.


I see them walking in an air of glory,

Whose light doth trample on my days:

My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,

Mere glimmering and decays.


O holy hope! and high humility,

High as the Heavens above!

These are your walks, and you have show’d them me

To kindle my cold love,


Dear, beauteous death! the jewel of the just,

Shining no where, but in the dark;

What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust;

Could man outlook that mark!


He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know

At first sight, if the bird be flown;

But what fair well or grove he sings in now,

That is to him unknown.


And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams

Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:

So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,

And into glory peep.


If a star were confin’d into a tomb

Her captive flames must needs burn there;

But when the hand that lockt her up gives room,

She’ll shine through all the sphere.


O Father of eternal life, and all

Created glories under thee!

Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall

Into true liberty.


Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill

My perspective (still) as they pass,

Or else remove me hence unto that hill,

Where I shall need no glass.

John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

This is a re-blog of a post from last year’s Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul – John Keble’s magnificent poem detailing the events of the Apostle’s encounter on the road to Damascus.

Journey Towards Easter

John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.

With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon…

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Ruth Pitter: The Bridge of Faith

The news has been full of sorrow recently; it is of course common for the news to give precedence to reports of suffering, adversity, trial and woe, as unfortunately this is what sells more papers and garners more ‘hits’ – people seem to be (or are at least assumed to be) more interested in the things going wrong in the world than the things going well. To a certain extent this is natural, as many of the bad news we read consists of acts of injustice or affronts to decency, and we are rightly made indignant by such things. However, I would wager that the number of people who convert their righteous indignation into some sort of action designed to remedy injustice is not as many as those who revel in the indignation for its own sake, and more still are those who take a perverse pleasure in the act of being affronted itself, particularly when it is in reaction to news of one with whom we disagree saying things that compound that disagreement.

Whilst this all speaks of the worst parts of ourselves (and we are all at times guilty of the above sins), it is also natural that ordinary acts of kindness and generosity seldom make front page news (unless they happen to meet some current need or fit in with an existing agenda of some kind), as we feel this sort of behaviour to express life as it should be – compared to the outrage we feel for bad reports, we feel little genuine surprise in response to such acts, but rather a feeling of simple delight; the heart warms as we hear of someone behaving in the way that, deep down, we know we all should behave anyway. However, regardless of the fact that our sense of the amount of evil in the world is perhaps exaggerated because of the imbalance in what is reported, it is no news at all that evil does exist, and that sorrow is a real lived experience for many.

In her poem The Bridge, Ruth Pitter considers this reality, and acknowledges just how overwhelming sorrow can be, but uses this acknowledgement as the very basis for the outlook of faith and hope that she goes on to express.  In an older post, I discussed an argument that C. S. Lewis proposes to aid the transition from unbelief to faith – an argument wherein he suggests that the very sense of anger we might feel because of the suffering in the world, and use as an argument against the existence of God, itself confronts us with the fact that there must thereby be such a thing as Goodness, and that this ultimately leads us back to God Himself. Pitter (who was brought to faith in part by Lewis, and who became good friends with him) uses a similar argument here, but it is not rooted in an appeal to objectivity, but rather in the intuition we all have that amidst our misery, there still must be something of value – that there is something within is that knows life to be worth living, and that despite our sorrow, there is meaning, purpose…God.

Pitter’s conversion went along similar lines – she had been living a Bohemian lifestyle and it made her miserable, and it was precisely this feeling of misery, coupled with a sense that this life must mean something, that brought her face to face with the question of higher purpose and therefore of God. In The Bridge, she articulates such moments of decision that are brought about by great sorrow (and is an uneasy truth that it is often only by being brought to our knees like this that we can ask the sort of questions we need to ask in order to change in general, let alone to know God) by imagining our lives as vessels shaped by experience, vessels that are ‘waiting for wine’ (c.f. John 2:1-12) – waiting to be filled with something, anything, ‘dark wine or bright’, just so long as we are filled with some kind of meaning beyond this sorrow, because we (with the poet) are sure ‘that sorrow is not the truth.

She imagines two kinds of vessels being made – on this side they are made by artists (presumably representing the human attempt to discern or even to create meaning for ourselves) but these vessels are frail, unable to stand up to the breadth of life’s experience. On the other side of the bridge are workers who make sturdy, robust vessels that can ‘endure the furnace’ – words which call to mind the counsel of Saint Peter in his first epistle (c.f.; 1 Peter 1:7, 4:12) as well as many other similar passages in the New Testament. Crossing this bridge, a bridge which, for those who have looked into the abyss of sorrow and still heard the dim echoes of hope ‘have no choice but to go over’ is an act of faith – we walk, in great part, into the unknown, but we know whatever we find there must be truth, must be more than ‘the known’ has been able to show us; and so, in that first act of faith and hope, we go to find that truth, over the bridge, over the river:


Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow?

