An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Twenty: Christmas Eve
George Herbert wrote a poem named Christmas and so we will close our Advent retreat with it, anticipating the late evening Christ Mass and the celebration on Christmas Day.
All after pleasures as I rid one day, My horse and I, both tir’d, body and mind, With full cry of affections, quite astray, I took up in the next inn I could find, There when I came, whom found I but my dear, My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there To be all passengers most sweet relief? O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger: Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging then a rack or grave.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be? My God, no hymn for thee? My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds Of thoughts, and words, and deeds. The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace Enriching all the place. Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers Out-sing the day-light hours. Then we will chide the sun for letting night Take up his place and right: We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should Himself the candle hold. I will go searching, till I find a sun Shall stay, till we have done; A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly, As frost-nipt suns look sadly. Then we will sing, shine all our own day, And one another pay: His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine, Till ev’n his beams sing, and my music shine.
The poem is evidently in two parts. The first is a sonnet with a standard rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and the second is ten rhyming couplets.
The sonnet starts in the first-person, the persona confessing that he is all after pleasure. He rides his horse, but tired, arrives at an inn. Instead of finding worldly pleasures, he finds Christ, who is waiting him as he will inevitably realise that pleasure brings only grief, while he, Jesus, brings relief. That takes us to the mid-point of the sonnet. The second half plays with the fact that the traveler sought a lodging, but now he invites his Lord to lodge in him. Reflecting on his dark soul, Jesus who is the light of the world will enlighten it, just as it “stole into a manger” in the Incarnation on Christmas.
Building on the reference to Christmas, Herbert recalls the shepherd’s praise (although the Biblical witness is that the angels sang, not the shepherds!). He slides sideways by identifying his soul as a shepherd, keeping watch over “thoughts, and words, and deeds.” These “sheep” graze on the word and drink God’s grace. Then both sheep and shepherds sing. I’ve not heard shepherds sing – I assume they are as good or bad as anyone – but the idea of sheep singing is interesting, since they usually just bleat or croak. But these are Herbert’s sheep, so his thoughts, words, and deeds are better than most, I suppose.
In the northern hemisphere Christmas comes at the winter solstice, and so Herbert is aware of how dark the days can be at this time. This is perhaps why the shepherd and sheep “chide the sun” for giving way to night. The poet says he will seek a sun, who is none other than the light of the world, the Son of God.
Christmas was a somewhat different celebration in Herbert’s time. It would have been more of a religious ceremony, and the commercialism and frantic purchasing of gifts that we moderns associate with December had not yet emerged. There may have been some gift giving, although that may have been more the type that reinforced legal relations, such as landlord and tenant, and not so much about children. There would have been no Santa Claus – that tradition was still about Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Nieuw Amsterdam, awaiting Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” to free it from its Dutch origins. Father Christmas as we know him had not yet appeared – that seems to have happened first in reaction to the abolition of Christmas under the Puritan Commonwealth. There was undoubtedly a great feast on Christmas day with singing, dancing, and in great houses, dramatic performances such as masques.
It is perhaps in that context, then, that we should hear the shepherd and the sheep singing, and the light of Christ shining when the sun goes down. Herbert approved of the old customs in moderation, so while he probably looked askance at public drunkenness and gross consumption of food – all after pleasures – he would have smiled upon public and family gatherings. So perhaps we should imagine this being sung at the end of a great Christmas meal, when with stomachs full and minds a little softened by wine, we turn our souls to the reason we feasted in the first place.
Thank you for joining me for part or all of these twenty days of an Advent Retreat with George Herbert. As you will have discerned by now, I am no great student of English – I have great trouble scanning lines of poetry and figuring out where the accents are. However, despite my limitations, I welcome the opportunity to read these old poems and dog deep. God bless you, and may the one who was born at Christmas brighten these dark days, and may the Holy Spirit empower you to shine as well.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Nineteen: Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
As we approach Christmas we should turn to praise. Here is another poem named Antiphon, by which Herbert means a chorus sung by two choirs – in this case, of “Men” and “Angels”.
Chor. Praised be the God of love, Men. Here below, Angels. And here above: Cho. Who hath dealt his mercies so, Ang. To his friend, Men. And to his foe;
Cho. That both grace and glory tend Ang. Us of old, Men. And us in th’ end. Cho. The great shepherd of the fold Ang. Us did make, Men. For us was sold.
Cho. He our foes in pieces brake; Ang. Him we touch; Men. And him we take. Cho. Wherefore since that he is such, Ang. We adore, Men. And we do crouch.
Cho. Lord, thy praises should be more. Men. We have none, Ang. And we no store. Cho. Praised be the God alone, Who hath made of two folds one.
Ann Pasternak Slater (p. 434) makes the technical note:
The form of this poem is also ingenious. The fifth line of each stanza provides the first rhyme of the next (thus, stanza 1 : ababcb; stanza 2: cdcded; stanza 3: efefgf). In the last stanza the aberrant fifth line is amalgamated with the sixth to create total harmony: ghghg. Metrically, this final line also amalgamates two expected short lines sung by Men and Angels, making of two folds one. (All the pairs of short lines scan ‘ ˘ ‘ followed by ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ; [The last line] combines the two, making ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘, the same metre as the majority of the Chorus’s lines.)
This was eventually put to music by Benjamin Britten, and you can find a recording of it below, but I don’t think it is his finest work.
There’s an interesting contrast between the angels and “men”. Humans are below, conscious of God’s foes, that grace and glory will come to them “in th’end”, that Christ was “sold” for them, that we adore in kneeling and take Christ in the bread of Communion, and that we are incapable of sufficient praise. Angels are above, conscious of God’s friends, know God’s grace and glory “as of old”, of God as Creator, close enough to touch God, simply adore, and do not store up praise but simply offer it at once. While the praise is of God, it comes across through God’s relations with God’s creatures – the eternal angels and the ephemeral humans. As Pasternak Slater notes, the two species combine in the merged fifth/sixth line of the last stanza.
Praise is simple and direct, and Herbert does this in this poem. As we approach Christmas may our praise be likewise.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Eighteen: Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
To demonstrate that Herbert was not a true Puritan, one need only look at his poems on feast days. He wrote about Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and, in today’s poem, Trinity Sunday. Radical Puritans held that the Church calendar was a creation of human beings, not being found in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was born, but the date is nowhere specified. Therefore, abolish Christmas. Celebrate every Sunday as a Sunday of the Resurrection, and do not get all caught up with pointless arguments about the right day for Easter, with its confusing ties to new moons and the Spring Equinox.
But that was not Herbert. He accepted the Church calendar as it was, and in theory used it to help form the piety of his congregation. Here is what he wrote on the theme of Trinity Sunday:
Lord, who hast formed me out of mud, And hast redeemed me through thy blood, And sanctified me to do good;
Purge all my sins done heretofore: For I confess my heavy score, And I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me, With faith, with hope, with charity; That I may run, rise, rest with thee.
