Seizure in Retaliation

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Fourteen:
Friday after the Third Sunday of Advent

A form of reprisal in the original sense.
Commodore Walker’s Action: The Privateer ‘Boscawen’ Engaging a Fleet of French Ships, 23 May 1745
Charles Brooking (1723–1759) from the National Maritime Museum

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.

The Reprisal

       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. Obsoleterare . . .
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.

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The Fool in The Temple

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Thirteen: Wednesday after the Third Sunday of Advent

In today’s poem we return to the near beginning of The Temple with The Thanksgiving. This is only the sixth poem in the whole work. The first five are:

The Dedication
The Church-Porch (Peirirrhanterium)
The Altar
The Sacrifice

As the hypertext indicates, I have already written reflections on these. The Thanksgiving follows after the much longer The Sacrifice. The longer poem is in the voice of Jesus, but today’s is in the voice of the poet. It does not have the relentless, driven quality of The Sacrifice, but is composed of rhyming couplets of ten and eight syllables, and has a kind of meandering, start and stop quality. The only odd word is in line 33 – “spittle” – which is just a contraction of “hospital”.

The Thanksgiving

Oh King of grief! (a title strange, yet true,
               To thee of all kings only due)
Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,
               Who in all grief preventest me?
Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store
               That all thy body was one door.
Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?
               ’Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?
               Was such a grief as cannot be.
Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story,
               And side with thy triumphant glory?
Shall thy stokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
               Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower?
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
               Copy thy fair, though bloody hand?
Surely I will revenge me on thy love,
               And try who shall victorious prove.
If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore
               All back unto thee by the poor.
If thou dost give me honour, men shall see,
               The honour doth belong to thee.
I will not marry; or, if she be mine,
               She and her children shall be thine.
My bosom friend, if he blaspheme thy name,
               I will tear thence his love and fame.
One half of me being gone, the rest I give
               Unto some Chapel, die or live.
As for thy passion–But of that anon,
               When with the other I have done.
For thy predestination I’ll contrive,
               That three years hence, if I survive,
I’ll build a spittle, or mend common ways,
               And mend mine own without delays.
Then I will use the works of thy creation,
               As if I used them but for fashion.
The world and I will quarrel; and the year
               Shall not perceive, that I am here.
My music shall find thee, and ev’ry string
               Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
               And prove one God, one harmony.
If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appear,
              If thou hast give’n it me, ’tis here.
Nay, I will read thy book, and never move
               Till I have found therein thy love,
Thy art of love, which I’ll turn back on thee:
               O my dear Saviour, Victory!
Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
               Alas, my God, I know not what.

Archibald Armstrong, Fool to King James VI & I of Scotland and England

Portrait of the Poet as a Fool

The voice might be that of the poet’s, but we already know Herbert too well to think that it is actually his own. He adopts a persona here of a person struggling to figure out how to respond to the suffering and death of Jesus.

The persona is a bit of a fool – he starts off addressing Jesus as “King of grief” but then breaks off to comment on the oddness of the address – a very odd thing to do in a poem. He’s overwhelmed by his own inadequacy to respond, and makes much of it. He contemplates skipping the passion, even though he knows that is not possible. He struggles with the idea of being an imitation of Christ. He suggests that he will give his wealth to the poor. He will deny all honour, except to receive it and then direct one’s attention back to God – kind of like the recipient of an award thanking God. He will not marry – but if does, his wife and children will belong to God. He will abandon his bosom friend if his friend should blaspheme – which suggests that the person speaking isn’t much of a friend. And so it goes on, compounding failure and demonstrating the persona’s shallowness. He revels in God’s love as he discerns it in the Bible, but when, in the final two lines, he returns to the passion of Christ,

Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
Alas, my God, I know not what.

The persona is at a loss to give a proper thanksgiving, despite the title of the poem. The next poem in The Temple, “The Reprisal”, takes up the theme again. Indeed, dealing with this in a more mature way appears to be the theme of the next few poems.

There is something quite subversive in writing a poem as if one is a fool. It is probably really hard to get away with it, but Herbert does.


