An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Friday after the Third Sunday of Advent
My apologies for not getting this out yesterday! Thursday was a busy day, and by the time I turned my mind to completing this post, I was beyond exhausted. Perhaps this is a reminder that, in any retreat, accumulated tiredness tends to appear. I know that when I’ve been at some retreat centre or monastery/convent I invariably find myself sleeping more than usual – and this is okay!
So, on to today’s poem. In printed editions of The Temple it follows after yesterday’s The Thanksging.
I have consider’d it, and find
There is no dealing with thy mighty passion:
For though I die for thee, I am behind;
My sins deserve the condemnation.
O make me innocent, that I
May give a disentangled state and free:
And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy,
For by thy death I die for thee.
Ah! was it not enough that thou
By thy eternal glory didst outgo me?
Couldst though not grief’s sad conquests me allow,
But in all vict’ries overthrow me?
Yet by confession will I come
Into the conquest. Though I can do nought
Against thee, in these I will overcome
The man, who once against thee fought.
The text of The Temple is based on two manuscripts and the first printed edition. The first manuscript, known as W contains both English and Latin poems, and some or all of it may be in Herbert’s own hand. It has only 69 of the 164 poems in the final version of the collection, and it is manifestly an earlier version, which some date to 1618. The second manuscript is known as B, and it appears to be a fair copy of the collection which Herbert bequeathed to Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding. Thus, it dates from no later than 1633. The printed edition of 1633 was set up from B, and where it differs from the manuscript it does so to tidy up the usual errors or omissions. For more information see Ann Pasternak Slater’s “Textual Note” on pp. lvi-lviii of The Complete English Works.
I say all of this to note that in W this poem has the name The Second Thanks-giving, and likewise follows of The Thanksgiving. So what is the meaning of the title The Reprisal? Why might Herbert have changed it?
The Oxford English Dictionary presents the uses of reprisal as a noun as the following:
I. Senses relating to retaliation.
1. a. The action, practice, or right of seizing by force foreign nationals or their goods, in retaliation for loss or injury caused by them or by their compatriots. Now historical.
b. An act or instance of seizing the subjects or property of a hostile nation in retaliation for loss or injury. Formerly also with †of. Now historical.
2. a. An act or instance of retaliation for any (alleged) loss or injury; (International Law) a measure, such as a boycott or embargo, taken by one state against another in retaliation for allegedly illegal or unjustified conduct.
b. The action or practice of retaliating for any loss or injury; revenge.
II. Senses relating to taking, taking back, or returning more generally.
3. a. The taking of something as a prize or reward; an instance of this. Obsolete. rare . . .
III. Senses relating to repetition or recurrence;
8. A separate occasion of doing something.
A reader of the past century or two might think that the main sense of the title is “reprise” as if Herbert is doing the poem over again. However, that third sense of the word from the OED dates only to well over a century after his lifetime. The older sense, as a seizing of goods or persons in retaliation for some wrong, was the current one in his day. So Herbert’s new title is suggestive that a wounded party seizes something from the offender. This sense, I think, transforms the meaning of the poem. Who is doing the reprisal? I suggest that it is God, not the poet or the persona speaking in the poem.
The persona in The Thanksgiving worries about how best to give thanks, to honour the sacrifice offered by Jesus upon the cross. He prattles away, noting that in anything he might do – grief, blood, “scourged, flouted, boxed, sold” – God goes before him (“preventest me”). He contemplates ignoring the Passion and just focusing on the glory of God. He treats his difficulty of responding as a trial of strength, and “Surely I will revenge me on thy love.” He then makes great claims about what he will do, the boastful quality which is evident, and finally will turn the Ars Amatoria (Ovid’s first century work on the “Art of Love”) into a sacred discipline. But at the end, despite seeking victory, he knows he cannot deal with the Passion.
The Reprisal picks up where he left off. The only way the poet can have any sort of victory is to acknowledge that Christ’s victory on the cross is his as well; that the ways in which Christ condemns his sins and overthrows his presumption is the only triumph to be allowed him. God seizes the body and soul of the believer who confesses – both sin and faith – in response to the injury of sin and presumptuous pride.
What Herbert is tapping into here is an understanding of what Emmanuel Levinas in his book Totality and Infinity (1962) described as Infinity – that which transcends us. We can have an idea that there is something other than ourselves, but we will never really know it. Thus, in ethical terms, we have an infinite responsibility to the other person. This is a kind of height. Through language and various types of ethical systems we seek to diminish this responsibility, to make it rational, and avoid having to always feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the stranger. But we know that these justifications never suffice; once we feel secure in them, we know we have left the ethical realm for self-satisfaction.
Levinas argued that in the modern era one knows God as a deflection to that inherent responsibility. As an observant Orthodox Jew he used the Talmud as a means of working out how to act ethically in daily life, and he would direct Christians and Muslims to use their scriptures and liturgies in the same way. Ethical systems had their place, but they could never be the last word of a subject. The transcendence of the divine, found in the other person, goes before the human being, and calls to each person before they even know they are called.
Today we wrestle with what the ethical. We know that there is climate change, and we must act, but we hesitate because of our own addiction to carbon based fuels and the comforts they give us. We offer arguments fro the basis of economics, or fairness in cost among the nations, and slide towards calamity. We know that poor people in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and India/Bangladesh will suffer disproportionately, but we seem to be okay with that. I suspect that my children and their descendants (if there be any – no grandchildren yet) will be fine, given the privilege they have inherited as well educated, “First-World” citizens living in democracies. I can become very complacent.
So God must occupy me, seize me as a reprisal, and overwhelm that which struggles against the divine call to me.