As you can see, it is a short poem of three triplets with the rhyme pattern of AAA BBB CCC, and eight syllables in each line. Each triplet, especially the first, suggests Trinitarian action on the poet, line by line. Thus, in the first stanza, creation from mud is associated with the Father, redemption with the Son, and sanctification with the Spirit. In the second, purgation is the work of the Son, confession is made to to the Father, and the effort to strive to sin no more is only possible through the Spirit. The third triplet is less easily classified, although it may be that the Spirit enriches the poet body and soul, the gifts of faith hope and love (from 1 Corinthians 13 “these things remain”) are from the Father, and the sense of “run, rise, rest” is to be with the resurrected Jesus. That said, I am not sure even I buy that analysis. Perhaps Herbert is deliberately blurring the Trinitarian action, thus pushing the reader towards seeing the unity of action.
The poem is no longer than it should be. It is a prayer whose structure repeats content we already know, and arguably its significance is in that structure.
Like yesterday’s poem, this also has a counterpart with the same name in W, which as you may recall, is an earlier manuscript of the collection that became The Temple, perhaps written in Herbert’s own hand. It follows the poem above, so there are two with the same name in W. In the end, Herbert seems to have decided against the second poem being preserved. Here it is:
Trinity Sunday (from W)
He that is one, Is none. Two reacheth thee In some degree. Nature and Grace With Glory may attain thy Face. Steel and a flint strike fire, Wit and desire Never to thee aspire, Except life catch and hold those fast. That which belief Did not confess in the first Thief His fall can tell, From Heaven, through Earth, to Hell. Let two of those alone To them that fall, Who God and Saints and Angels loose at last. He that has one, Has all.
This is a whole lot more obscure than the other poem, and I am not sure I really understand what Herbert was getting at. But let’s have a go.
Who is the “he”? The Father, perhaps? The soul of a human being? What is Herbert trying to say in stating that “He that is one / is none”? That no man is an island, perhaps, that humanity needs God, I suppose. Or is he stating some thing ontological, that God, who is one, is beyond being, and so is no thing? “Thee” must be God, but who are the two that “reachest thee”? Nature and Grace, one would suppose, but then in the next line he suggests that with “Grace” he may attain the Face of God – the beatific vision – is that not three?
Well, it goes on in this opaque state, and enters some kind of Miltonesque world with the fall of angels to Hell. I am sure that one could unravel exactly what Herbert is getting at, but the poem is not in the plain language that the poet usually uses. I suspect that, while he thought it a lovely compact statement meditating on Trinity Sunday, that concluded that it was not worthy of preservation, and so did not make it into the later final manuscript known as B and the published version of 1633.
This is the great danger of Trinitarian theology – that in the attempt to explain it, one falls into confusion, heresy, or obscurity, if not all three at once. As an orthodox Christian I am a Trinitarian, but I would happily say that while the content of salvation is in Trintarian form, it is not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity for salvation (however one conceives of salvation). While contemplation of the Holy Trinity may bring one into closer communion with the Divine, God’s grace does not depend on any person’s ability to explain the internal workings of the Divine. In salvation history we see God acting in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Source of all Being, the Incarnate Word, and the Breath of God upon us.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Seventeen: Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Struck by yesterday’s poem The Agony I raised the question about what kind of churchmanship Herbert belonged to. Following the Restoration his The Country Parson was published, and promptly became a manual for Church of England clergy right down to this day. The biography by Isaak Walton was also published in 1670, and he was described as the model of the perfect parish priest in the Restoration Church of England.
The English Civil Wars, which Herbert missed by dying at a young age, was partly about the relationship of Parliament and King, but also very much about the nature of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The fundamental question was whether the church was sufficiently reformed, or had it become too reformed, dispensing with Christian practices that were good and holy but perceived by radicals as being “Popish”. James VI & I sought to restore the historic episcopate on the Church of Scotland. After he suceeded Elizabeth I as King of England he met with the leadership of the English Puritans in the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. Largely remembered for inaugurated the new translation known as the King James Version, the King considered a number of requests from the leaders, including: the abolition in baptism of the making of the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptised; the suppressing of the service of confirmation; forbidding the pious custom of bowing at the name of Jesus; the requirement of the surplice; the use of a ring in marriage. He rejected all of these other requests. The Puritans were generally suspicious of the episcopacy, and doubted the usefulness of the ecclesiastical calendar. When the Puritans came to control the country under the Commonwealth, the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden, Christmas was abolished, and clergy did not wear the white surplices. All of this came back in 1660 when Charles II returned to ondon.
But was Herbert quite what the Restoration sought to make him? In her 1988 article “George Herbert and Puritan Piety” (The Journal of Religion , Apr., 1988, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 226-241) Jeanne Clayton Hunter argues that the poet was more deeply influenced by Puritan theology than is generally acknowledged, and describes him essentially as a Calvinist. With that in mind, then, let us turn to today’s poem.
The H. Communion
Not in rich furniture, or fine array, Nor in a wedge of gold, Thou, who from me wast sold, To me dost now thyself convey; For so thou should’st without me still have been, Leaving within me sin:
But by the way of nourishment and strength, Thou creep’st into my breast; Making thy way my rest, And thy small quantities my length; Which spread their forces into every part, Meeting sin force and art.
Yet can these not get over to my soul, Leaping the wall that parts Our souls and fleshly hearts; But as th’ outworks, they may control My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name, Affright both sin and shame.
Only thy grace, which with these elements comes, Knoweth the ready way, And hath the privy key, Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms: While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend Despatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take My body also thither. Another lift like this will make Them both to be together.
Before that sin turn’d flesh to stone, And all our lump to heaven; A fervent sigh might well have blown Our innocent earth to heaven.
For sure when Adam did not know To sin, or sin to another; He might to heav’n from Paradise go, As from one room t’ another.
Thou hast restor’d us to this ease By this thy heav’nly blood, Which I can go to, when I please, And leave th’ earth to their food.
The poem is in two parts. The first part is four stanzas of ABBACC rhyme scheme, the second is four stanzas of ABAB. In the first stanza Herbert notes that God comes to him in humble form, not in gold or fine array, which would leave him in a state of sin. The second stanza makes clear that he comes “by the way of nourishment and strength” and in “small quantities” – the small amounts of bread and wine consumed at Holy Communion. Grace somehow overcomes the divide of flesh and soul. In the second half of the poem he begs God to unite soul and body so that he might be like Adam who can pass from heaven to Earth as easily as passing from one room to another, and then asserts this is accomplished in the blood of Holy Communion.
At the very least this is an argument for receptionism, which was the doctrine that the bread and the wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ in the receiving. As the words of administration in use in the BCP (1559) while Herbert was alive stated: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving . . . Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” While Puritans of a strong Calvinistic bent may have wished to eliminate any sense that the bread and wine were anything other than mere bread and wine, and symbols of a spiritual feeding, Herbert’s language seems to go beyond this.