Ann Pasternak Slater in the “Introduction” to George Herbert: The Complete English Works (New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, 1995; pp. l-li), describes, in a way that is far beyond my analytical skills, what Herbert is achieving with his technique here, and I reproduce it in full:

[Herbert] frequently uses metric harmony and disharmony to mirror spiritual states, as well as drawing on musical imagery for the same ends. Metric disruption is the finest final instance of his art. It is clear from the divergences between the two manuscript versions of his poems that, far from eradicating irregularity, he introduced it when appropriate. In ‘The Thanksgiving’ Herbert meditates on man’s incapacity to deal with the death of Christ: ‘Oh King of Wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,/Who in all grief preventest me?’ In a bitter snapping of the iambic pattern set up at the poem’s beginning, Herbert ironically asks whether he should turn the Crucifixion into something accessible and appealing:

Shall I then sing, skipping, thy doleful story,
And side with thy triumphant glory?
Shall thy strokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
Thy rod, my posy? cross, my bower?

Editors gloss ‘skipping’ as ‘omitting’, which is clearly one of its meanings here: should Herbert skip the pain of the Crucifixion and look only on the bright side of man’s gain? But Herbert is also attacking the impulse to trivialize, changing the line from its original version, which was.

Shall I then sing, neglecting thy sad story.

‘Skipping’, the chosen replacement, is interesting for two reasons: because it introduces an image of jaunty triviality sustained in the next lines, and because it fractures the metre in a way ‘neglecting’ did not, reversing the sensitive third foot from an iamb to a trochee

Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thy̆ dólefŭl stór,

The further change of ‘sad’ to ‘doleful’ throws the irregularity into higher relief. The third foot clashes with both its neighbours. Instead of the regular slack/stress alternation of both trochaic and iambic metres, stress is followed by stress, slack by slack (‘síng, skíppĭng, thy̆’). Had Herbert kept ‘sad’, he would simply have lost a slack in mid-line and the aberrant third foot would have gone unnoticed:

Shăll Í thĕn síng, skíppĭng, thý săd stór,

The normal editorial excision of the first edition’s comma after ‘skipping’ robs it of its light-hearted second sense, even though the metric fracture remains.

This kind of analysis is a good reason to go out and actually buy this edition of Hebert. In any case, Pasternak Slater demonstrates that Herbert really did know what he was doing here.

Wrestling with the Cross

In his First Letter to the Corinthians 1.23-24 Paul writes,

we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For many Christians the cross remains problematic. I know that as a young Christian I had little difficulty with the Incarnation, as the idea that the Divine would enter into the world made great sense to me. Likewise I liked the idea of the Resurrection, in which God begins to make all things new. However, the death of Jesus was challenging. Why did Jesus die? I rejected the simplistic idea of substitutionary atonement, because it required a wrathful God that I simply could not accept. Yes, I knew that I had sinned, and that I had fallen short of the glory of God, but I found it hard to believe that those sins deserved being tossed into an eternal lake of burning fire; my God could not be, at the same time, a God of love and a God of such vengeful wrath. I cannot accept such a paradoxical bipolarity in the Divine. And yet, I was just as captivated by the narrative of the passion as anybody, especially as lived out each year in Holy Week. I took solace in the idea that while it is part of Christian dogma that Christ died for our sins, the precise mechanism of how that happens is not specified.

As I meditated on the events of Good Friday, and preached on them annually, I began to see that the early Christians also struggled with the cross. They knew that Jesus had, unexpectedly, been raised from the dead. They also knew that, regardless of whether they had denied Jesus or abandoned him, that they were forgiven. Even Paul, who had persecuted the church, knew that he was forgiven and called to preach the gospel. The experience of the resurrection contained both forgiveness and empowerment, and they knew that it was somehow connected to the death of Jesus. So, to explain it, they looked back at the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (whom Jesus himself probably identified with). They used metaphors such as “ransom” and “expiation”, “sacrifice” and “ransom”. They recalled his words at the Last Supper the night before his death, and whenever they gathered together they became part of Christ’s resurrected body by remembering what he had done.

In time I recognised that Jesus was a colonized Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power. In entering into a world where the incarnate divine is put to death by Rome, God aligns God’s self with those who are oppressed and calls into question the authority of the oppressors. This is the foolishness and stumbling block about which Paul speaks – because the leaders of the Jews were collaborators in their people’s oppression, and the Greeks had likewise made their peace and were just trying to get through the day, happily being distracted by various philosophies that ignored the suffering of slaves and the subject peoples of the empire.