I am sure myself that sorrow is not the truth.

These lovely shapes of sorrow are empty vessels

Waiting for wine: they wait to be informed.

Men make the vessels on either side of the river;

On this the hither side the artists make them,

And there over the water the workmen make them:

These frail, with a peacock glaze, and the others


Simple as doom, made to endure the furnace.

War shatters the peacock-jars: let us go over.


Indeed we have no choice but to go over.


There is always a way for those who must go over:

Always a bridge from the known to the unknown.

When from the known the mind revolts and despairs

There lies a way, and there must we go over.


O truth, is it death there over the river,

Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?

The mind is an empty vessel, a shape of sorrow,

Fill it with life or death, for it is hollow,

Dark wine or bright, fill it, let us go over.


Let me go find my truth, over the river.

John Keble: Holy Baptism

As today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and also the day of the week in which I like to post some poetry, it took a while for me to find something that fit both criteria. Just before I was about to give up, I remembered that John Keble’s Christian Year has a poem entitled Holy Baptism, which, although it doesn’t pertain directly to the Baptism of Christ, it does touch on that subject in that the Sacrament of Baptism is deeply linked to the Baptism of Our Lord. In our Baptism, we are buried into the very death of Christ, that we may in Him die to our sins, and are also raised with Him to new life (c.f.; Romans 6:3-14) – we are united to Our Lord so much so that we can now say we are ‘in’ Him and are part of His Body (c.f.; Ephesians 4:4-6), incorporated into His very life so much that our sufferings become one with His (c.f.; Colossians 1:24; Acts 9:5).

Jesus submitted to baptism Himself in order to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15) – i.e.; so that the link between Old Covenant and New would be made perfect through His humble submission to all that those who would become His disciples would submit to. Just as He submitted Himself to the Law, so must He submit to all aspects of the New Law, that He may be ‘made like his brethren in every respect’ (Hebrews 2:17, c.f.; also 4:14-5:10). In doing this, He sanctified the waters (notably in the Jordan, the crossing of which by the Israelites into the Promised Land prefigures our entry into new life in Christ) and consecrated a rite that had until then only had a proclamatory and temporary effect – by uniting Himself to this rite, He made it efficacious for the salvation of souls, through union with Himself and His atoning death:

In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1225

                The above section from the Catechism goes on to quote from Saint Ambrose of Milan, who sums up the importance of Baptism for us, and makes even more certain the connection between our being baptised, the Baptism of Our Lord, and His sacrificial death on the Cross – ‘See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved’ (ibid). In our Baptism therefore we are united to the whole mystery of Faith, and this profound union was made manifest by Christ’s undergoing Baptism himself – His immersion in the Jordan, and the subsequent proclamation of His identity (c.f.; Matthew 3:16-17) made clear the links between this moment and the whole grand narrative of our salvation, and made it a way for us to enter into that narrative.

All this is present in the background of John Keble’s poem, which takes for granted the efficacious nature of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the reasons why it conveys such awesome grace. He marvels at the fact that what looks like mere water to others is to us something made holy by words connecting it to the great mystery of our salvation – in the drops of water sprinkled upon the head of the baptised are contained centuries of history, moments of epiphany, acts of renewal and reconciliation, and all drawn together by the meeting of man and God in the Incarnate Christ. All this we are admitted into through our Baptism, and it is not surprising that it takes us a lifetime to work out and make real the implications of the ‘adopting Father love’ that we receive therein. In Christ we have been placed, and in Him are all the mysteries of God and man brought together in union – the holy water of the font is a gateway into this, and that is a humbling thing to consider:


Where is it mothers learn their love?—

   In every Church a fountain springs

      O’er which th’ Eternal Dove

         Hovers out softest wings.


What sparkles in that lucid flood

   Is water, by gross mortals eyed:

      But seen by Faith, ’tis blood

         Out of a dear Friend’s side.


A few calm words of faith and prayer,

   A few bright drops of holy dew,

      Shall work a wonder there

         Earth’s charmers never knew.


O happy arms, where cradled lies,

   And ready for the Lord’s embrace,

      That precious sacrifice,

         The darling of His grace!