Thus, while he is not what would later be called an Anglo-Catholic, and certainly shows no interest in the trend incarnated in Archbishop Laud, he is not quite a Calvinist radical. In The Country Parson he writes that in the church building
all the books appointed by Authority be there, and those not torn, or fouled, but whole and clean, and well bound; and that there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuff, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon (Chapter XIII)
Herbert was happy to use the BCP, and clearly was fine with the Communion Table being covered with what is now known to us as a “Laudian frontal” – a large, ornamented piece of cloth that hangs over the four sides of the table. Fine linen is then put on top. He advocates that at Baptism the priest is “himself in white” i.e. wearing a surplice (Chapter XXII), and when it comes to Communion he requires that all admitted to the sacrament be able to distinguish between “the Sacramental from common bread”(Ibid). He is also “a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless” (Chapter XXXV). None of this marks him out as a fervent Puritan. Nor is he a Laudian or a proto-Anglo-Catholic. As Johm M. Adrian states in his article “George Herbert, parish ‘dexterity’, and the local modification of Laudianism”,
Herbert shares with the Laudians a belief in the dignity of the clerical office, a wariness of subversive elements within the Church, and an interest in homogeneity within the parish. But unlike the Laudians (and more like his predecessors), Herbert stresses the adaptive role of the parson and makes him – not the bishop or royal chaplain – the most effective arbiter of religious experience. He is, Herbert suggests, best suited to gauge the parish temper and circumstances and to order worship accordingly. And indeed, the parson may even choose to put up with some nonconformity (for instance, with regard to kneeling) in order to better execute the spirit of the canon and avoid alienating elements of his flock.
Herbert, then, is himself – an early 17th century parson, whose piety absorbed Puritan influences and High Church values, but synthesised them into something unique. It became a model in a later time, but that model was applied with a certain number of assumptions which Herbert himself may not have shared.
Interestingly, Herbert wrote another entirely different poem entitled The Holy Communion which was not included in The Temple, but can be found in the manuscript known as W. It is a polemical poem, and for that reason Herbert may have judged it to be not as good as what he wanted in his final work. Here it is:
The H. Communion (as found in W)
O gracious Lord, how shall I know Whether in these gifts thou be so As thou art everywhere; Or rather so, as thou alone Tak’st all the Lodging, leaving none For thy poor creature there?
First I am sure, whether bread stay Or whether Bread do fly away Concerneth bread, not me. But that both thou and all thy train Be there, to thy truth, and my gain, Concerneth me and Thee.
And if in coming to thy foes Thou dost come first to them, that shows The haste of thy good will. Or if that thou two stations makest In Bread and me, the way thou takest Is mores but for me still.
Then of this also I am sure That thou didst all those pains endure To’ abolish Sin, not Wheat. Creatures are good, and have their place; Sin only, which did all deface, Thou drivest from his seat.
I could believe an Impanation At the rate of an Incarnation, If thou hadst died for Bread. But that which made my soul to die, My flesh, and fleshly villainy, That also made thee dead.
That flesh is there, mine eyes deny: And what should flesh but flesh descry, The noblest sense of five? If glorious bodies pass the sight, Shall they be food and strength and might Even there, where they deceive?
Into my soul this cannot pass; Flesh (though exalted) keeps his grass And cannot turn to soul. Bodies and Minds are different Spheres, Nor can they change their bounds and meres, But keep a constant Pole.
Ann Pasternak Slater does not offer any notes to the poems in W not included in The Temple. However, it is simple enough to understand. It considers the Lutheran position (Christ is present everywhere) and the Roman Catholic position that the substance of bread and wine is replaced by those of the body and blood of Jesus, leaving only the accidents of the bread and wine. After the first stanza the rest are a diatribe against transubstantiation. It seems to stop suddenly, and the poem has an unfinished, unresolved quality. The rhyme scheme of AABCCB is fine as it is, but the insistent iambic quality and the simplicity of the rhymes leaves something to be desired. One can see why Herbert left it behind.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Sixteen: Monday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Enough with difficult Greek poems, today we return to the sequence near the beginning of The Temple. As with the previous four poems, it deals with the Passion of Christ. For me it raises an important question about Herbert – to what extent did he belong to the High Church party of his day, and how deeply was he influenced by the Puritans?
Philosophers have measur’d mountains, Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings, Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains: But there are two vast, spacious things, The which to measure it doth more behove: Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair, His skin, his garments bloody be. Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike Did set again abroach; then let him say If ever he did taste the like. Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
A few comments on potentially difficult words.
By “philosophers” Herbert undoubtedly refers not only to the folks who are still studied in university today – the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and his contemporary Francis Bacon – but people whom we would now call scientists, who studied mountains and stars, as well as springs (hydrology).
“Behove” is a variant of “behoove”, which simply means “it is necessary that”.
“Vice” can also be read as “vise”, an instrument which by pressure holds things in place.
“Assay” means to analyze something, such as a metal, to determine its content.
“Abroach” is an adverb or an adjective which means “breached” as in opening up a cask and letting a fluid drain out.
The rhyme scheme is ABABCC etc. There are ten syllables in each line, except the middle one, line 3, which only has eight. This puts a special emphasis upon that line, and redirects the stanza. The first stanza starts off generally talking about the things that claim attention from public intellectuals, but Herbert redirects the focus to Sin and Love. The second verse deals with Sin by depicting Christ as prayer on the Mount of Olives:
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22.39-46
Herbert is obviously riffing on this passage from scripture. Neither Matthew or Mark (or John) have any reference to sweating blood, but interestingly, some early manuscripts of Luke are also missing verse 43-44. Although the addition is of great antiquity, modern textual critics believe that it was no part of the original text of the gospel, so they put it in double brackets (as do many translations). Herbert’s Bible (whether Geneva, Bishop’s, or King James/Authorised) was based on a Greek text that dated from long after when the addition was made, and he would not have known their absences in the older manuscripts (Sinaiticus, now in the British Library, and Vaticanus, in the Vatican, and a host of papyrus manuscripts and ancient witnesses).
The cause of the blood appearing is not indicated in the (added) Biblical passage. Herbert takes it as the effect of sin that Christ is taking on, and on his body it is like a wine press or a torturous vise. He did not have a scientific understanding of the circulatory or nervous systems, but he imagines pain is entering into his body through the veins, resulting in the bloody sweat.
The third stanza deals with Love, and regards the death of Jesus on the cross as a divine example of that “vast, spacious thing.” After his death Jesus is pierced by a soldier, and blood and water flows out (John 19.31-37); this has traditionally been interpreted eucharistically, so Herbert is not being novel here. He refers to it as “juice” and the word “abroach” suggests the body of Jesus is like a wine cask. Herbert describes it as blood for God but wine for him, which underlines the connection to Holy Communion.
After the first-person poems of The Thanksgiving and The Reprisal which is in an impersonal voice addressed to the impersonal third person “who”/”he”/”him”. Only in the last line does the first-person return. This is undoubtedly the most striking thing about the poem – it is like listening to someone speak dispassionately about some important matter, and then suddenly realising just how important it is to the speaker, and why.