Thus, when we sit at the foot of the cross, we do not simply say, “Well, thanks Jesus, for dying on my behalf, and making sure I go to heaven. I’ll just get on with life, then, eh?” Rather one enters into the passion and death of Christ, and is empowered to be Christ in the world. As the resurrected Jesus says to the disciples in the Gospel according to John, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is the cross which empowered people like Martin Luther King, Jr and Desmond Tutu, and continues to give strength to Christian activists around the world.

There is a place for substitution, in a way. Following the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I believe that ethics is rooted in the transcendent truth that as a human being I have a responsibility to the other person (including you, dear reader), especially when they are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison (Matthew 25). It is an infinite responsibility at which I have failed before I am even aware of it, but it is the basis of ethical action. Thus, I substitute myself for the other, and their needs become mine. The point of the cross, for a Christian, is not that it absolves one from that responsibility, but that it identifies it with the action of God in Christ. If Christ is substituted for me, then I am now substituted with him for the other.

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George Herbert, Intertextualist

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Twelve: Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Advent

The H. Scriptures II

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
             And the configurations of their glory!
             Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the story.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
             Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
             Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destiny:
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
             And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
             Stars are poor books, & oftentimes do miss:
            This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

This is not George Herbert, but Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a theorist of literature and an expert on Dostoevsky in the Soviet Union. It is debated whether he was a believing Christian, but Russian Orthodoxy clearly influences his theories.

Another sonnet, another rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Again Herbert addresses the personified Holy Scriptures, but in comparison to the astronomy of his day, which was basically astrology. Thus his cutting comments in the final two lines – the stars do not tell us what we need to know about our purpose in life, which is how to reach eternal bliss.

Herbert had an elevated view of the scriptures as God’s words, and this view is demonstrated in the preceding sonnet. However, as an artist of poetry, he knows the basic elements are the same material he uses – words – and marvels at how the words combine to shine with glory. He notes how the sentences combine, and then relate to something ten pages away. These combine to be something greater than the mere sum of their parts – aspects of theology and dogma that might not be immediately apparent. Herbert finds that these verses work also to make himself understood.

When I was at Harvard Divinity School in 2002-2003 I was part of the Graduate New Testament Seminar run by Prof Karen King. This included all the ThM students (of which I was one) and the doctoral students in their first two years, as well as all the teaching staff in New Testament and Early Christianiyu. It was, to say the least, an impressive group, as it had Helmut Koester, then in his late 70s, who had studied with Rudolf Bultmann, and brilliant exegetes such as Richard Horsley, who in my opinion is to New Testament studies what J. R. R. Tolkien is to Beowulf. Prof King had us read French literary theory to see if it could be applied to the New Testament. Thus, we read people like Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu, branching out to non-French authors such as Daniel Boyarin and Mikhail Bakhtin (and while we did not read him, I cannot help but think that Jacques Derrida was also lurking in the background). Now, trying to have us read this material and apply it was much like trying to teach cats to do synchronised swimming. Most of the participants already had well-defined methodologies, and this really challenged them. That said, I took at least two major ideas away from the seminar: first, that great literature has what the French called jouissance – a great intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy; this is similar to what Bakhtin called “carnivalesque.” Much of this was generated by the second takeaway, which is that texts interact with each other, which gets the fancy name of intertextuality.

That this is true is obvious in great works of literature and other arts. To understand much of Shakespeare it helps to know the Bible, even though the Bible is never the theme of his plays or poetry. Any book in the genre of vampires is dealing with the primordial work of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, just as any fantasy book struggles with escaping the influence of The Lord of the Rings. James Joyce’s Ulysses not only interacts with his previous book, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but also with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Odyssey, and the works of the Celtic Twilight. Indeed, one can use intertextuality for non-texts – most paintings are interacting and commenting on previous works or art; early 20th century Cubism only makes sense when seen as a reaction to the more realistic paintings of the decades prior, and the rise of photography.

