The Fool in The Temple

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Thirteen: Wednesday after the Third Sunday of Advent

In today’s poem we return to the near beginning of The Temple with The Thanksgiving. This is only the sixth poem in the whole work. The first five are:

The Dedication
The Church-Porch (Peirirrhanterium)
The Altar
The Sacrifice

As the hypertext indicates, I have already written reflections on these. The Thanksgiving follows after the much longer The Sacrifice. The longer poem is in the voice of Jesus, but today’s is in the voice of the poet. It does not have the relentless, driven quality of The Sacrifice, but is composed of rhyming couplets of ten and eight syllables, and has a kind of meandering, start and stop quality. The only odd word is in line 33 – “spittle” – which is just a contraction of “hospital”.

The Thanksgiving

Oh King of grief! (a title strange, yet true,
               To thee of all kings only due)
Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,
               Who in all grief preventest me?
Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store
               That all thy body was one door.
Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?
               ’Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?
               Was such a grief as cannot be.
Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story,
               And side with thy triumphant glory?
Shall thy stokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
               Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower?
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
               Copy thy fair, though bloody hand?
Surely I will revenge me on thy love,
               And try who shall victorious prove.
If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore
               All back unto thee by the poor.
If thou dost give me honour, men shall see,
               The honour doth belong to thee.
I will not marry; or, if she be mine,
               She and her children shall be thine.
My bosom friend, if he blaspheme thy name,
               I will tear thence his love and fame.
One half of me being gone, the rest I give
               Unto some Chapel, die or live.
As for thy passion–But of that anon,
               When with the other I have done.
For thy predestination I’ll contrive,
               That three years hence, if I survive,
I’ll build a spittle, or mend common ways,
               And mend mine own without delays.
Then I will use the works of thy creation,
               As if I used them but for fashion.
The world and I will quarrel; and the year
               Shall not perceive, that I am here.
My music shall find thee, and ev’ry string
               Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
               And prove one God, one harmony.
If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appear,
              If thou hast give’n it me, ’tis here.
Nay, I will read thy book, and never move
               Till I have found therein thy love,
Thy art of love, which I’ll turn back on thee:
               O my dear Saviour, Victory!
Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
               Alas, my God, I know not what.

Archibald Armstrong, Fool to King James VI & I of Scotland and England

Portrait of the Poet as a Fool

The voice might be that of the poet’s, but we already know Herbert too well to think that it is actually his own. He adopts a persona here of a person struggling to figure out how to respond to the suffering and death of Jesus.

The persona is a bit of a fool – he starts off addressing Jesus as “King of grief” but then breaks off to comment on the oddness of the address – a very odd thing to do in a poem. He’s overwhelmed by his own inadequacy to respond, and makes much of it. He contemplates skipping the passion, even though he knows that is not possible. He struggles with the idea of being an imitation of Christ. He suggests that he will give his wealth to the poor. He will deny all honour, except to receive it and then direct one’s attention back to God – kind of like the recipient of an award thanking God. He will not marry – but if does, his wife and children will belong to God. He will abandon his bosom friend if his friend should blaspheme – which suggests that the person speaking isn’t much of a friend. And so it goes on, compounding failure and demonstrating the persona’s shallowness. He revels in God’s love as he discerns it in the Bible, but when, in the final two lines, he returns to the passion of Christ,

Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
Alas, my God, I know not what.

The persona is at a loss to give a proper thanksgiving, despite the title of the poem. The next poem in The Temple, “The Reprisal”, takes up the theme again. Indeed, dealing with this in a more mature way appears to be the theme of the next few poems.

There is something quite subversive in writing a poem as if one is a fool. It is probably really hard to get away with it, but Herbert does.


Ann Pasternak Slater in the “Introduction” to George Herbert: The Complete English Works (New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, 1995; pp. l-li), describes, in a way that is far beyond my analytical skills, what Herbert is achieving with his technique here, and I reproduce it in full:

[Herbert] frequently uses metric harmony and disharmony to mirror spiritual states, as well as drawing on musical imagery for the same ends. Metric disruption is the finest final instance of his art. It is clear from the divergences between the two manuscript versions of his poems that, far from eradicating irregularity, he introduced it when appropriate. In ‘The Thanksgiving’ Herbert meditates on man’s incapacity to deal with the death of Christ: ‘Oh King of Wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,/Who in all grief preventest me?’ In a bitter snapping of the iambic pattern set up at the poem’s beginning, Herbert ironically asks whether he should turn the Crucifixion into something accessible and appealing:

Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story,
And side with thy triumphant glory?
Shall thy strokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower?