Does Herbert here have a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic wine? If he does, he does not specify the nature of the presence. He would not have endorsed transubstantiation, but nor does he seem to be a Calvinist, suggesting that the wine is merely symbolic of Christ’s passion. Scholars argue about the extent to which Herbert tended towards Puritanism or the High Church party. Certainly, following the Restoration in 1660, he was ret-conned into being a proto-Laudian, but in fact he payed little attention to the hierarchy of the church in The Country Parson. He had little time for the Independents, whom he considered schismatics, but the fact was that at the time most Puritans were in the Church of England, and were simply trying to change it. He might be a Zwinglian, like the late Thomas Cranmer, suggesting that it is in the reception of the wine that it becomes the blood of Christ.
Perhaps he follows in the tradition of the short poem that is anonymous, but has been attributed to Elizabeth I and John Donne:
He was the Word that spake it, he took the bread and brake it, and what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it.
Whatever his precise understanding, it appears for Herbert that the Love of God is shown in the sacrifice once offered by Christ, but it is also conveyed repeatedly in the wine (and the bread) of Holy Communion. This question about the real presence leads me to want to look at The H. Communion. And so we shall, tomorrow.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Fifteen: Saturday after the Third Sunday of Advent
And now for something completely different: a poem, not from The Temple but from one of the other published works by George Herbert – in Greek!
A confession: I am no Classics scholar, even though I studied Koiné Greek (a.k.a. New Testament Greek) during my Master of Divinity in 1985-88, and I attempted Latin for two years in high school. All of this qualifies me to know how little I actually understand. Give me a copy of Bauer – Gingrich – Danker (a New Testament concordance) and a grammar handbook and I might be able to produce a passable translation and parse the verbs; otherwise, I am usually guessing. Classical Greek is somewhat impenetrable to me, because while I will recognise words, the meanings will have changed, and the word endings of Attic and other dialects are different, too. The Greek of the Iliad and the Odyssey is even more difficult that Aristotle, Plato, or Euripides, as it is some 450 years older, and is in the Ionic and other dialects. Since moving to Greece three years ago I have been studying Standard Modern Greek – the spoken language of Greeks in Greece and in the Diaspora – for the past three years, and I can speak and read it like a small child. I can sit down with a poem in Greek and make sense of it and the technique of the poet (especially if there is an English translation opposite it). Thus, I can claim that I have read Konstantinos Kavafis (Constantine Cavafy) in the original – but he was writing in Modern Greek only 120 years ago. Likewise, I find I can read the current poets collected in Austerity Measures:The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck (London UK: Penguin Books, 2016).
Someone who is a Classics scholar of some standing is the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson. He read Ancient Greek and Latin while at Oxford, for which he received an Upper Second (approximately a B+ or an A- in North American university grading). Apparently he can recite the first one-hundred lines of the Iliad, and you can find a video of it here. It’s a pretty good party trick. He uses Erasmian pronunciation, which no Greek living or dead ever used, but it is pretty common across Europe and in the English-speaking world. Although I was trained in the Erasmian pronunciation, too, when I studied New Testament Greek, I have adopted that used by Modern Standard Greek, and I understand that it is increasingly being taught that way in universities in the USA. Modern Greek pronunciation has evolved from the language as spoken by Homer and Pericles, especially since it has moved from being a tonal language to an accented one, but it is still closer to the original than what Boris Johnson speaks.
George Herbert knew Classical Greek and Ancient Latin even better than the Prime Minister. His job required it – before ordination he was the Public Orator of Cambridge University between 1619-1627, and he was required to deliver long speeches in Latin (and perhaps Greek) during graduation ceremonies and on other great occasions. He also wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, almost as much as he did in English. Arguably, much of his skill in writing English was derived from studying the works of the ancient poets, although he managed to avoid the Latinate English of John Milton in Paradise Lost. That said, the only people who can profitably read and appreciate his poetry in Greek and Latin are Classics scholars, and there are fewer of them than there used to be. In Herbert’s day to be educated was to be able to read in Latin, and ideally Greek, as well. Today, not so much.
George Herbert idolized his mother. He was not alone – so did John Donne. In 1560 (or 1558, or 1565 – sources vary) she was born Magdalen Newport, the daughter of a Shropshire gentleman who was knighted in the reign of Elizabeth I for military service in Scotland. She married well, being yoked to Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury in 1681, and over the next ten years gave birth to ten children, George being the seventh. Richard Herbert died in 1596, and as the eldest son was but thirteen, she managed the family estate for the next thirteen years. Magdalen Herbert remarried in 1609 to a man only in his twenties, Sir John Danvers, when she was at least in her late forties. They remained married until her death in 1627. John Donne had met Lady Danvers when she was still the widow Herbert, and Frances Ward argued in 2011 that she was a great influence on the young man, starting when they met in 1596. Although the relationship appears to have been platonic, it was nevertheless passionate, and Donne wrote love poems dedicated to her. Later he wrote his religious sequence poem La Corona and dedicated those to her. It is striking that this woman was not only the mother of one of the great poets, but also the intimate friend of another.
Shortly after her death Donne and George Herbert published a book memorializing Lady Danvers: Memoriae Matris Sacrum, or, in English, “To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift”). It included a sermon by Donne in English, and Herbert wrote fourteen Latin poems and five Greek ones. The best edition of these poems was published by the George Herbert Journal, Volume 33 (Fall 2009/Spring 2010), but also as a separate book in 2012. It is “A Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary Edited by Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller” (henceforth “FFM “). They reproduce the poem three ways: first, in the original language, then in a polished English version, and then, in their analysis, as a construal, i.e. a close translation from the Greek into the English that makes no attempt at being poetic or reproducing the rhythms or the metre original. The book is a marvel, and I suggest that anybody who is a serious Herbert nerd needs to get it. It would be interesting to have them turn their attention to Herbert’s English poetry and see what they find of his skill in Ancient Greek and Latin.
