An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Nineteen: Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
As we approach Christmas we should turn to praise. Here is another poem named Antiphon, by which Herbert means a chorus sung by two choirs – in this case, of “Men” and “Angels”.
Chor. Praised be the God of love,
Men. Here below,
Angels. And here above:
Cho. Who hath dealt his mercies so,
Ang. To his friend,
Men. And to his foe;
Cho. That both grace and glory tend
Ang. Us of old,
Men. And us in th’ end.
Cho. The great shepherd of the fold
Ang. Us did make,
Men. For us was sold.
Cho. He our foes in pieces brake;
Ang. Him we touch;
Men. And him we take.
Cho. Wherefore since that he is such,
Ang. We adore,
Men. And we do crouch.
Cho. Lord, thy praises should be more.
Men. We have none,
Ang. And we no store.
Cho. Praised be the God alone,
Who hath made of two folds one.
Ann Pasternak Slater (p. 434) makes the technical note:
The form of this poem is also ingenious. The fifth line of each stanza provides the first rhyme of the next (thus, stanza 1 : ababcb; stanza 2: cdcded; stanza 3: efefgf). In the last stanza the aberrant fifth line is amalgamated with the sixth to create total harmony: ghghg. Metrically, this final line also amalgamates two expected short lines sung by Men and Angels, making of two folds one. (All the pairs of short lines scan ‘ ˘ ‘ followed by ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ; [The last line] combines the two, making ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘, the same metre as the majority of the Chorus’s lines.)
This was eventually put to music by Benjamin Britten, and you can find a recording of it below, but I don’t think it is his finest work.
There’s an interesting contrast between the angels and “men”. Humans are below, conscious of God’s foes, that grace and glory will come to them “in th’end”, that Christ was “sold” for them, that we adore in kneeling and take Christ in the bread of Communion, and that we are incapable of sufficient praise. Angels are above, conscious of God’s friends, know God’s grace and glory “as of old”, of God as Creator, close enough to touch God, simply adore, and do not store up praise but simply offer it at once. While the praise is of God, it comes across through God’s relations with God’s creatures – the eternal angels and the ephemeral humans. As Pasternak Slater notes, the two species combine in the merged fifth/sixth line of the last stanza.
Praise is simple and direct, and Herbert does this in this poem. As we approach Christmas may our praise be likewise.