An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Monday after the First Sunday of Advent
To start this retreat let’s begin with Herbert’s Discipline.
Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
To a full consent.
Not a word or look
I affect to own,
But by book,
And thy book alone.
Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.
Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.
Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
And can shoot,
And can hit from far.
Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.
Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.
The title might make the reader think that it is a celebration of God’s discipline, understood as punishment, but it is not. My sense is that the word “discipline” had a pluriform meaning in the early 17th century, as it does now. As a verb or as a noun we might understand it to be the punishment from a teacher to a wayward student; hence, it may involve a beating with a rod or a strap, on the hand or one’s backside. In its simpler sense, though, it may merely be the becoming a disciple, adopting the rigors of training in order to master a field of study. This kind of discipline may be challenging, sometimes costly, but it is not a punishment, merely the price of admission to a guild.
We do not know when Herbert wrote this poem, but that doesn’t have to stop us from speculating and interpolating biographical detail into its meaning. We know enough of Herbert’s biography to imagine that he may be expressing in this poem his exasperation with disappointment. Most of his adult career was focused on finding an important position in government, perhaps even at court, hopes that ended when James VI and I of Scotland and England died in 1625. He did not intend for a career in the church, and delayed ordination until the age of thirty-six; in all likelihood never expected he to be the incumbent priest of a small parish outside Salisbury. As well, he had health issues, including tuberculosis, which led to his early death at the age of thirty-nine after only three years of ordained life.
Whatever Herbert was thinking, a close reading on the poem and see what its internal structure reveals. Regarding the poetic meter, Ann Pasternak Slater notes that it is
metrically interesting, each stanza alternating between an urgent trochaic trimeter catalectic ( ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ) in the long lines slowed by a molossus ( ‘ ‘ ‘ ) in the short third line. (George Herbert, The Complete English Works, p. 482)
Yeah, I need a dictionary to figure out what she is saying, too.
- So, the stanzas are the four line sections, with two long lines, one short third line, but then another long line (although none of them are very long.
- If something is trochaic then it is made up of trochees (of course). A trochee is “a metrical foot consisting of one long syllable followed by one short syllable or of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable” (Merriam-Webster). You are probably more familiar with iamb, which consists of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable; it is sometimes suggested that English is naturally iambic. A foot in English poetry usually consists of two syllables, but sometimes, following Greek and Latin poetry, may have three.
- Trimeter means there are three metrical feet. Shakespeare usually wrote in iambic pentameter – five feet of iambs. Herbert is not Shakespeare, and so plays with a wide variety of poetic forms.
- Catalectic indicates that the last foot is missing a final syllable.
So, putting this all together, Pasternak Slater, in saying that the first, second, and fourth lines are each a trochaic trimeter catalectic, she means that each line has five syllables ending on an accent, represented symbolically by ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ . We can see this in the first line: Thrów awáy thy ród.
- Finally, a molossus is just a foot of three long syllables: ‘ ‘ ‘ : O my God, It does indeed interrupt the trochees. In terms of content the third line sets up the fourth, and the third and fourth either contrast with the first two lines, or expands upon those first two. Finally, the rhyme structure is simple enough, ABAB, CDCD, etc.
In the first few stanzas the poet pleads with God to “Throw away thy rod . . . thy wrath.” The speaker in the poet does not want God to act in anger, but to recognise that they have already turned to God. The poet is all too aware of how far they fall short of the glory of God.
Then, in the fifth stanza – just after the midpoint of the poem – he introduces the figure of Love – capital “L” Love. Love will remove love, and is described as having a bow and a “man of war.” There is some connection here to Cupid/Eros, who shoots arrows of romantic love, although we are not to imagine this Love as being a chubby boy with wings or someone whose projectiles result in romantic love between humans, but between God and human. Really, Herbert here imagines Love as someone quite different. Not the image at left, but more like the one on the right.
Indeed, not even God escapes this Love. Herbert writes, “That which wrought on thee/Brought thee low” – a reference to the fact that in love God emptied the Word into human form and death on the cross. The poet desires that this same kind of love work on him. The final stanza restates the first and generalizes this desire for Love’s arrows all humankind.
Perhaps, then, this is another kind of discipline, a discipline of love. It has an erotic dimension, not in some fetishized way, but as an ascetic practice that makes the “stony hearts” bleed.
In my own life punishment or the fear of it has never featured very greatly; perhaps that speaks to the privilege that I as an upper-class “white” male enjoy. I have never felt the whip to be much of a goad to action, but the promise of recognition or simply the pleasure of achieving something has always been more influential. For much of my life that manifested itself as being competitive, as I attempted to climb the career ladder, such as it was in the Anglican Church of Canada. Now it mostly shows itself in a desire to be of use to others, whether in the parish in which I work, to my family, to the church in general, or the community in which I live. I like to tell myself that this is more of a discipline of love, which is itself grounded in the love of God. The discipline is kenotic – as Christ is poured out from divinity to humanity, from life to death, so I am called to let go of things to which I am attached in order to be able to give of myself completely.
Of course, Love has its erotic dimension as well, which Herbert would have appreciated. C. S. Lewis famously differentiated between “eros” and “agapē” in his book The Four Loves (1960), and argued that only the latter was divine love. However, in both the pre-Christian Jewish-Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint) and in the New Testament the division is not so obvious – divine love is described using both terms. And it may be that Herbert sees the Love that makes a stony heart bleed is a positive thing – that one wants to change, that one will do something against one’s predisposition for love of another, whether a spouse, a child, or God. In terms of carrots and sticks, Gods wrath is a stick, but God’s Love is a carrot and is more powerful.
“Love needs work on me.” I am not fully there, but “my heart’s desire / Unto thine is bent”. “Though I fail . . Though I halt in pace / Yet I creep / To the throne of grace”. I’ve never been big on the wrath of God, and I was not raised to understand God as a wrathful judge. I do not see people’s misfortunes and automatically think that God is judging them (although I do believe the world is set up in a way such that evil deeds will usually cause an evildoer’s downfall). My God has always been a loving God who gives of God’s own self from creation to redemption and everything in between. So the discipline I desire is that of Love.