The Bible is the intertextual work par excellence. One cannot read the New Testament without the Old, and the various books of the Bible interact in a variety of ways. As modern source criticism has demonstrated, it is likely that the Five Books of Moses, or the Tanach, were composed of at least four sources, brought together by an editor. Likewise, I am strongly persuaded that the Gospel of John went through two editions before it reached the canonical form we have now – and thus has an intertextuality within itself – and that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke had the Gospel of Mark in front of them, as well as a now lost source known as Q, creating another form of intertextuality. The Letters of Paul interact with the Acts of the Apostles, confounding scholars trying to work out chronologies of Paul who make the mistake of giving historical priority to the decades-later Acts.

There are two types – or perhaps three – types of intertextuality. One is explicit. Thus, when William Faulkner entitles his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom the reader can expect that it will resonate with the Biblical story of King David and the revolt of his son Absalom, which ends with the death of his son. And indeed, it does tell such a story, set in the middle of the 19th century, retold by various persons around 1910, and a very imperfect father does indeed watch the death of a proud son. Likewise, the title Ulysses encourages the reader to look for parallels between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s story of the wanderings of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Another type of intertextuality is generated by proximity and happenstance. Thus,the four gospels were each written to stand alone, but we read them together as a collection, and in relation to Paul’s Letters, Acts, and Revelation, as well as the Old Testament. A lectionary used in church services provides a list of readings for Sundays and feast days, and while the readings may not originally have had anything to do with each other, preachers will find connections and associations. A third type of intertextuality is when we relate ourselves to what is going on in the books, or, as Herbert says in the poem above,

for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring

There is nothing new in intertextuality, except perhaps the term. It is as old as the Bible and undoubtedly older still. The poem above describes the early 17th century understanding of intertextuality. George Herbert’s poetry demands an intertextual reading – it is incomprehensible without an understanding of the Bible, and it helps to have an understanding of the Protestant interpretations that prevailed in his day. While he seems to take a naive approach to the textual and historico-critical issues of the Scriptures, as suggested in yesterday’s reflection, his poetry is anything but naive, despite the simple words and well defined constructions he uses (such as a sonnet). His allusiveness and theological depth gives them that jouissance which all great literature has.

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George Herbert’s ‘Naive Melody’

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Eleven: Monday after the Third Sunday of Advent

The H. Scriptures I

Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
    Suck ev’ry letter, and a honey gain,
    Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify all pain.
Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
    A full eternity: thou art a mass
    Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,
That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
    That washes what it shows. Who can endear
    Thy praise too much? thou art heav’n’s Lidger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.
    Thou art joy’s handsel: heav’n lies flat in thee,
    Subject to ev’ry mounter’s bended knee.

Geneva Bible, 1560

So as it turns out I missed two days last week – Thursday,when I was busy graduating from the University of London, and Saturday, when I was back in Crete furiously trying to get ready for the Third Sunday of Advent. I’m back now!

Herbert wrote two sonnets about the Holy Scriptures – or, rather to the Holy Scriptures, as the Bible is addressed directly, in the first line, and again in the enjambment on line 10. Curiously, he also addresses “Ladies” to pay attention to the Bible as a “glass” or mirror – which suggests that Herbert believes women to be concerned with looking at their reflection. I doubt one should read much more into the personification of the Bible – it remains a book, and not God itself made paper and ink, except that it functions as a means of grace that leads to God. That is more than enough!

The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. There are two unusual words. In line 11 we find “Lidger”. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that this is an old word for an ambassador, in this case to the foreign states of death and hell. In line 13 we read “handsel” which is an archaic term meaning, according to Merriam-Webster:

1 : a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck especially at the beginning of a new year
2 : something received first (as in a day of trading) and taken to be a token of good luck
3a : a first installment : earnest money
b : earnest, foretaste

The description of the Bible as “honey” calls to mind the words of Psalm 81.16: “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat: and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Herbert lived in a time before the slave-economy trade in cane sugar had emerged in the Caribbean, so honey was the sweetest thing that he would have experienced.

The first few lines are a wealth of positive metaphors. The Holy Scriptures are

  • sweet honey
  • a salve for grief
  • a pain-killer
  • a health enhancer
  • a means to eternal life
  • a mass of strange delights
  • a mirror
  • a well that washes away sin even as it shows it
  • an ambassador from heaven working against hell and death
  • a first installment on joy
  • heaven laying flat

The last image is interesting, because he is clearly thinking of a Bible lying open to be read.

