The Business Of A Life: George Herbert’s “Business”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Tuesday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent


This is what you find when you search in “Google Image” for “trochaic tetrameter catalectic”. You discover that although T. S. Eliot did not write “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in any regular meter, one can certainly analyse it.

The interest in this next poem, as Ann Pasternak Slater notes, begins with the meter, “a remorselessly regular trochaic tetrameter catalectic” (and, yes, I have to look that up, too).

  • A troche is the opposite of an iamb. Where an iamb has the emphasis on the second of two syllables, a troche has it on the first. Two syllables are usually called a foot, and in combinations they are feet.
  • A tetrameter is made up of four feet, or eight syllables.
  • A catalectic drops a syllable at the beginning at the end.

Thus, Business is a poem of four feet, but drops the syllable at the end, so where one might expect eight syllables there are only seven, and the stress is on the first of each syllable in the foot. This creates a sense of movement – of busy-ness. Even I, who have a poor sense of meter and stress, can see this.


Canst be idle? canst thou play,
Foolish soul who sinn’d today?

Rivers run, and springs each one
Know their home, and get them gone:
Have you tears, or have thou none?

If, poor soul, thou hast no tears,
Would thou hadst no faults or fears!
Who hath these, those ill forbears.

Winds still work: it is their plot,
Be the season cold, or hot:
Hast thou sighs, or hast thou not?

If thou hast no sighs or groans,
Would thou hadst no flesh and bones!
Lesser pains scape greater ones.

But if yet thou idle be,
Foolish soul, Who di’d for thee?

Who did leave his Father’s throne,
To assume thy flesh and bone;
Had he life, or had He none?

If He had not liv’d for thee,
Thou hadst died most wretchedly;
And two deaths had been thy fee.

He so far your good did plot,
That his own self he forgot.
Did he die, or did he not?

If he had not died for thee,
Thou hadst liv’d in misery.
Two lives worse than ten deaths be.

And hath any space of breath
‘Twixt his sins and Saviour’s death?

He that looseth gold, though dross,
Tells to all he meets, his cross:
He that sins, has he no loss?

He that finds a silver vein,
Thinks on it, and thinks again:
Brings your Saviour’s death no gain?

Who in heart not ever kneels,
Neither sin nor Saviour feels.

Ann Pasternak Slater also points out that the first couple announces the theme for the following four triplets, namely, sin. The second couplet does the same for the next four triplets, only for the theme of the death of Jesus. The final two couplets, with the two triplets in between, recapitulate the two themes.

Veins and Hydrothermal Deposits (1)

A gold vein.

The business described here is not a commercial enterprise, but the response of the human soul to sin and death of Jesus, “Who di’d for thee”. The soul that does not take up this work is thus idle or playing. In the first four triplets the work is to weep, and to sigh and groan, which is compared to the waters of rivers and springs and winds. In the second four triplets the two deaths are the normal physical death and the eternal death mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and the two lives are the present life of misery in this world and the coming life and the eternal life in damnation. Human souls ignores Jesus Christ to their peril. The final two triplets contrast 1) the one who loses some gold and tells everyone about it, but does not reflect of the loss caused by sin, and 2) the one who finds silver and can think of nothing more, and yet does not think about the incomparably more important gain acquired in Jesus. The couplets remind us that nothing separates passing from sin to salvation, and that all that is required is humility. Whether one agrees with the sentiments expressed, the poem is artfully made and the form follows the function Herbert wishes it to perform.


“Humility” and “servant leadership” are big topics in the secular business world. Did they learn it from the Church? Have management gurus been reading George Herbert?

I personally don’t get terribly moved by any fear of eternal damnation, because I was raised with an understanding of God that was always loving, quick to forgive, and, indeed, acting in love and a reckless generosity before I was even aware I might need to repent. Just in case you are wondering, yes, I have repented, and I am conscious of how far I fall short of the glory of God, but I do not dwell on my sins. I know that my relationship with God is not dependent upon anything that I do or do not do, but on the faith of Jesus Christ which, by the Holy Spirit, is growing within me, so that whatever is accomplished in the death and resurrection is at work within me – and you, dear reader, and everybody else. I seek to live in cooperation with that Spirit, and that requires the same humility that Herbert directs us to, a humility that makes us teachable. We try to be aware of how we are at any moment, and not getting lost in the unchangeable past, of disengaging by thinking about the future. If we are wrong, we promptly admit it. This is not easy. I feel that it is only now, in my fifties, that I can claim any aptitude in this type of mindfulness. It is the work of a lifetime, it is my “business”.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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2 Responses to The Business Of A Life: George Herbert’s “Business”

  1. Pingback: An Advent Retreat with George Herbert | The Island Parson

  2. Pingback: Another Advent with Herbert: The Poems So Far | The Island Parson

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