The Well-Tempered Poet

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Nine: Wednesday after the Second Sunday of Advent

In The Temple this poem follows immediately after Love (1) and Love (2), and like the two previous ones, this also has a partner with the same name. Both this poem and The Temper (2) have stanzas of four lines each, although the rhyme scheme is slightly different. Today’s poem has the rhyme schme ABAB CDCD etc., and begins with a line of ten syllables, then two lines of eight syllables each, and finishes one of four syllables.

A very good analysis of the poem is given by Tyler Nunley here.

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav’ns, or more,
Sometimes I peer above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world’s too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.

Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
A crumb of dust from heav’n to hell?
Will great God measure with a wretch?
Shall he thy stature spell?

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there:
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the music better.

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’rywhere.

“Losing my religion”

Temper has multiple meanings. One meaning persists in the English language as some state of peace and balance, which can be lost when provoked. Thus when I am angry I am losing my temper. In the Southern United States one might express that as “losing my religion”, which lent itself to the title of the well-known REM song of thirty years ago.

Temperance movements arose in the early 19th century with its goal to moderate the abuse of alcohol. While this eventually led to a demand for abstinence, both in the partaking and in the manufacture and sale of alcohol, originally it was about moderation. This is a meaning that came after Herbert’s time, although he definitely advocated temperance in eating and drinking in The Country Parson.

Tempering is an ancient treatment given to metals. It is a process of heating the near-finished product of made of steel or cast iron so as to give it a bit more springiness and less brittleness. One might temper a metal evenly through the piece, or do it differently over various parts, depending on the requirement for the piece. Tempering can be done at low temperatures or high temperatures.

Finally, in music there is temperament, which means the principle of tuning. Paul Cooper writes (and is quoted in the Wikipedia article on temperament) that “Temperament refers to the various tuning systems for the subdivision of the octave,” the four principal tuning systems being Pythagorean tuning, just intonation, mean-tone temperament, and equal temperament. Temperament tries to create a good compromise between the recognition that notes have a mathematical relationship to each other, and the physical reality that if these relationships are idealized to always be expressed in whole numbers, the shift from one key to another sounds dissonant. On an instrument that covers only one octave or so this is not so much a problem, but on a keyboard or in an orchestra it becomes very much an issue. J. S. Bach celebrated the development of well tempering by producing not one but two books of keyboard exercises in every one of the major and minor keys that one could play on the keyboard.

How Should I Praise Thee Lord?

Herbert starts the poem with this question, and then says it again in somewhat different language. In the second line we get a reference to engraving in steel, which is not tempering steel, but perhaps it is an unconscious connection for the poet. The thing about engraving in steel is that what is engraved is permanent. The third and fourth lines suggest the mutability of Herbert’s feelings, and the danger of making them permanent. The second stanza talks about how sometimes Herbert feels as if he is high in heaven, sometimes not so much, and others in hell (one of those rare Herbertian references to hell). In the next stanza he pleads with God not to have to have such bipolar experiences, and in the fourth he wonders in God accompanies the poet in this expanse. He pleads to stay in the heights of heaven when he dies, and argues for it in that, as a sinner, he would be redeemed and no longer suffer from “hope and fear.” But then he turns from this and surrenders himself to God to be stretched or contracted, as if being tuned. In the last stanza he acknowledges that wherever he is he is in God’s creation and that “Thy power and love, my love and trust, / Make one place ev’rywhere.” In other words, his subjective perception of heaven and hell does not reflect the objective omnipresence of God.

As I grow older and, I pray God, slightly wiser, I hope that whatever my subjective experiences, I can let go of my attachment to them, and simply be attached to the deeper presence of God in my life.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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