Through Lent With George Herbert
Tuesday after the Second Sunday of Lent
If as a flower doth spread and die,
Thou wouldst extend me to some good,
Before I were by frost’s extremity
Nipt in the bud;
The sweetness and the praise were thine;
But the extension and the room,
Which in thy garland I should fill, were mine
At thy great doom.
For as thou dost impart thy grace,
The greater shall our glory be.
The measure of our joys is in this place,
The stuff with thee.
Let me not languish then, and spend
A life as barren to thy praise,
As is the dust, to which that life doth tend,
But with delays.
All things are busy; only I
Neither bring honey with the bees,
Nor flowers to make that, nor the husbandry
To water these.
I am no link of thy great chain,
But all my company is a weed.
Lord place me in thy consort; give one strain
To my poor reed.
The fundamental challenge of life is what to do with it. One can focus on obtaining one’s food, satisfying urges such as hunger, getting an education, finding a lover, learning how to calm oneself, enjoying the company of others, satisfying one’s curiosity, and so forth. At a certain point, though, one realises that one has only a certain amount of time between NOW and THE END of life. While this may simply be a recognition of mortality, it is also an opportunity to call into question what one has been doing up to this point, and frame a question – what do I do now?
For George Herbert this is the question of employment. We can put it into terms of vocation – what is my calling? – but it is not so much about a job so much as it is about the meaning of one’s life.
This poem is in six stanzas of four lines of rhyme ABAB, but with a syllable count of 8..8.10.4. The short final line in each stanza is a kind of abrupt stop in the poem, a kind of metrical question to parallel the questions raised by the poem itself.
The first stanza seems to reflect the sense of a life that knows it will be short. The poet bid’s from God some good before his life, like a flower, is nipped in the bud by frost. He uses flowers a lot in this poem. In the second stanza God’s goodness is a garland, and in the fifth he compares himself to industrious bees. In the last verse he likens all his company to a weed.
Herbert plays with the concept of space. The flower spreads, and Herbert bid God to “extend me some good.” This could be read simply as God extending to the speaker in the poet some good, but one might also read it as the poet asking God to spread him, kust as a flower opens up to release a fragrance. This second meaning seems borne out by the second stanza in which “the extension and the room . . . were mine”. Locational language is then used:with “this place” in the third stanza.
The key line, I think, is in the fourth stanza: “Let me not languish then, and spend / A life as barren to thy praise, / As is the dust”. The purpose of our lives, according to Herbert, is to praise God. Herbert wishes to be busy with that purpose. Undoubtedly, by ordinary standards, he had already been quite busy, but perhaps this reflects a time when Herbert was in between the university halls and the parsonage, presented with delays. Indeed, he magnifies the situation and describes life as “the dust, to which that life doth tend / But with delays.” It is a striking image – we are but delayed dust! As is said on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A tone of humility begun here continues in the fifth stanza, where the poet compares himself unfavourably with the busy bees. He deprecates his humanity by removing himself from the great chain of being, where humanity is at the top, then the animals, then plants, then dust. This is the meaning of his words “all my company is a weed”, for that is the level he considers himself to be at, as that living, God-breathed dust. The last two lines shift from flowers to God’s band, and he bids God to make him part of it despite his weakness.
Christian tradition has always seen the praise of God as the primary vocation. In monastic tradition monks and nuns pray seven times a day, as well as once at night and at the Holy Eucharist as well. The day is structured by these hours of prayer, in between which other work is done. In the Anglican tradition we pray twice a day, at least, in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, supplemented perhaps by Communion, contemplative prayer, and Compline. This is not to negate other important things – work, preparation of food, leisure, time with family and friends, social work and charitable activities – but to order it in another chain of being. First things first, as the saying goes, especially for we who are delayed dust.