Form and Content: “Trinity Sunday”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Eighteen: Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent

To demonstrate that Herbert was not a true Puritan, one need only look at his poems on feast days. He wrote about Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and, in today’s poem, Trinity Sunday. Radical Puritans held that the Church calendar was a creation of human beings, not being found in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was born, but the date is nowhere specified. Therefore, abolish Christmas. Celebrate every Sunday as a Sunday of the Resurrection, and do not get all caught up with pointless arguments about the right day for Easter, with its confusing ties to new moons and the Spring Equinox.

But that was not Herbert. He accepted the Church calendar as it was, and in theory used it to help form the piety of his congregation. Here is what he wrote on the theme of Trinity Sunday:

Trinity Sunday

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.

As you can see, it is a short poem of three triplets with the rhyme pattern of AAA BBB CCC, and eight syllables in each line. Each triplet, especially the first, suggests Trinitarian action on the poet, line by line. Thus, in the first stanza, creation from mud is associated with the Father, redemption with the Son, and sanctification with the Spirit. In the second, purgation is the work of the Son, confession is made to to the Father, and the effort to strive to sin no more is only possible through the Spirit. The third triplet is less easily classified, although it may be that the Spirit enriches the poet body and soul, the gifts of faith hope and love (from 1 Corinthians 13 “these things remain”) are from the Father, and the sense of “run, rise, rest” is to be with the resurrected Jesus. That said, I am not sure even I buy that analysis. Perhaps Herbert is deliberately blurring the Trinitarian action, thus pushing the reader towards seeing the unity of action.

The poem is no longer than it should be. It is a prayer whose structure repeats content we already know, and arguably its significance is in that structure.

Like yesterday’s poem, this also has a counterpart with the same name in W, which as you may recall, is an earlier manuscript of the collection that became The Temple, perhaps written in Herbert’s own hand. It follows the poem above, so there are two with the same name in W. In the end, Herbert seems to have decided against the second poem being preserved. Here it is:

Trinity Sunday (from W)

He that is one,
Is none.
Two reacheth thee
In some degree.
Nature and Grace
With Glory may attain thy Face.
Steel and a flint strike fire,
Wit and desire
Never to thee aspire,
Except life catch and hold those fast.
That which belief
Did not confess in the first Thief
His fall can tell,
From Heaven, through Earth, to Hell.
Let two of those alone
To them that fall,
Who God and Saints and Angels loose at last.
He that has one,
Has all.

This is a whole lot more obscure than the other poem, and I am not sure I really understand what Herbert was getting at. But let’s have a go.

Who is the “he”? The Father, perhaps? The soul of a human being? What is Herbert trying to say in stating that “He that is one / is none”? That no man is an island, perhaps, that humanity needs God, I suppose. Or is he stating some thing ontological, that God, who is one, is beyond being, and so is no thing? “Thee” must be God, but who are the two that “reachest thee”? Nature and Grace, one would suppose, but then in the next line he suggests that with “Grace” he may attain the Face of God – the beatific vision – is that not three?

Well, it goes on in this opaque state, and enters some kind of Miltonesque world with the fall of angels to Hell. I am sure that one could unravel exactly what Herbert is getting at, but the poem is not in the plain language that the poet usually uses. I suspect that, while he thought it a lovely compact statement meditating on Trinity Sunday, that concluded that it was not worthy of preservation, and so did not make it into the later final manuscript known as B and the published version of 1633.

This is the great danger of Trinitarian theology – that in the attempt to explain it, one falls into confusion, heresy, or obscurity, if not all three at once. As an orthodox Christian I am a Trinitarian, but I would happily say that while the content of salvation is in Trintarian form, it is not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity for salvation (however one conceives of salvation). While contemplation of the Holy Trinity may bring one into closer communion with the Divine, God’s grace does not depend on any person’s ability to explain the internal workings of the Divine. In salvation history we see God acting in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Source of all Being, the Incarnate Word, and the Breath of God upon us.

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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