Herbert here reads like a proper Protestant, in that he finds in the Holy Scriptures a coherent and necessary text for the good of humanity. Historical criticism of the Bible was a century and a half away, and so he would not have been bothered with the contradictions and tensions that we moderns are all too familiar with. While knowing who the human authors were (or who tradition said they were), he generally accepted God as the true author.

All his poems have biblical allusions, and sometimes seems like concatenations of such, although more often he builds on an allusion in an imaginative way. Herbert himself would have known many versions of the Bible. He was fluent in Latin and Greek, and wrote poetry in those languages, so he would have been familiar with the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament. Hebrew scholarship was well established at Cambridge when he was there as a student and a don, and given his linguistic skills I would be surprised if he had not studied some of that language and had encountered the Hebrew Bible.

The English Translation we know as the King James Version (“KJV”) was produced in his lifetime, by 1611; indeed, he undoubtedly knew some of the translators. He himself would have been brought up with two earlier translations – the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 (revised 1572), which was used by the Church of England, and the Geneva Bible (1557/1560). Before he died the Geneva Bible translation was arguably the most popular, especially because of the extensive commentary and notes written by English Calvinists in exile in Geneva during the reign of Mary I. James VI & I of Scotland and England made sure that his translation did not have such notes, even while stealing some of the more vigorous wording of the Geneva Bible. It is not obvious to me which English translation Herbert is thinking of in his many allusions – it is probably the case that it is all of them.

Herbert has a more simple relationship with scripture than I do. Part of that is because I live in an era in which I cannot ignore the truth of much historical scholarship. I have an awareness of the complexity of the writing, preservation, and redaction of these texts that Herbert did not. I see a certain kind of coherency in the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, but it is a coherence that incorporates multiple viewpoints, diverse voices, paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions. Problems in scripture is not a feature of our ignorance, but of our knowledge derived from the past 230 years of painstaking research.

That said, I revel in all of this. I find that the Bible is an incredible collection of inspired texts. Even when it is wrong, or encapsulates a patriarchal slave-owning culture from which I recoil, I find that through it God speaks words of liberation. My own perspective cannot be characterized by any of the parties one might find in churches – Anglo-Catholic, or Liberal, or Progressive, or Evangelical, or Broad – but grows out of view influenced by post-colonial theory, Black theology, Womanist theology, and an engagement with Indigenous scholars and activists still fighting the legacy of the theft of land, genocide, and ongoing attempts at assimilation by colonial powers. For me Jesus is essentially a colonised Indigenous man put to death by an Imperial power with the consent of the collaborationist leadership. If the historical Jesus is to mean anything, if we are going to take seriously the idea that Jesus was born at a particular time and place in a particular body, then we need to grapple with why Jesus lived when he did and what it meant that the powers of the time killed him. We cannot simply abstract Jesus into a personal Lord and Saviour who died just for me, and whose death and resurrection leaves me unchanged to carry on in the world as before. Rather, we must see in the birth of Jesus the one who inaugurates the time when God, as his mother says in Luke 1,

has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

I cannot ask Herbert to show that perspective in his poetry – that is to make a demand of a 17th century gentleman that would be proper to someone of our own time. However, we might still admire his faith and his poetic skill. At the same time, it might be wise of us to observe his own placement in time – as a privileged man seeking position in the courts of power, eventually turning to a more humble position in the Church of England before dying an early death. Where did the wealth come that supported him through his studies? What did he hope for in the Kingdom of England? How did this relate to the kind of poetry he wrote? I hope that I might enter some of this into future reflections.

Tomorrow we will look at the second of the two sonnets entitled The H. Scriptures.

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Poetic Yoga

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Ten: Friday after the Second Sunday of Advent

Please forgive me for not posting yesterday. I was busy in the Senate House at the University of London being formally admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, along with many other distinguished candidates. For those who might be interested, you can see a video of me getting the degree here and also here. The title of my dissertation was “Unsettling Theology: The Theological Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools of Canada 1880-1970”.

Now, back to Herbert!

The Temper (2)

It cannot be. Where is that mighty joy,
        Which just now took up all my heart?
        Lord, if thou must needs use thy dart,
Save that, and me; or sin for both destroy.

The grosser world stands to thy word and art;
        But thy diviner world of grace
        Thou suddenly dost raise and race,
And ev’ry day a new Creator art.

