An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Six: Saturday after the First Sunday of Advent
My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is man, to whose creation
All things are in decay?
For man is ev’ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
Reason and speech we only bring;
Parrots may thank us if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.
Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides;
Each part may call the furthest brother,
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.
Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
His eyes dismount the highest star;
He is in little all the sphere;
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.
For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav’n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head;
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.
Each thing is full of duty;
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguished, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above, our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat!
More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.
This is a complex poem, for each of the nine stanzas of six lines has a different rhythm scheme, with one exception:
Stanza 1: ABCCBA.
Stanza II: ABCABC.
Stanza III: ABCBAC.
Stanza IV: ABACCB.
Stanza V: AABCBC.
Stanza VI: ABACCB
Stanza VII: ABBCAC
Stanza VIII: ABCABC (the repeat)
Stanza IX: ABABCC
As well, each stanza contains three different iambic meters, which create a metrical chiasm, a symmetry around the centre of each stanza.
The structure of the poem demonstrates double complexity in meter and rhyme. This duality serves the theme of Herbert’s poem.
I once took a course at the Toronto School of Theology back around 1987 simply because of the oddness of the name: Ante-Nicene Anthropology, Part II. As is turns out, the course was all about the theology and anthropology of Origen, arguably the first systematic theologian and the first real biblical critic in the Christian world, way back in the third century. Origen should be a canonized saint but he had a few odd ideas derived from Neoplatonic thought and his reading of scripture. For example, he believed that the soul and the body were both created at separate times. He also believed that all creation would be saved. It was claimed that he literally made himself a eunuch for God, castrating himself; this may just be slander, as it is pretty extreme. He ran afoul of influential authorities, namely the Bishop of Alexandria, by being ordained a priest in Palestine although he was from Alexandria and they claimed authority over him. Finally, where he did not go down certain soon-to-be-labelled heretical paths, some of his disciples did, becoming Arians, and the master was condemned for the sins of his followers.
The key learning I took away from the course, taught by Fr John Egan SJ of blessed memory, is that anthropology is theology and vice-versa. What you think about humanity will influence your thinking about God, and what you think about God will influence your opinions on humanity.
What is striking about today’s poem is that Herbert celebrates the wonderful creation of the human being. Not for him is there Neoplatonic disparaging of the body, as some lesser mode of being than the immortal soul. Likewise one does not get the sense that the body is suspect, prone to temptation and a too frequent occasion for sin. He does not quite say with Walt Whitman, “I sing the body electric” but he is heading there.
A couple of things may be a bit disconcerting for a 21st century reader. First, Herbert is, of course, a 16th century male in England, and so he uses the term “man” to represent all of humanity; presumably anything written in the poem would apply to a woman as much as a man. That said, he probably idealises the human being as male, much as da Vinci did in his famous sketch of the Vitruvian Man. Second, he puts “man” at the apex of creation and at the centre of it. In an era which has been much affected by Darwinism and the knowledge that human activity is damaging the ecology, this assumption of prestige might sound arrogant.
I suspect Herbert here is, if anything, trying to challenge the distaste the body that shows up in certain pieties of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. And so he celebrates it, picking up on the idea of God in Christ dwelling in human beings just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. This gives Herbert the image of humanity as “a stately dwelling”.
“Man” surpasses the rest of creation, in Herbert’s thought. Humanity is like “a tree, yet bears more fruit;” and following Aristotle, is “a beast” but with “reason and speech.” The body is symmetrical (on the outside at least) which gives to in a kind of beauty. At the centre of the Ptolomaic universe, humanity is in accord with the herbs that help that cure the ills of the flesh. Being at the centre, God appears to have crafted night and day, the oceans and the waters above and in the ground, all to our benefit. Only in the penultimate verse – the one that is a repeat – do we get a note of the arrogance of humanity that “treads down that which doth befriend him.”
Herbert uses the curious image of a human being one world “and another to attend him.” Ann Pasternak Slater notes that he states this in The Country Parson:
Thy hands both made us, and also made us Lords of all thy creatures; giving us one world in our selves, and another to serve us.
The final stanza invites God to swell in the human being, and begs that the Divine “afford us so much wit, / That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee, / And both thy servants be.”
I would like to think that were Herbert to write the poem today he would eschew the masculine imagery, and perhaps play down the supremacy of humanity over creation. We exercise a mastery over the world that is both greater and more fraught with danger than he could ever had imagined 400 years ago. We are no longer in a Ptolomaic universe, but a Copernican one, in which we are not the centre of anything except in a subjective way. As amazing a creature as we are, we are equally fascinated by the mysteries and wonders of other living things.
And yet, in the end, we will praise the Creator, not only for ourselves, but for all things, and while we may see ourselves more as stewards than lords, we still seek to serve God and each other. The poem has a technical mastery that serves its theme well, and as we consider ourselves “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14), may we be deflected to the Creator who allows us to praise God in such a manner.