Through Lent With George Herbert
Thursday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.
My words take fire fro m my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.
My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.
James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is famous for being unreadable, being 628 pages of puns attempting to represent the dreams of a disturbed Irishman. It also is famous for being the source of the word “quark” which is considered an elementary particle and the stuff of which matter is made of; in the original context it was a pun on “quart”. It is also well known for being a book that is circular, and presents circular action all the way through it. One could pick it up at any point and that will be pretty much as good a place to start as any. The circularity of the text is signified by the fact that the first and last words are the same: riverrun (and yes, it is also the stronghold of House Tully in Game of Thrones, as well as a film festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a consulting firm in Belgium).
Joyce was not original in this circular construction, as today’s poem shows. Picking up on the theme of a ring from the last line in yesterday’s poem “Hope“, the ring here is not the token of a contract but a cycle of offenses. The offenses are manifested in thoughts, words, and actions. He does not enumerate them, but they are described as lewd and ill; perhaps Herbert thought that any human being probably already had a good idea of what sinful behaviour looked like. Thoughts and intentions were “like a busy flame” and thewords that proceed are “like the Sicilian hill”, Mount Etna.
The cycle here takes the form of the last line of each stanza being the first line of the next. According to Ann Pasternak Slater, this is called a carmina catenata, which means a “song-chain”. As the last line of the third stanza is identical to the first line of the first stanza, it creates a circle, or a round. A round, of course, is a type of song that is repeated, and if sung by different voices starting a few beats off, it becomes a canon. It is also a kind of dance. Pasternak Slater also states that a “cockatrice” is to be identified with a basilisk, which kills just by looking at its prey. She refers us to Isaiah 14:29:
for from the root of the snake will come forth an adder,
and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.
John Donne used the form of carmina catena in La Corona, a series of seven interlinked sonnets sent to, of all people, George Herbert’s mother, who was a friend of the poet when Herbert was a teenager; presumably they were well known to the younger man.
The modern mind is probably not so grieved by sin as the early 17th century was. The Reformation and Reformation arrived in a time of a deep sense of how far humanity was from the glory of God. A friend of mine likes to joke that there is so much consciousness of sin in the Book of Common Prayer that at the end of a service of Holy Communion one is still not clear if one has been forgiven; this even after having sung the Kyrie Eleison, made a confession and received an absolution, having heard the Comfortable Words, having heard how Jesus overcame sin by his death on the cross in the Prayer of Consecration, having said the Prayer of Humble Access, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and made the Thanksgiving after Communion. “Sin’s Round” reflects this mindset. Strict Calvinists believe that righteousness is only imputed to the Christian soul, and no work of sanctification actually takes place – one is always a miserable sinner, just a redeemed and not a damned one. No Christian is any better than any other – they are all worthy of damnation, but by God’s grace some of them are predestined are not heading to hell. Catholics would allow room for the transformation of the soul, but penitence and confession for sin were a regular part of a holy life. Herbert’s not a Calvinist or a Catholic, but in his pentitential thinking he is not far from either of them.
I have to confess that I do not dwell on my sins much. Perhaps I am so convicted of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that I have to believe that God’s efforts with me are not entirely without worth. As an old, liberated slave is supposed to have said, “Thank God Almighty I am free! I ain’t what I oughta be, but I ain’t what I used to be. Thank God Almighty!” That’s what I feel like. So I know that I am not perfect, and that there is work to be done. I have done some pretty horrible things in the past, and where possible I have sought to make amends, except when to have done so would harm others. Now I look back on it and I do not worry about it, but instead focus on what I can do now to serve others and make myself a worthwhile vessel of God’s witness and grace. I spend time on my knees, but I also get up and try to convey the gospel of Christ in word and deed. I confess, again, that I still make mistakes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.10).