An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Sixteen: Monday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Enough with difficult Greek poems, today we return to the sequence near the beginning of The Temple. As with the previous four poems, it deals with the Passion of Christ. For me it raises an important question about Herbert – to what extent did he belong to the High Church party of his day, and how deeply was he influenced by the Puritans?
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
A few comments on potentially difficult words.
- By “philosophers” Herbert undoubtedly refers not only to the folks who are still studied in university today – the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and his contemporary Francis Bacon – but people whom we would now call scientists, who studied mountains and stars, as well as springs (hydrology).
- “Behove” is a variant of “behoove”, which simply means “it is necessary that”.
- “Vice” can also be read as “vise”, an instrument which by pressure holds things in place.
- “Assay” means to analyze something, such as a metal, to determine its content.
- “Abroach” is an adverb or an adjective which means “breached” as in opening up a cask and letting a fluid drain out.
The rhyme scheme is ABABCC etc. There are ten syllables in each line, except the middle one, line 3, which only has eight. This puts a special emphasis upon that line, and redirects the stanza. The first stanza starts off generally talking about the things that claim attention from public intellectuals, but Herbert redirects the focus to Sin and Love. The second verse deals with Sin by depicting Christ as prayer on the Mount of Olives:
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22.39-46
Herbert is obviously riffing on this passage from scripture. Neither Matthew or Mark (or John) have any reference to sweating blood, but interestingly, some early manuscripts of Luke are also missing verse 43-44. Although the addition is of great antiquity, modern textual critics believe that it was no part of the original text of the gospel, so they put it in double brackets (as do many translations). Herbert’s Bible (whether Geneva, Bishop’s, or King James/Authorised) was based on a Greek text that dated from long after when the addition was made, and he would not have known their absences in the older manuscripts (Sinaiticus, now in the British Library, and Vaticanus, in the Vatican, and a host of papyrus manuscripts and ancient witnesses).
The cause of the blood appearing is not indicated in the (added) Biblical passage. Herbert takes it as the effect of sin that Christ is taking on, and on his body it is like a wine press or a torturous vise. He did not have a scientific understanding of the circulatory or nervous systems, but he imagines pain is entering into his body through the veins, resulting in the bloody sweat.
The third stanza deals with Love, and regards the death of Jesus on the cross as a divine example of that “vast, spacious thing.” After his death Jesus is pierced by a soldier, and blood and water flows out (John 19.31-37); this has traditionally been interpreted eucharistically, so Herbert is not being novel here. He refers to it as “juice” and the word “abroach” suggests the body of Jesus is like a wine cask. Herbert describes it as blood for God but wine for him, which underlines the connection to Holy Communion.
After the first-person poems of The Thanksgiving and The Reprisal which is in an impersonal voice addressed to the impersonal third person “who”/”he”/”him”. Only in the last line does the first-person return. This is undoubtedly the most striking thing about the poem – it is like listening to someone speak dispassionately about some important matter, and then suddenly realising just how important it is to the speaker, and why.
Does Herbert here have a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic wine? If he does, he does not specify the nature of the presence. He would not have endorsed transubstantiation, but nor does he seem to be a Calvinist, suggesting that the wine is merely symbolic of Christ’s passion. Scholars argue about the extent to which Herbert tended towards Puritanism or the High Church party. Certainly, following the Restoration in 1660, he was ret-conned into being a proto-Laudian, but in fact he payed little attention to the hierarchy of the church in The Country Parson. He had little time for the Independents, whom he considered schismatics, but the fact was that at the time most Puritans were in the Church of England, and were simply trying to change it. He might be a Zwinglian, like the late Thomas Cranmer, suggesting that it is in the reception of the wine that it becomes the blood of Christ.
Perhaps he follows in the tradition of the short poem that is anonymous, but has been attributed to Elizabeth I and John Donne:
He was the Word that spake it,
he took the bread and brake it,
and what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.
Whatever his precise understanding, it appears for Herbert that the Love of God is shown in the sacrifice once offered by Christ, but it is also conveyed repeatedly in the wine (and the bread) of Holy Communion. This question about the real presence leads me to want to look at The H. Communion. And so we shall, tomorrow.