An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Eleven: Monday after the Third Sunday of Advent
The H. Scriptures I
Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck ev’ry letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify all pain.
Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,
That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art heav’n’s Lidger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.
Thou art joy’s handsel: heav’n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev’ry mounter’s bended knee.
So as it turns out I missed two days last week – Thursday,when I was busy graduating from the University of London, and Saturday, when I was back in Crete furiously trying to get ready for the Third Sunday of Advent. I’m back now!
Herbert wrote two sonnets about the Holy Scriptures – or, rather to the Holy Scriptures, as the Bible is addressed directly, in the first line, and again in the enjambment on line 10. Curiously, he also addresses “Ladies” to pay attention to the Bible as a “glass” or mirror – which suggests that Herbert believes women to be concerned with looking at their reflection. I doubt one should read much more into the personification of the Bible – it remains a book, and not God itself made paper and ink, except that it functions as a means of grace that leads to God. That is more than enough!
The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. There are two unusual words. In line 11 we find “Lidger”. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that this is an old word for an ambassador, in this case to the foreign states of death and hell. In line 13 we read “handsel” which is an archaic term meaning, according to Merriam-Webster:
1 : a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck especially at the beginning of a new year
2 : something received first (as in a day of trading) and taken to be a token of good luck
3a : a first installment : earnest money
b : earnest, foretaste
The description of the Bible as “honey” calls to mind the words of Psalm 81.16: “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat: and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Herbert lived in a time before the slave-economy trade in cane sugar had emerged in the Caribbean, so honey was the sweetest thing that he would have experienced.
The first few lines are a wealth of positive metaphors. The Holy Scriptures are
- sweet honey
- a salve for grief
- a pain-killer
- a health enhancer
- a means to eternal life
- a mass of strange delights
- a mirror
- a well that washes away sin even as it shows it
- an ambassador from heaven working against hell and death
- a first installment on joy
- heaven laying flat
The last image is interesting, because he is clearly thinking of a Bible lying open to be read.
Herbert here reads like a proper Protestant, in that he finds in the Holy Scriptures a coherent and necessary text for the good of humanity. Historical criticism of the Bible was a century and a half away, and so he would not have been bothered with the contradictions and tensions that we moderns are all too familiar with. While knowing who the human authors were (or who tradition said they were), he generally accepted God as the true author.
All his poems have biblical allusions, and sometimes seems like concatenations of such, although more often he builds on an allusion in an imaginative way. Herbert himself would have known many versions of the Bible. He was fluent in Latin and Greek, and wrote poetry in those languages, so he would have been familiar with the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament. Hebrew scholarship was well established at Cambridge when he was there as a student and a don, and given his linguistic skills I would be surprised if he had not studied some of that language and had encountered the Hebrew Bible.
The English Translation we know as the King James Version (“KJV”) was produced in his lifetime, by 1611; indeed, he undoubtedly knew some of the translators. He himself would have been brought up with two earlier translations – the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 (revised 1572), which was used by the Church of England, and the Geneva Bible (1557/1560). Before he died the Geneva Bible translation was arguably the most popular, especially because of the extensive commentary and notes written by English Calvinists in exile in Geneva during the reign of Mary I. James VI & I of Scotland and England made sure that his translation did not have such notes, even while stealing some of the more vigorous wording of the Geneva Bible. It is not obvious to me which English translation Herbert is thinking of in his many allusions – it is probably the case that it is all of them.
Herbert has a more simple relationship with scripture than I do. Part of that is because I live in an era in which I cannot ignore the truth of much historical scholarship. I have an awareness of the complexity of the writing, preservation, and redaction of these texts that Herbert did not. I see a certain kind of coherency in the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, but it is a coherence that incorporates multiple viewpoints, diverse voices, paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions. Problems in scripture is not a feature of our ignorance, but of our knowledge derived from the past 230 years of painstaking research.
That said, I revel in all of this. I find that the Bible is an incredible collection of inspired texts. Even when it is wrong, or encapsulates a patriarchal slave-owning culture from which I recoil, I find that through it God speaks words of liberation. My own perspective cannot be characterized by any of the parties one might find in churches – Anglo-Catholic, or Liberal, or Progressive, or Evangelical, or Broad – but grows out of view influenced by post-colonial theory, Black theology, Womanist theology, and an engagement with Indigenous scholars and activists still fighting the legacy of the theft of land, genocide, and ongoing attempts at assimilation by colonial powers. For me Jesus is essentially a colonised Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power with the consent of the collaborationist leadership. If the historical Jesus is to mean anything, if we are going to take seriously the idea that Jesus was born at a particular time and place in a particular body, then we need to grapple with why Jesus lived when he did and what it meant that the powers of the time killed him. We cannot simply abstract Jesus into a personal Lord and Saviour who died just for me, and whose death and resurrection leaves me unchanged to carry on in the world as before. Rather, we must see in the birth of Jesus the one who inaugurates the time when God, as his mother says in Luke 1,
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
I cannot ask Herbert to show that perspective in his poetry – that is to make a demand of a 17th century gentleman that would be proper to someone of our own time. However, we might still admire his faith and his poetic skill. At the same time, it might be wise of us to observe his own placement in time – as a privileged man seeking position in the courts of power, eventually turning to a more humble position in the Church of England before dying an early death. Where did the wealth come that supported him through his studies? What did he hope for in the Kingdom of England? How did this relate to the kind of poetry he wrote? I hope that I might enter some of this into future reflections.
Tomorrow we will look at the second of the two sonnets entitled The H. Scriptures.