The poems do not have titles, but are simply numbered. Here is one in Greek (please note that I have not figured out how to make my computer type in Classical Greek, so I do not have all the accents and breathing marks correct):
Poem 18 (“White-Topped Waves of the Thames”)
Κύματ’ επαφριώντα Θαμήσεος, αίκε σελήνης Φωτος απαυραμένης όγκου εφείσθε πλέον, Νύν θέμις oρφναίv μεγάλης επί γείτονος αίση Ουλυμπόνδε βιβάν ύμμιν ανισταμένοις. Αλλά μενείτ’, ου γαρ τάραχος ποτί μητέρα βαίνη, Καί πρέπον ώδε παρά δακρυόεσσι ρέειν. (FFM p. 50)
Construal (1) White-flecked waves of the Thames, if, since the moon (2) Has been robbed of [her] light you should desire more of [her] majesty, (3) In this case it would be right onto the night-black domain of [your] great neighbor, (4) As you rise over your banks to climb Olympus-wards. (5) But stay, for disorder shall not go near my mother, (6) And it is fitting to flow like this by those who weep. (FFM p. 165)
Polished Translation If, white-topped waves of the Thames, you should claim a greater share Of the moon’s high station for yourself, her light already stolen, This one time it is right for you, topping the banks into the night-black Share of your great neighbor, to climb towards Olympus. But stop, for chaos shall not approach my mother, And it is fitting to flow so excessively alongside those who weep. (FFM p. 51)
And here is part of the analysis by Freis, Freis, and Miller (FFM p. 165):
The poem imagines a storm physically manifesting the failure of the orders, categories, and hierarchies of the natural order to remain and render the world in some sense comprehensible, stable, and meaningful. The poem is structured in elegiac couplets: the first describes the scene; the second, introduced by Νύν (“in this case”), evaluates that scene and draws a conclusion; and the third, introduced by Αλλά (“but”), qualifies the evaluation. Homeric usage and vocabulary are so prominent in this poem that Herbert may have in mind Homer’s descriptions of rivers seething with foam, including the Scamander which overflows its banks and tries to drown Achilles (Iliad 5.599, 18.403, 21. 235). In addition to the description of white-capped rivers found in Homer, there are other Homeric spellings and uses: oρφναίv, Ουλυμπόνδε, ύμμιν, δακρυόεσσι, and ρέειν. Further there are two uses of Homeric syntax. The first is in line 2. The word εφείσθε (“you should aim at, long for, desire”) is aorist optative middle in a future less vivid conditional, introduced by aike. Smyth notes that this syntax is “exclusively Homeric” (2334). In line 5, the verb βαίνη (“shall not go”) is a Homeric anticipatory subjunctive (Smyth 1810).
They also identify the metre as an elegaic couplet which “was usually the first metrical Latin form that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century school boys learned and imitated, writing hosts of elegiac verses throughout their school and college careers” (FFM 184-185).
What strikes me me as someone who has previously only read Herbert’s English poems, is the absence of God. Instead, Herbert is very much acting like an Ancient Greek, addressing the River Thames as if it is some river deity, like Scamander, the river near Troy, who is both a river and a god. It is a poem that a non-Christian could have written.
This undoubtedly speaks to aspects of Herbert that are usually opaque to us if we know him only from his English poems and The Country Parson. Yes, he was very devout, but he undoubtedly idealized the role of a priest and the capacity of his charge to be formed into a truly devout community. One wonders if he might have become more moderate had he lived past the age of forty, to see the rise and fall of Puritanism and the lives lost in the English Civil War, to see his step-father become one of the people sentencing the king to death, as well the abolition of the episcopacy and the suppression of the Book of Common Prayer. What the Latin and Greek poetry demonstrate is that he was able to suspend his Christian perspective, if only in the midst of grief. He might have done so for other reasons, had he lived.
That’s enough for today. Tomorrow is a Sunday, so I won’t post anything on Herbert, but I will return on Monday with another of his English poems, as we count down to Christmas.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Fourteen: Friday after the Third Sunday of Advent
My apologies for not getting this out yesterday! Thursday was a busy day, and by the time I turned my mind to completing this post, I was beyond exhausted. Perhaps this is a reminder that, in any retreat, accumulated tiredness tends to appear. I know that when I’ve been at some retreat centre or monastery/convent I invariably find myself sleeping more than usual – and this is okay!
So, on to today’s poem. In printed editions of The Temple it follows after yesterday’s The Thanksging.
I have consider’d it, and find There is no dealing with thy mighty passion: For though I die for thee, I am behind; My sins deserve the condemnation.
O make me innocent, that I May give a disentangled state and free: And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy, For by thy death I die for thee.
Ah! was it not enough that thou By thy eternal glory didst outgo me? Couldst though not grief’s sad conquests me allow, But in all vict’ries overthrow me?
Yet by confession will I come Into the conquest. Though I can do nought Against thee, in these I will overcome The man, who once against thee fought.
The text of The Temple is based on two manuscripts and the first printed edition. The first manuscript, known as W contains both English and Latin poems, and some or all of it may be in Herbert’s own hand. It has only 69 of the 164 poems in the final version of the collection, and it is manifestly an earlier version, which some date to 1618. The second manuscript is known as B, and it appears to be a fair copy of the collection which Herbert bequeathed to Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding. Thus, it dates from no later than 1633. The printed edition of 1633 was set up from B, and where it differs from the manuscript it does so to tidy up the usual errors or omissions. For more information see Ann Pasternak Slater’s “Textual Note” on pp. lvi-lviii of The Complete English Works.
I say all of this to note that in W this poem has the name The Second Thanks-giving, and likewise follows of The Thanksgiving. So what is the meaning of the title The Reprisal? Why might Herbert have changed it?
The Oxford English Dictionary presents the uses of reprisal as a noun as the following:
I. Senses relating to retaliation. 1. a. The action, practice, or right of seizing by force foreign nationals or their goods, in retaliation for loss or injury caused by them or by their compatriots. Now historical. b. An act or instance of seizing the subjects or property of a hostile nation in retaliation for loss or injury. Formerly also with †of. Now historical. 2. a. An act or instance of retaliation for any (alleged) loss or injury; (International Law) a measure, such as a boycott or embargo, taken by one state against another in retaliation for allegedly illegal or unjustified conduct. b. The action or practice of retaliating for any loss or injury; revenge. II. Senses relating to taking, taking back, or returning more generally. 3.a. The taking of something as a prize or reward; an instance of this. Obsolete. rare . . . III. Senses relating to repetition or recurrence; 8. A separate occasion of doing something.
A reader of the past century or two might think that the main sense of the title is “reprise” as if Herbert is doing the poem over again. However, that third sense of the word from the OED dates only to well over a century after his lifetime. The older sense, as a seizing of goods or persons in retaliation for some wrong, was the current one in his day. So Herbert’s new title is suggestive that a wounded party seizes something from the offender. This sense, I think, transforms the meaning of the poem. Who is doing the reprisal? I suggest that it is God, not the poet or the persona speaking in the poem.
The persona in The Thanksgiving worries about how best to give thanks, to honour the sacrifice offered by Jesus upon the cross. He prattles away, noting that in anything he might do – grief, blood, “scourged, flouted, boxed, sold” – God goes before him (“preventest me”). He contemplates ignoring the Passion and just focusing on the glory of God. He treats his difficulty of responding as a trial of strength, and “Surely I will revenge me on thy love.” He then makes great claims about what he will do, the boastful quality which is evident, and finally will turn the Ars Amatoria (Ovid’s first century work on the “Art of Love”) into a sacred discipline. But at the end, despite seeking victory, he knows he cannot deal with the Passion.
The Reprisal picks up where he left off. The only way the poet can have any sort of victory is to acknowledge that Christ’s victory on the cross is his as well; that the ways in which Christ condemns his sins and overthrows his presumption is the only triumph to be allowed him. God seizes the body and soul of the believer who confesses – both sin and faith – in response to the injury of sin and presumptuous pride.