Editors gloss ‘skipping’ as ‘omitting’, which is clearly one of its meanings here: should Herbert skip the pain of the Crucifixion and look only on the bright side of man’s gain? But Herbert is also attacking the impulse to trivialize, changing the line from its original version, which was.

Shall I then sing, neglecting thy sad story.

‘Skipping’, the chosen replacement, is interesting for two reasons: because it introduces an image of jaunty triviality sustained in the next lines, and because it fractures the metre in a way ‘neglecting’ did not, reversing the sensitive third foot from an iamb to a trochee

Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thy̆ dólefŭl stór,

The further change of ‘sad’ to ‘doleful’ throws the irregularity into higher relief. The third foot clashes with both its neighbours. Instead of the regular slack/stress alternation of both trochaic and iambic metres, stress is followed by stress, slack by slack (‘síng, skíppĭng, thy̆’). Had Herbert kept ‘sad’, he would simply have lost a slack in mid-line and the aberrant third foot would have gone unnoticed:

Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thý săd stór,

The normal editorial excision of the first edition’s comma after ‘skipping’ robs it of its light-hearted second sense, even though the metric fracture remains.

This kind of analysis is a good reason to go out and actually buy this edition of Hebert. In any case, Pasternak Slater demonstrates that Herbert really did know what he was doing here.

Wrestling with the Cross

In his First Letter to the Corinthians 1.23-24 Paul writes,

we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For many Christians the cross remains problematic. I know that as a young Christian I had little difficulty with the Incarnation, as the idea that the Divine would enter into the world made great sense to me. Likewise I liked the idea of the Resurrection, in which God begins to make all things new. However, the death of Jesus was challenging. Why did Jesus die? I rejected the simplistic idea of substitutionary atonement, because it required a wrathful God that I simply could not accept. Yes, I knew that I had sinned, and that I had fallen short of the glory of God, but I found it hard to believe that those sins deserved being tossed into an eternal lake of burning fire; my God could not be, at the same time, a God of love and a God of such vengeful wrath. I cannot accept such a paradoxical bipolarity in the Divine. And yet, I was just as captivated by the narrative of the passion as anybody, especially as lived out each year in Holy Week. I took solace in the idea that while it is part of Christian dogma that Christ died for our sins, the precise mechanism of how that happens is not specified.

As I meditated on the events of Good Friday, and preached on them annually, I began to see that the early Christians also struggled with the cross. They knew that Jesus had, unexpectedly, been raised from the dead. They also knew that, regardless of whether they had denied Jesus or abandoned him, that they were forgiven. Even Paul, who had persecuted the church, knew that he was forgiven and called to preach the gospel. The experience of the resurrection contained both forgiveness and empowerment, and they knew that it was somehow connected to the death of Jesus. So, to explain it, they looked back at the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (whom Jesus himself probably identified with). They used metaphors such as “ransom” and “expiation”, “sacrifice” and “ransom”. They recalled his words at the Last Supper the night before his death, and whenever they gathered together they became part of Christ’s resurrected body by remembering what he had done.

In time I recognised that Jesus was a colonized Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power. In entering into a world where the incarnate divine is put to death by Rome, God aligns God’s self with those who are oppressed and calls into question the authority of the oppressors. This is the foolishness and stumbling block about which Paul speaks – because the leaders of the Jews were collaborators in their people’s oppression, and the Greeks had likewise made their peace and were just trying to get through the day, happily being distracted by various philosophies that ignored the suffering of slaves and the subject peoples of the empire.

Thus, when we sit at the foot of the cross, we do not simply say, “Well, thanks Jesus, for dying on my behalf, and making sure I go to heaven. I’ll just get on with life, then, eh?” Rather one enters into the passion and death of Christ, and is empowered to be Christ in the world. As the resurrected Jesus says to the disciples in the Gospel according to John, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is the cross which empowered people like Martin Luther King, Jr and Desmond Tutu, and continues to give strength to Christian activists around the world.

There is a place for substitution, in a way. Following the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I believe that ethics is rooted in the transcendent truth that as a human being I have a responsibility to the other person (including you, dear reader), especially when they are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison (Matthew 25). It is an infinite responsibility at which I have failed before I am even aware of it, but it is the basis of ethical action. Thus, I substitute myself for the other, and their needs become mine. The point of the cross, for a Christian, is not that it absolves one from that responsibility, but that it identifies it with the action of God in Christ. If Christ is substituted for me, then I am now substituted with him for the other.

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
This entry was posted in Advent, Poetry and Novels and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Fool in The Temple

  1. Pingback: Seizure in Retaliation | The Island Parson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s