Through Lent With George Herbert
Tuesday In Holy Week
Today’s poem is one of George Herbert’s most popular, appearing in over thirty hymnals. In my not-so-humble opinion, it should be sung to the tune by J.D. Jones named Gwalchmai, which is named either after a village in Anglesey, a 12th century court poet in Gwynedd, Wales, or the Welsh version of the legendary knight known in English as Gawain (there is also a football team in Wales with that name, but the tune was written long before it came into existence). Gwalchmai‘s meter is 7676D, which simply means it is 7676 doubled. As there are seven 7676 stanzas in the poem, this means there is one too many (or one too few). The hymnals solve this by dropping the sixth stanza, thus making three 7676D. Here’s the full poem:
KIng of Glory, King of Peace,
I will love thee:
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.
Thou hast granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar’d me.
Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
Thou didst clear me;
And alone, when they replied,
Thou didst hear me.
Sev’n whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Thou grew’st soft and moist with tears,
And when Justice call’d for fears,
Small it is, in this poor sort
To enrol thee:
Ev’n eternity is to short
To extol thee.
The poem is more complex than it might appear at first glance, with it’s simple rhymes, many just being “thee” rhyming with “thee”. Arnold Stein, in George Herbert’s Lyrics notes a tension between the inadequacy of the love that the poet promises to offer and the love already received from God. The poet seeks to love God for all time, and to praise with the very best he has, the cream of the milk. But this praise only goes so far – his own heart – and not into heaven, and the praise is ultimately small, poor, and short lived. The principle of Justice should be creating fear, because the poet is aware of his shortcomings and deserved punishment – but God in Christ disagrees, and grants salvation instead. Thus, between the eternal love of God and the temporal love of the human there is a yawning gap, and even Herbert’s obsessive artistry cannot bridge it. Ironically, grief and suffering may lead to hope, as in Pilgrimage yesterday, but praise is not like that, as Stein points out; it only illuminates one’s limitations and God’s mercy.
There is a trend in many churches to begin worship services with fifteen minutes of what are commonly called “praise choruses“. These are usually led by charismatic singers with a band behind them, emulating pop music, only instead of love for a girl or a boy it is directed to God, and especially God as Jesus. The lyrics are often projected onto a large screen so that people can sing along without the need for hymn books, although the band and amplified singer can sometimes drown out the congregation. The lyrics are simple, the music can be repetitive, and it often builds up to a climax setting the scene for a preacher to give a message. I cannot deny the power of it all. It is very accessible, largely because it is simple, very positive, and tends to use the language of “you” and “I” instead “God” and “the church” and so emphasises relations rather than doctrine. This is not dissimilar to what Herbert does in this poem.
That said, modern praise music can be profoundly individualistic, it can seem to be disconnected with the world outside the doors of the church, and it has a limited range of scriptural texts and themes – not much about lament, the subversiveness of the gospel, or the transformation of the world in Christ. It is disconnected from the the traditions of the church. It does not offer much for the seasons of the church. I do not mind some of it, but I could not deal with a steady diet of it – I need music from the best in English hymnody, as well as music from Europe, the African-American traditions, modern hymns plumbing the depths of sacred scripture, and simple songs from Taizé and Iona.
The interest in Herbert is not so much theological, as it is spiritual and artistic. It transcends the failing of much of contemporary praise music in that it has a multitude of styles and moods, and there is more going on than what one sees at first glance. Herbert struggles to be “plain” and accessible, so that the simplest of his parishioners at Bemerton might gain something, but he cannot stop from using his skills. Quite correctly, he brings his best to God, and while it may never be enough to bridge the gap for God, it is a blessing for the rest of us.