What Herbert is tapping into here is an understanding of what Emmanuel Levinas in his book Totality and Infinity (1962) described as Infinity – that which transcends us. We can have an idea that there is something other than ourselves, but we will never really know it. Thus, in ethical terms, we have an infinite responsibility to the other person. This is a kind of height. Through language and various types of ethical systems we seek to diminish this responsibility, to make it rational, and avoid having to always feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the stranger. But we know that these justifications never suffice; once we feel secure in them, we know we have left the ethical realm for self-satisfaction.
Levinas argued that in the modern era one knows God as a deflection to that inherent responsibility. As an observant Orthodox Jew he used the Talmud as a means of working out how to act ethically in daily life, and he would direct Christians and Muslims to use their scriptures and liturgies in the same way. Ethical systems had their place, but they could never be the last word of a subject. The transcendence of the divine, found in the other person, goes before the human being, and calls to each person before they even know they are called.
Today we wrestle with what the ethical. We know that there is climate change, and we must act, but we hesitate because of our own addiction to carbon based fuels and the comforts they give us. We offer arguments fro the basis of economics, or fairness in cost among the nations, and slide towards calamity. We know that poor people in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and India/Bangladesh will suffer disproportionately, but we seem to be okay with that. I suspect that my children and their descendants (if there be any – no grandchildren yet) will be fine, given the privilege they have inherited as well educated, “First-World” citizens living in democracies. I can become very complacent.
So God must occupy me, seize me as a reprisal, and overwhelm that which struggles against the divine call to me.
As the hypertext indicates, I have already written reflections on these. The Thanksgiving follows after the much longer The Sacrifice. The longer poem is in the voice of Jesus, but today’s is in the voice of the poet. It does not have the relentless, driven quality of The Sacrifice, but is composed of rhyming couplets of ten and eight syllables, and has a kind of meandering, start and stop quality. The only odd word is in line 33 – “spittle” – which is just a contraction of “hospital”.
Oh King of grief! (a title strange, yet true, To thee of all kings only due) Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee, Who in all grief preventest me? Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store That all thy body was one door. Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold? ’Tis but to tell the tale is told. My God, my God, why dost thou part from me? Was such a grief as cannot be. Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story, And side with thy triumphant glory? Shall thy stokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower? Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower? But how then shall I imitate thee, and Copy thy fair, though bloody hand? Surely I will revenge me on thy love, And try who shall victorious prove. If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore All back unto thee by the poor. If thou dost give me honour, men shall see, The honour doth belong to thee. I will not marry; or, if she be mine, She and her children shall be thine. My bosom friend, if he blaspheme thy name, I will tear thence his love and fame. One half of me being gone, the rest I give Unto some Chapel, die or live. As for thy passion–But of that anon, When with the other I have done. For thy predestination I’ll contrive, That three years hence, if I survive, I’ll build a spittle, or mend common ways, And mend mine own without delays. Then I will use the works of thy creation, As if I used them but for fashion. The world and I will quarrel; and the year Shall not perceive, that I am here. My music shall find thee, and ev’ry string Shall have his attribute to sing; That all together may accord in thee, And prove one God, one harmony. If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appear, If thou hast give’n it me, ’tis here. Nay, I will read thy book, and never move Till I have found therein thy love, Thy art of love, which I’ll turn back on thee: O my dear Saviour, Victory! Then for thy passion—I will do for that— Alas, my God, I know not what.
Portrait of the Poet as a Fool
The voice might be that of the poet’s, but we already know Herbert too well to think that it is actually his own. He adopts a persona here of a person struggling to figure out how to respond to the suffering and death of Jesus.
The persona is a bit of a fool – he starts off addressing Jesus as “King of grief” but then breaks off to comment on the oddness of the address – a very odd thing to do in a poem. He’s overwhelmed by his own inadequacy to respond, and makes much of it. He contemplates skipping the passion, even though he knows that is not possible. He struggles with the idea of being an imitation of Christ. He suggests that he will give his wealth to the poor. He will deny all honour, except to receive it and then direct one’s attention back to God – kind of like the recipient of an award thanking God. He will not marry – but if does, his wife and children will belong to God. He will abandon his bosom friend if his friend should blaspheme – which suggests that the person speaking isn’t much of a friend. And so it goes on, compounding failure and demonstrating the persona’s shallowness. He revels in God’s love as he discerns it in the Bible, but when, in the final two lines, he returns to the passion of Christ,
Then for thy passion—I will do for that— Alas, my God, I know not what.
The persona is at a loss to give a proper thanksgiving, despite the title of the poem. The next poem in The Temple, “The Reprisal”, takes up the theme again. Indeed, dealing with this in a more mature way appears to be the theme of the next few poems.
There is something quite subversive in writing a poem as if one is a fool. It is probably really hard to get away with it, but Herbert does.
Ann Pasternak Slater in the “Introduction” to George Herbert: The Complete English Works (New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, 1995; pp. l-li), describes, in a way that is far beyond my analytical skills, what Herbert is achieving with his technique here, and I reproduce it in full:
[Herbert] frequently uses metric harmony and disharmony to mirror spiritual states, as well as drawing on musical imagery for the same ends. Metric disruption is the finest final instance of his art. It is clear from the divergences between the two manuscript versions of his poems that, far from eradicating irregularity, he introduced it when appropriate. In ‘The Thanksgiving’ Herbert meditates on man’s incapacity to deal with the death of Christ: ‘Oh King of Wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,/Who in all grief preventest me?’ In a bitter snapping of the iambic pattern set up at the poem’s beginning, Herbert ironically asks whether he should turn the Crucifixion into something accessible and appealing:
Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story, And side with thy triumphant glory? Shall thy strokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower? Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower?
Editors gloss ‘skipping’ as ‘omitting’, which is clearly one of its meanings here: should Herbert skip the pain of the Crucifixion and look only on the bright side of man’s gain? But Herbert is also attacking the impulse to trivialize, changing the line from its original version, which was.
Shall I then sing, neglecting thy sad story.
‘Skipping’, the chosen replacement, is interesting for two reasons: because it introduces an image of jaunty triviality sustained in the next lines, and because it fractures the metre in a way ‘neglecting’ did not, reversing the sensitive third foot from an iamb to a trochee
Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thy̆ dólefŭl stóry̆,
The further change of ‘sad’ to ‘doleful’ throws the irregularity into higher relief. The third foot clashes with both its neighbours. Instead of the regular slack/stress alternation of both trochaic and iambic metres, stress is followed by stress, slack by slack (‘síng, skíppĭng, thy̆’). Had Herbert kept ‘sad’, he would simply have lost a slack in mid-line and the aberrant third foot would have gone unnoticed:
Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thý săd stóry̆,
The normal editorial excision of the first edition’s comma after ‘skipping’ robs it of its light-hearted second sense, even though the metric fracture remains.
