Through Lent with George Herbert
Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent
Mark you the floor? that square and speckled stone,
Which looks so firm and strong,
And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one
Is checkered all along,
The gentle rising, which on either hand
Leads to the Choir above,
But the sweet cement, which in one sure band
Ties the whole frame, is Love
Hither sometimes Sin steals, and stains
The marble’s neat and curious veins:
But all is cleansed when the marble weeps.
Sometimes Death, puffing at the door,
Blows all the dust about the floor:
But while he thinks to spoil the room, he sweeps.
Blessed be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart.
It is never too clear when Herbert wrote his poems. St. Andrew, Bemerton, which was one of his church buildings when he was the incumbent there, would have had a dirt floor, although the chancel (where the communion table and seating for the clergy were) was made of stone. The pictures at the website of the chapel show a modern wooden parquet floor in the nave, and the chancel is stone, but that may be the result of some renovation done long after Herbert. As Herbert was using the church building metaphorically, he probably had in mind an idealized version of his own chapel, with elements from the many places he would have worshiped in his short life.
Because of the layout of the text the first twelve lines look unusual, but they are really just iambic pentameter where the the last word or two of the even lines is given its own line, to emphasise the focus of the couplet. Thus, stone is supposed to rhyme with one, and Patience with Confidence – ABACDBDC. The next eight lines are iambic tetrameter (i.e. eight syllables) in the rhyme EEFGGFHH. The first half of the poem uses the floor as an allegory for Patience, Humility, Confidence, and Charity (i.e. Love). The next six lines of the second half continues the allegory by describing the sweating marble as the response to sin staining the rock, and the wind coming in the door and blowing the dust about is like Death (and we’ve already seen death and dust related in Church Monuments and Employment (1)). The set of metaphors in the final couplet describe how God as an architect creates a strong building “in a weak heart”.
There are a couple of obscure things in here. Stones do not normally weep tears, but Ann Pasternak Slater suggests that this refers to what happens when a church becomes crowded and warm human breath condenses on cold stone. thus seeming to wash away any stains. The “weak heart” is the first reference to something outside of the firm strong building – and Pasternak Slater refers us to The Altar, which is built of a broken heart and cemented with tears.
Patience, humility, and charity (love) are three virtues for which I seek, and which I see reflected in the kenotic theology, for which I advocate in my dissertation. Confidence flows from these three. Real humility is having a true understanding of oneself. Humility is being grounded – like a church floor.