An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Five: Friday after the First Sunday of Advent
O who will show me those delights on high?
Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.
Are holy leaves the Echo then of bliss?
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
Light to the mind : what shall the will enjoy?
But are there cares and business with the pleasure?
Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?
I first came across what is known as Echo verse in W. H. Auden’s long poem The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, written in the depths of the Second World Wat in New York City. The final section is called, appropriately, “Postscript” and it is Ariel’s words to Caliban, left behind on island after everyone else have gone back to Milan. Without printing the whole poem, I note that the last line of each verse has an echo, that of the prompter. Thus:
I can sing as you reply
. . . I
I will sing if you will cry
. . . I
One evaporating sigh
. . . I
This is as simple as it gets.
The inspiration goes back to the story of Narcissus and Echo, best preserved in Latin in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story is told of the nymph Echo who pissed off Juno – never a good thing to do – and is cursed to be only able to say the last word or words that someone else says. She falls in love with Narcissus. She longs to call to him, but is incapable because of the curse. Finally he says, ‘ecquis adest?’ “Who is here?” and she responds ‘adest’ “Is here!”This goes on at some length until she flings herself at Narcissus, but he is repulsed – he is, after, the character after whom “narcissism” comes from, and only loves herself.
By the late 16th century and early 17th century Continental poets and English dramatists were using this effect in their own work, and Herbert is part of that trend.
Each line of the poet is ten syllables long, and the echo is one or two. The effect is of a strange dialogue in which the echo gives an answer.
It is the poet who speaks here, and the echo replies, and is, as it turns out, God. The poet in the first line asks “who will show me those delights on high?” and the echo comes back, “I”. The poet presumes to know the echo as mortal in the second line, but it denies mortality, tells the poet to wait (bide), and over the next few lines identifies itself as being among the “holy” “leaves” of bliss – scripture, probably, where pages might be called leaves (Ann Pasternak Slater, p. 488). There may also be an allusion to the leaves of the trees along the flowing river of the New Jerusalem, and “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22.2); as those leaves are eternal, so are the holy leaves of the poem.
The bliss that is conveyed by the holy leaves are: Light, Joy, and Leisure. These will persevere forever, as the last line suggests (the rhyme would have been there in Herbert’s time).
Herbert is doing a couple of interesting things here. His description of heaven sounds to me as if it is not far from what he experienced at the best moments of his life. This was a life revolving around his home, prayer, and interaction with others, and so it appears will heaven be. We do not have something complex like the painting by Bosch, with St Peter at the gate, demons tugging at us only to be fended off by angels, and an assortment of saints kneeling and standing around the throne – an extension of church, perhaps. For Herbert the description encompasses all aspects of life.
The other thing Herbert does is to find God in the echo of a human voice. Humanity does not expect to find the divine in the reflection of its own voice. recognise. But this is not that much of a stretch. Human beings are made in God’s image, so the reflection of that image speaking may contain something of the divine. The echo, an apparently meaningless, transient artifact of nature, likewise reveals God’s response to humanity’s questions.
We can find the divine in things we say or sing, and in the things we produce, the echos of our nature. We might even find the divine in poetry, even if not hallowed as sacred scripture. While many these days find the divine directly in nature, I personally find it in the other person, in my neighbour, and my obligation to be a neighbour. If we want a foretaste of heaven, we need to be with an other, and see the image of God in that person. We will find God in the unexpected places.