O fix thy chair of grace, that all my powers
        May also fix their reverence:
        For when thou dost depart from hence,
They grow unruly, and sit in thy bowers.

Scatter, or bind them all to bend to thee:
        Though elements change, and heaven move,
        Let not thy higher Court remove,
But keep a standing Majesty in me.

A fancy throne in the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, London. The Queen sits on this when delivering the Speech from the Throne at the beginning of each parliament.

The rhyme scheme is simple enough, with each of the four stanzas being ABBA etc, and there are ten syllables in the first and fourth lines, and eight in the middle two.

The striking thing about the poem is how it stops suddenly after just four syllables. The poet laments lost joy, and begs God not to destroy it, except it be to destroy sin for the poet and his joy. The poet does not say what kind of joy it is – perhaps an emotional joy relating to the presence of another person, or divine joy.

Ann Pasternak Slater states that in line 5 “stands” means “witness”, but Herbert is possibly playing with positions of the body when in line 16 he begs that Majesty “stand . . . in me.” We also see “bend” in line 13 and “sit” in line 12. There is a “chair of grace” in line 9, before which one would bend the knee, so we have the allusion to a variety of postures.

Interestingly, the “grosser world” of creation persists in its witness to the “word and art” of God, but joy seems more ephemeral, and the poet describes the “world of grace” as a new creation every day; this is an inversion of the usual understanding of the divine world and eternal, unchanging, and the created world as decaying and constantly changing. But this is a poem about one’s subjective “temper”, and so it the poet’s phenomenological experience of God is even more changeable than the material world around it. Herbert’s powers become unruly when not fixed on the chair of grace (a metonym for God), even when sitting in the bowers of God’s creation. Thus he begs God to “keep a standing majesty in me”, kind of like a standing army that will scatter or bend his powers to God.

Posture has always been important in Christian life. Kneeling, whether before God, or a sovereign, or (as yesterday) before a Vice-Chancellor admitting one’s to a degree, is a vulnerable position. One is lower than the other. If it is a monarch knighting you, a sword is uncomfortably close to one’s neck. One might hold one’s hands together as in prayer, meaning one is unable to defend oneself. Sometimes eyes are closed, or staring at the feet of the superior position. All in all, it is all about humility.

Christians will also sit and stand. Standing with one’s hands in the air is another ancient form of prayer, usually associated with praise. It is the position presbyters and priests adopt when praying the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the position we often see people in when they are saying the Lord’s Prayer. Charismatics use it, oddly with just one hand up, when singing praise.

I was raised in the United Church of Canada, in which the standard position was to sit. When saying the daily offices and when praying I still mostly sit. When in communal situations I will stand and kneel to pray, and I will sit only when listening to the readings.

What is God’s position? I like the idea that I am occupied by God’s majesty. Sometimes I feel humble, and other times joyful. Regardless, I pray that God is always with me. My temperament may change, but I want God’s to be constant.

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The Well-Tempered Poet

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Nine: Wednesday after the Second Sunday of Advent

In The Temple this poem follows immediately after Love (1) and Love (2), and like the two previous ones, this also has a partner with the same name. Both this poem and The Temper (2) have stanzas of four lines each, although the rhyme scheme is slightly different. Today’s poem has the rhyme schme ABAB CDCD etc., and begins with a line of ten syllables, then two lines of eight syllables each, and finishes one of four syllables.

A very good analysis of the poem is given by Tyler Nunley here.

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav’ns, or more,
Sometimes I peer above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world’s too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.

Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
A crumb of dust from heav’n to hell?
Will great God measure with a wretch?
Shall he thy stature spell?

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there:
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the music better.

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’rywhere.

“Losing my religion”

Temper has multiple meanings. One meaning persists in the English language as some state of peace and balance, which can be lost when provoked. Thus when I am angry I am losing my temper. In the Southern United States one might express that as “losing my religion”, which lent itself to the title of the well-known REM song of thirty years ago.

Temperance movements arose in the early 19th century with its goal to moderate the abuse of alcohol. While this eventually led to a demand for abstinence, both in the partaking and in the manufacture and sale of alcohol, originally it was about moderation. This is a meaning that came after Herbert’s time, although he definitely advocated temperance in eating and drinking in The Country Parson.

