An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Twenty:
George Herbert wrote a poem named Christmas and so we will close our Advent retreat with it, anticipating the late evening Christ Mass and the celebration on Christmas Day.
All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inn I could find,
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging then a rack or grave.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light hours.
Then we will chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt suns look sadly.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my music shine.
The poem is evidently in two parts. The first is a sonnet with a standard rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and the second is ten rhyming couplets.
The sonnet starts in the first-person, the persona confessing that he is all after pleasure. He rides his horse, but tired, arrives at an inn. Instead of finding worldly pleasures, he finds Christ, who is waiting him as he will inevitably realise that pleasure brings only grief, while he, Jesus, brings relief. That takes us to the mid-point of the sonnet. The second half plays with the fact that the traveler sought a lodging, but now he invites his Lord to lodge in him. Reflecting on his dark soul, Jesus who is the light of the world will enlighten it, just as it “stole into a manger” in the Incarnation on Christmas.
Building on the reference to Christmas, Herbert recalls the shepherd’s praise (although the Biblical witness is that the angels sang, not the shepherds!). He slides sideways by identifying his soul as a shepherd, keeping watch over “thoughts, and words, and deeds.” These “sheep” graze on the word and drink God’s grace. Then both sheep and shepherds sing. I’ve not heard shepherds sing – I assume they are as good or bad as anyone – but the idea of sheep singing is interesting, since they usually just bleat or croak. But these are Herbert’s sheep, so his thoughts, words, and deeds are better than most, I suppose.
In the northern hemisphere Christmas comes at the winter solstice, and so Herbert is aware of how dark the days can be at this time. This is perhaps why the shepherd and sheep “chide the sun” for giving way to night. The poet says he will seek a sun, who is none other than the light of the world, the Son of God.
Christmas was a somewhat different celebration in Herbert’s time. It would have been more of a religious ceremony, and the commercialism and frantic purchasing of gifts that we moderns associate with December had not yet emerged. There may have been some gift giving, although that may have been more the type that reinforced legal relations, such as landlord and tenant, and not so much about children. There would have been no Santa Claus – that tradition was still about Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Nieuw Amsterdam, awaiting Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” to free it from its Dutch origins. Father Christmas as we know him had not yet appeared – that seems to have happened first in reaction to the abolition of Christmas under the Puritan Commonwealth. There was undoubtedly a great feast on Christmas day with singing, dancing, and in great houses, dramatic performances such as masques.
It is perhaps in that context, then, that we should hear the shepherd and the sheep singing, and the light of Christ shining when the sun goes down. Herbert approved of the old customs in moderation, so while he probably looked askance at public drunkenness and gross consumption of food – all after pleasures – he would have smiled upon public and family gatherings. So perhaps we should imagine this being sung at the end of a great Christmas meal, when with stomachs full and minds a little softened by wine, we turn our souls to the reason we feasted in the first place.
Thank you for joining me for part or all of these twenty days of an Advent Retreat with George Herbert. As you will have discerned by now, I am no great student of English – I have great trouble scanning lines of poetry and figuring out where the accents are. However, despite my limitations, I welcome the opportunity to read these old poems and dog deep. God bless you, and may the one who was born at Christmas brighten these dark days, and may the Holy Spirit empower you to shine as well.