Through Lent With George Herbert
(Tuesday after the First Sunday of Lent)
After yesterday’s The Sacrifice Herbert has several shorter poems that try to respond to what is said in it. The sixth poem is this one:
Having been tenant long to a rich lord,Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,And make a suit unto him, to affordA new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.In heaven at his manor I him sought;They told me there that he was lately goneAbout some land, which he had dearly boughtLong since on earth, to take possessiòn.I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,Sought him accordingly in great resorts;In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;At length I heard a ragged noise and mirthOf thieves and murderers; there I him espied,Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.
It is a sonnet, in the usual fourteen lines of ten syllables each in iambic pentameter. , with the rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFFE GG. This might strike one as a bit unusual, as Shakespeare always used ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. However, Italian poets often used ABBA ABBA in the first eight lines, so Herbert using EFFE is not that much of an innovation, if one at all (I’m no expert on sonnets, and other English poets may have done this before him).
What I find striking about the poem is the way in which Herbert addresses the relationship of God and human in ordinary terms – a lease between a tenant and a landlord. Most of Herbert’s parishioners would have been tenants of a local lord, and would have immediately understood the worry of “not thriving” and the necessity to “cancel th’old” and get “A new small-rented lease”. The problem is that the tenant is undoubtedly bound by the old lease, and so it is at the discretion of the lord as to whether the old one can be replaced with the new, less expensive one.
Thus far the language is not theological, but in the next verse we read that the lord’s manor house is “In heaven”. Thus, this lord is The Lord. Somehow this tenant, as if in a dream, just pops up to heaven to look for the lord. And, in as matter-of-fact language as that in the first four verses, he is told he’s not there, he’s off to earth, you know, about a rather expensive piece of land.
Our narrator returns to earth and looks for him in places nobility, but does not find him. Then, hearing thieves and murderers and their “ragged noise and mirth”, he sees his lord, who says before a word is spoken, “Your suit is granted.”
There’s a lot of weird stuff going on here, but that’s typical of Herbert. The lord is found among thieves and murderers, just as Jesus would have been found with condemned rebels and robbers at his crucifixion. The land dearly bought is the redemption of humanity, and the tenant suing (i.e. requesting) for a change of tenancy is granted this request, and presumably receives that very expensive piece of land at little expense to him. Typically this is read very much along Lutheran terms (derived from Luther’s debatable reading of Paul) so that it implies a transfer from living under Law and living instead under Grace. However, it may be more ambiguous than that – it may simply be a move from sin and death to life and grace.
Another of the weird things is that the event in which the land “bought Long since on earth” turns out to be coincident with the moment when the tenant espies the lord, hears the lord speak, and then dies. There is no indication that the tenant spoke to the lord – it is as if the lord already knows all about it, and acts before a request is actually made. Time collapses, and the lord acts before being asked. This is the nature of the atonement of the cross – it is made available across time, and God acts without humanity asking him to do so, so caught up in our sins are we.
In other poems Herbert uses similarly ordinary images and relationships to convey the weird and wonderful nature of God’s salvation in Christ. Stay tuned.