This kind of analysis is a good reason to go out and actually buy this edition of Hebert. In any case, Pasternak Slater demonstrates that Herbert really did know what he was doing here.
Wrestling with the Cross
In his First Letter to the Corinthians 1.23-24 Paul writes,
we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For many Christians the cross remains problematic. I know that as a young Christian I had little difficulty with the Incarnation, as the idea that the Divine would enter into the world made great sense to me. Likewise I liked the idea of the Resurrection, in which God begins to make all things new. However, the death of Jesus was challenging. Why did Jesus die? I rejected the simplistic idea of substitutionary atonement, because it required a wrathful God that I simply could not accept. Yes, I knew that I had sinned, and that I had fallen short of the glory of God, but I found it hard to believe that those sins deserved being tossed into an eternal lake of burning fire; my God could not be, at the same time, a God of love and a God of such vengeful wrath. I cannot accept such a paradoxical bipolarity in the Divine. And yet, I was just as captivated by the narrative of the passion as anybody, especially as lived out each year in Holy Week. I took solace in the idea that while it is part of Christian dogma that Christ died for our sins, the precise mechanism of how that happens is not specified.
As I meditated on the events of Good Friday, and preached on them annually, I began to see that the early Christians also struggled with the cross. They knew that Jesus had, unexpectedly, been raised from the dead. They also knew that, regardless of whether they had denied Jesus or abandoned him, that they were forgiven. Even Paul, who had persecuted the church, knew that he was forgiven and called to preach the gospel. The experience of the resurrection contained both forgiveness and empowerment, and they knew that it was somehow connected to the death of Jesus. So, to explain it, they looked back at the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (whom Jesus himself probably identified with). They used metaphors such as “ransom” and “expiation”, “sacrifice” and “ransom”. They recalled his words at the Last Supper the night before his death, and whenever they gathered together they became part of Christ’s resurrected body by remembering what he had done.
In time I recognised that Jesus was a colonized Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power. In entering into a world where the incarnate divine is put to death by Rome, God aligns God’s self with those who are oppressed and calls into question the authority of the oppressors. This is the foolishness and stumbling block about which Paul speaks – because the leaders of the Jews were collaborators in their people’s oppression, and the Greeks had likewise made their peace and were just trying to get through the day, happily being distracted by various philosophies that ignored the suffering of slaves and the subject peoples of the empire.
Thus, when we sit at the foot of the cross, we do not simply say, “Well, thanks Jesus, for dying on my behalf, and making sure I go to heaven. I’ll just get on with life, then, eh?” Rather one enters into the passion and death of Christ, and is empowered to be Christ in the world. As the resurrected Jesus says to the disciples in the Gospel according to John, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is the cross which empowered people like Martin Luther King, Jr and Desmond Tutu, and continues to give strength to Christian activists around the world.
There is a place for substitution, in a way. Following the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I believe that ethics is rooted in the transcendent truth that as a human being I have a responsibility to the other person (including you, dear reader), especially when they are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison (Matthew 25). It is an infinite responsibility at which I have failed before I am even aware of it, but it is the basis of ethical action. Thus, I substitute myself for the other, and their needs become mine. The point of the cross, for a Christian, is not that it absolves one from that responsibility, but that it identifies it with the action of God in Christ. If Christ is substituted for me, then I am now substituted with him for the other.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Twelve: Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Advent
The H. Scriptures II
Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine, And the configurations of their glory! Seeing not only how each verse doth shine, But all the constellations of the story. This verse marks that, and both do make a motion Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie: Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion, These three make up some Christians destiny: Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring, And in another make me understood. Stars are poor books, & oftentimes do miss: This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.
Another sonnet, another rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Again Herbert addresses the personified Holy Scriptures, but in comparison to the astronomy of his day, which was basically astrology. Thus his cutting comments in the final two lines – the stars do not tell us what we need to know about our purpose in life, which is how to reach eternal bliss.
Herbert had an elevated view of the scriptures as God’s words, and this view is demonstrated in the preceding sonnet. However, as an artist of poetry, he knows the basic elements are the same material he uses – words – and marvels at how the words combine to shine with glory. He notes how the sentences combine, and then relate to something ten pages away. These combine to be something greater than the mere sum of their parts – aspects of theology and dogma that might not be immediately apparent. Herbert finds that these verses work also to make himself understood.
When I was at Harvard Divinity School in 2002-2003 I was part of the Graduate New Testament Seminar run by Prof Karen King. This included all the ThM students (of which I was one) and the doctoral students in their first two years, as well as all the teaching staff in New Testament and Early Christianiyu. It was, to say the least, an impressive group, as it had Helmut Koester, then in his late 70s, who had studied with Rudolf Bultmann, and brilliant exegetes such as Richard Horsley, who in my opinion is to New Testament studies what J. R. R. Tolkien is to Beowulf. Prof King had us read French literary theory to see if it could be applied to the New Testament. Thus, we read people like Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu, branching out to non-French authors such as Daniel Boyarin and Mikhail Bakhtin (and while we did not read him, I cannot help but think that Jacques Derrida was also lurking in the background). Now, trying to have us read this material and apply it was much like trying to teach cats to do synchronised swimming. Most of the participants already had well-defined methodologies, and this really challenged them. That said, I took at least two major ideas away from the seminar: first, that great literature has what the French called jouissance – a great intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy; this is similar to what Bakhtin called “carnivalesque.” Much of this was generated by the second takeaway, which is that texts interact with each other, which gets the fancy name of intertextuality.
That this is true is obvious in great works of literature and other arts. To understand much of Shakespeare it helps to know the Bible, even though the Bible is never the theme of his plays or poetry. Any book in the genre of vampires is dealing with the primordial work of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, just as any fantasy book struggles with escaping the influence of The Lord of the Rings. James Joyce’s Ulysses not only interacts with his previous book, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but also with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Odyssey, and the works of the Celtic Twilight. Indeed, one can use intertextuality for non-texts – most paintings are interacting and commenting on previous works or art; early 20th century Cubism only makes sense when seen as a reaction to the more realistic paintings of the decades prior, and the rise of photography.
The Bible is the intertextual work par excellence. One cannot read the New Testament without the Old, and the various books of the Bible interact in a variety of ways. As modern source criticism has demonstrated, it is likely that the Five Books of Moses, or the Tanach, were composed of at least four sources, brought together by an editor. Likewise, I am strongly persuaded that the Gospel of John went through two editions before it reached the canonical form we have now – and thus has an intertextuality within itself – and that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke had the Gospel of Mark in front of them, as well as a now lost source known as Q, creating another form of intertextuality. The Letters of Paul interact with the Acts of the Apostles, confounding scholars trying to work out chronologies of Paul who make the mistake of giving historical priority to the decades-later Acts.
