Through Lent with George Herbert
Wednesday after the Second Sunday of Lent
To write a verse or two is all the praise
That I can raise:
Mend my estate in any ways,
Thou shalt have more.
I go to Church; help me to wings, and I
Will thither fly;
Or, if I mount unto the sky,
I will do more.
Man is all weakness; there is no such thing
As Prince or King:
His arm is short; yet with a sling
He may do more.
An herb distill’d, and drunk, may dwell next door,
On the same floor,
To a brave soul: Exalt the poor,
They can do more.
O raise me then! poor bees, that work all day,
Sting my delay,
Who have a work, as well as they,
And much, much more.
If you have read some of my previous posts about the poetry of George Herbert you will see in today’s poem some themes that he has already addressed.
- The first stanza speaks to the use of poetry in praise of God – Jordan (1).
- The second stanza talks about having wings to fly to God – Easter-wings.
- The final stanza refers to industrious bees – Employment (1).
This poem, then, is a good example of how Herbert uses the poems to build upon each other and interrelate.
The key word in the poem is “more”, being the final word of the fourth line of each stanza. With God the poet will be more. A person with short arms, with a sling, can do more than a prince or king. The poor can do more than someone who has taken a stimulant. The poet has a work greater than that of the bees – “much, much more.” There is aspiration, then, but also a recognition that without God the weak vessel of humanity cannot accomplish much.
The tone here is humble and critical. In the first stanza Herbert writes that if God mends his estate – his health perhaps? – he will be able to do more than write just a few verses. In the second stanza he receives wings to to go to church, but if he ascends to the divine, he will do more than merely attend worship. The third stanza is striking for a 17th century author, for he states, “Man is all weakness; there is no such thing / As Prince or King”. Of course, Herbert knew quite well that there were princes and kings, but in the weakness of humanity all are equal, and none have first dibs on God’s grace. He refers to David, who with a sling defeats Goliath, demonstrating how God works through the most unlikely of persons. The fourth stanza seems to refer to a person knocked out by some stimulant, with the bottle and person both on the floor, but the poet urges God to raise up the poor (which, of course, is a constant theme in scripture – God does so in people like: Mary, the mother of Jesus; the shepherds; Micah; the Corinthians; and so forth). The poet, who appears to have some issues with his “estate”, is slow to praise, and needs to be stung into action to fulfill his work and to do more.
“I will do more.” Often when I have wanted to do more it was connected with career or academic achievement. These are not bad things, but they unveiled a competitive streak in me which was sometimes ugly. Probably the most important thing I ever did in my life – working with the Refugee Program in the Diocese of British Columbia – came to be more or less by accident. When the wave of compassion came upon Canada in the Fall of 2015 I just happened to be the right person in the right place and right time to be able to grow the program so that after two years it was about ten times the size when I appointed to it. This came after a period of illness and was followed by another, and in both cases I wondered if I would be able to work again. As it turns out, I was able to return to work, and I am grateful for the patience of the Bishop and the parishes as I mended. I think what strikes me now, as I reflect on this poem, is that God meant for me to do “much, much more” but it was not the kind of thing I could have planned for or aimed at doing. And, when I was done that work I passed it off – I was no longer necessary, I had become redundant.
I now live in a different country 10,000 km away. I am sure God wants more from me as I settle in as a stranger in a strange land. As I praise God in word and deed, I look forward to having the wings of which Herbert speaks, and to work with God to exalt all humanity to their divine purposes. With these wings we will rise to God, and unlike that other resident of Crete, Icarus, we shall not fall.