Blest eyes, that see the smiling gleam

   Upon the slumbering features glow,

      When the life-giving stream

         Touches the tender brow!


Or when the holy cross is signed,

   And the young soldier duly sworn,

      With true and fearless mind

         To serve the Virgin-born.


But happiest ye, who sealed and blest

   Back to your arms your treasure take,

      With Jesus’ mark impressed

         To nurse for Jesus’ sake:


To whom—as if in hallowed air

   Ye knelt before some awful shrine—

      His innocent gestures wear

         A meaning half divine:


By whom Love’s daily touch is seen

   In strengthening form and freshening hue,

      In the fixed brow serene,

         The deep yet eager view.—


Who taught thy pure and even breath

   To come and go with such sweet grace?

      Whence thy reposing Faith,

         Though in our frail embrace?


O tender gem, and full of Heaven!

   Not in the twilight stars on high,

      Not in moist flowers at even

         See we our God so nigh.


Sweet one, make haste and know Him too,

   Thine own adopting Father love,

      That like thine earliest dew

         Thy dying sweets may prove.

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.

George Herbert: ‘The Pulley’ and Our Rest in God

One of the principal reasons for God taking human nature upon Himself in the Incarnation is that we have trouble turning from the many earthly pleasures provided for us in this life to the One who made them. Central to what we celebrate at Christmas then, is that God did not leave us to sift through the range of hints in nature and the various theories of men in order to know Him, but came down to us in our creatureliness and showed to us the truth about His character and will; in the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in and amongst the lowliest of society and visited first by humble shepherds, we are shown that here is what God is really like.

And yet, despite this blessing, most of us, at various points in our lives, still find it hard to turn to God. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, though we have known the ways of the Lord, we still do not strive to enter His rest (c.f.; Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13), preferring to direct our hearts and minds to the things of the world, which deep down we know (and are constantly reminded by experience) can never satisfy us as God can. In his poem The Pulley, George Herbert inverts the classical story of Pandora’s Box (in which the box was originally a glass) and imagines God pouring a ‘glasse of blessings’ onto mankind, as opposed to the multitude of ills that Zeus (via Pandora) released into the world.

In doing so, he draws acute attention both to the range of blessings we do commonly enjoy (and routinely forget) as well as the perennial madness of our forgetting of our Maker who pours those very blessings upon us. The pulley of the title is never itself mentioned, but is instead embedded in the theme of the poem as a whole – as the old pulley system used a filled bucket to weigh it down on one side, simultaneously raising the empty bucket on the other, in Herbert’s poem we are weighed down by the many blessings God gives us, and this weight lifts up the empty bucket of our restlessness (as we are never fully satisfied by worldly things and cannot find rest in them) propelling us upwards to the God we have so long ignored:


When God at first made man,

Having a glasse of blessings standing by;

Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:

Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,

            Contract into a span.


            So strength first made a way;

Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:

When almost all was out, God made a stay,

Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,

            Rest in the bottome lay.


            For if I should (said he)

Bestow this jewell also on my creature,

He would adore my gifts in stead of me,

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:

            So both should losers be.


            Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlesnesse:

Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,

If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse

            May tosse him to my breast.


That the gift of rest is one God holds back from us (the word ‘rest’ having a double meaning here, also meaning ‘the remainder of’ – i.e.; the last blessing God could have given us, and which, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, He one day will) is a fact that we can well recognise from experience, and if we are honest, know to be for our benefit. It is all too easy to ‘rest in Nature, not the God of Nature’ and adore the gifts of God instead of the Giver. Therefore, whilst it may be irksome to us at the time, it is a thing known deep within us that this must be so – that we must be harried and have our rest diminished, and also that we may be left restless after we have sated ourselves on the things of the world, for this restlessness is needed to shake our greedy and prideful souls awake. When Herbert writes ‘if goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse may tosse him to my breast’, he is echoing something we know all too well.

Another thing must be noted, which intensifies the overarching theme of the poem – namely that it is only in God we can find rest for our souls – and testifies to George Herbert’s skill as a poet. In the final stanza, the word ‘rest’ is itself enshrined in the final word of the poem (‘breast’), so that the key word is echoed in the final line, and subtly recalls us to the fact that it is only in the breast or heart of God that we can find peace. Moreover, and it is surely not too daring an assumption to make given Herbert’s life and work, because of the Incarnation we can know that heart with even greater confidence and in even greater depth than before the first Christmas occurred, as ‘the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known’ (John 1:18).