There are two types – or perhaps three – types of intertextuality. One is explicit. Thus, when William Faulkner entitles his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom the reader can expect that it will resonate with the Biblical story of King David and the revolt of his son Absalom, which ends with the death of his son. And indeed, it does tell such a story, set in the middle of the 19th century, retold by various persons around 1910, and a very imperfect father does indeed watch the death of a proud son. Likewise, the title Ulysses encourages the reader to look for parallels between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s story of the wanderings of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Another type of intertextuality is generated by proximity and happenstance. Thus,the four gospels were each written to stand alone, but we read them together as a collection, and in relation to Paul’s Letters, Acts, and Revelation, as well as the Old Testament. A lectionary used in church services provides a list of readings for Sundays and feast days, and while the readings may not originally have had anything to do with each other, preachers will find connections and associations. A third type of intertextuality is when we relate ourselves to what is going on in the books, or, as Herbert says in the poem above,
for in ev’ry thing Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring
There is nothing new in intertextuality, except perhaps the term. It is as old as the Bible and undoubtedly older still. The poem above describes the early 17th century understanding of intertextuality. George Herbert’s poetry demands an intertextual reading – it is incomprehensible without an understanding of the Bible, and it helps to have an understanding of the Protestant interpretations that prevailed in his day. While he seems to take a naive approach to the textual and historico-critical issues of the Scriptures, as suggested in yesterday’s reflection, his poetry is anything but naive, despite the simple words and well defined constructions he uses (such as a sonnet). His allusiveness and theological depth gives them that jouissance which all great literature has.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Eleven: Monday after the Third Sunday of Advent
The H. Scriptures I
Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart Suck ev’ry letter, and a honey gain, Precious for any grief in any part; To clear the breast, to mollify all pain. Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make A full eternity: thou art a mass Of strange delights, where we may wish and take. Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass, That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well That washes what it shows. Who can endear Thy praise too much? thou art heav’n’s Lidger here, Working against the states of death and hell. Thou art joy’s handsel: heav’n lies flat in thee, Subject to ev’ry mounter’s bended knee.
So as it turns out I missed two days last week – Thursday,when I was busy graduating from the University of London, and Saturday, when I was back in Crete furiously trying to get ready for the Third Sunday of Advent. I’m back now!
Herbert wrote two sonnets about the Holy Scriptures – or, rather to the Holy Scriptures, as the Bible is addressed directly, in the first line, and again in the enjambment on line 10. Curiously, he also addresses “Ladies” to pay attention to the Bible as a “glass” or mirror – which suggests that Herbert believes women to be concerned with looking at their reflection. I doubt one should read much more into the personification of the Bible – it remains a book, and not God itself made paper and ink, except that it functions as a means of grace that leads to God. That is more than enough!
The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. There are two unusual words. In line 11 we find “Lidger”. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that this is an old word for an ambassador, in this case to the foreign states of death and hell. In line 13 we read “handsel” which is an archaic term meaning, according to Merriam-Webster:
1 : a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck especially at the beginning of a new year 2 : something received first (as in a day of trading) and taken to be a token of good luck 3a : a first installment : earnest money b : earnest, foretaste
The description of the Bible as “honey” calls to mind the words of Psalm 81.16: “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat: and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Herbert lived in a time before the slave-economy trade in cane sugar had emerged in the Caribbean, so honey was the sweetest thing that he would have experienced.
The first few lines are a wealth of positive metaphors. The Holy Scriptures are
a salve for grief
a health enhancer
a means to eternal life
a mass of strange delights
a well that washes away sin even as it shows it
an ambassador from heaven working against hell and death
a first installment on joy
heaven laying flat
The last image is interesting, because he is clearly thinking of a Bible lying open to be read.
Herbert here reads like a proper Protestant, in that he finds in the Holy Scriptures a coherent and necessary text for the good of humanity. Historical criticism of the Bible was a century and a half away, and so he would not have been bothered with the contradictions and tensions that we moderns are all too familiar with. While knowing who the human authors were (or who tradition said they were), he generally accepted God as the true author.
All his poems have biblical allusions, and sometimes seems like concatenations of such, although more often he builds on an allusion in an imaginative way. Herbert himself would have known many versions of the Bible. He was fluent in Latin and Greek, and wrote poetry in those languages, so he would have been familiar with the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament. Hebrew scholarship was well established at Cambridge when he was there as a student and a don, and given his linguistic skills I would be surprised if he had not studied some of that language and had encountered the Hebrew Bible.
The English Translation we know as the King James Version (“KJV”) was produced in his lifetime, by 1611; indeed, he undoubtedly knew some of the translators. He himself would have been brought up with two earlier translations – the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 (revised 1572), which was used by the Church of England, and the Geneva Bible (1557/1560). Before he died the Geneva Bible translation was arguably the most popular, especially because of the extensive commentary and notes written by English Calvinists in exile in Geneva during the reign of Mary I. James VI & I of Scotland and England made sure that his translation did not have such notes, even while stealing some of the more vigorous wording of the Geneva Bible. It is not obvious to me which English translation Herbert is thinking of in his many allusions – it is probably the case that it is all of them.
Herbert has a more simple relationship with scripture than I do. Part of that is because I live in an era in which I cannot ignore the truth of much historical scholarship. I have an awareness of the complexity of the writing, preservation, and redaction of these texts that Herbert did not. I see a certain kind of coherency in the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, but it is a coherence that incorporates multiple viewpoints, diverse voices, paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions. Problems in scripture is not a feature of our ignorance, but of our knowledge derived from the past 230 years of painstaking research.
That said, I revel in all of this. I find that the Bible is an incredible collection of inspired texts. Even when it is wrong, or encapsulates a patriarchal slave-owning culture from which I recoil, I find that through it God speaks words of liberation. My own perspective cannot be characterized by any of the parties one might find in churches – Anglo-Catholic, or Liberal, or Progressive, or Evangelical, or Broad – but grows out of view influenced by post-colonial theory, Black theology, Womanist theology, and an engagement with Indigenous scholars and activists still fighting the legacy of the theft of land, genocide, and ongoing attempts at assimilation by colonial powers. For me Jesus is essentially a colonised Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power with the consent of the collaborationist leadership. If the historical Jesus is to mean anything, if we are going to take seriously the idea that Jesus was born at a particular time and place in a particular body, then we need to grapple with why Jesus lived when he did and what it meant that the powers of the time killed him. We cannot simply abstract Jesus into a personal Lord and Saviour who died just for me, and whose death and resurrection leaves me unchanged to carry on in the world as before. Rather, we must see in the birth of Jesus the one who inaugurates the time when God, as his mother says in Luke 1,
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
I cannot ask Herbert to show that perspective in his poetry – that is to make a demand of a 17th century gentleman that would be proper to someone of our own time. However, we might still admire his faith and his poetic skill. At the same time, it might be wise of us to observe his own placement in time – as a privileged man seeking position in the courts of power, eventually turning to a more humble position in the Church of England before dying an early death. Where did the wealth come that supported him through his studies? What did he hope for in the Kingdom of England? How did this relate to the kind of poetry he wrote? I hope that I might enter some of this into future reflections.
Tomorrow we will look at the second of the two sonnets entitled The H. Scriptures.