Tempering is an ancient treatment given to metals. It is a process of heating the near-finished product of made of steel or cast iron so as to give it a bit more springiness and less brittleness. One might temper a metal evenly through the piece, or do it differently over various parts, depending on the requirement for the piece. Tempering can be done at low temperatures or high temperatures.

Finally, in music there is temperament, which means the principle of tuning. Paul Cooper writes (and is quoted in the Wikipedia article on temperament) that “Temperament refers to the various tuning systems for the subdivision of the octave,” the four principal tuning systems being Pythagorean tuning, just intonation, mean-tone temperament, and equal temperament. Temperament tries to create a good compromise between the recognition that notes have a mathematical relationship to each other, and the physical reality that if these relationships are idealized to always be expressed in whole numbers, the shift from one key to another sounds dissonant. On an instrument that covers only one octave or so this is not so much a problem, but on a keyboard or in an orchestra it becomes very much an issue. J. S. Bach celebrated the development of well tempering by producing not one but two books of keyboard exercises in every one of the major and minor keys that one could play on the keyboard.

How Should I Praise Thee Lord?

Herbert starts the poem with this question, and then says it again in somewhat different language. In the second line we get a reference to engraving in steel, which is not tempering steel, but perhaps it is an unconscious connection for the poet. The thing about engraving in steel is that what is engraved is permanent. The third and fourth lines suggest the mutability of Herbert’s feelings, and the danger of making them permanent. The second stanza talks about how sometimes Herbert feels as if he is high in heaven, sometimes not so much, and others in hell (one of those rare Herbertian references to hell). In the next stanza he pleads with God not to have to have such bipolar experiences, and in the fourth he wonders in God accompanies the poet in this expanse. He pleads to stay in the heights of heaven when he dies, and argues for it in that, as a sinner, he would be redeemed and no longer suffer from “hope and fear.” But then he turns from this and surrenders himself to God to be stretched or contracted, as if being tuned. In the last stanza he acknowledges that wherever he is he is in God’s creation and that “Thy power and love, my love and trust, / Make one place ev’rywhere.” In other words, his subjective perception of heaven and hell does not reflect the objective omnipresence of God.

As I grow older and, I pray God, slightly wiser, I hope that whatever my subjective experiences, I can let go of my attachment to them, and simply be attached to the deeper presence of God in my life.

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George Herbert’s Second Sonnet on Love

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Eight: Tuesday after the Second Sunday of Advent

Love (II)

Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
And kindle in our hearts such true desires.
As may consume our lusts, and make thee way:
Then shall our hearts pant thee, then shall our brain
All her invention on thine altar lay,
And there in hymns send back thy fire again.
Our eyes shall see thee, which before saw dust,
Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blind:
Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kind,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:
All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise him who did make and mend our eyes.

There is no evidence that Love (1) and Love (2) were written to be read together, but whoever put the poems in their final order – Herbert, or perhaps Nicholas Ferrar – has presented the final products in this way. There is another poem with the same title – Love (3) – but it is not a sonnet and it comes at the end of the central poems in The Temple, called The Church. This third poem is also a narrative, whereas this one addresses God directly.

The two poems, yesterday’s and today’s, have been referred to metaphorically as a diptych. A diptych is a adornment with two panels, normally above an altar, relating to a common theme. If the first poem compares human romantic love with human love of God, this poem addresses God as well but only to answer the question “Who sings Thy praise?” and, perhaps, goes further to explain how the poet can become able to sing God’s praise.

In yesterday’s sonnet God is “Immortal Love, author . . .”. In today’s God is “Immortal Heat”. Perhaps the important thing here is that the Immortal Heat is Immortal Love.

Heat does several things. It attracts a lesser flame to it – it seems to draw it towards it, an aspect of air pressure in a literal flame. It consumes things – a process of oxidation in modern scientific language. Drawing on the descriptions of fire on the day of judgement in the Old and New Testaments, the poet asks God to tame the fire so that rather than destroying human beings entirely it “kindles . . . such true desires” so that lusts for material things or people are burnt away, leaving space for the deity. This having happened, the poet expresses his conviction that human brains and hearts will praise God with fiery, poetic hymns of praise.

Whereas in yesterday’s sonnet humanity parceled praise on “dust which thou hast made”, in today’s sonnet the human sees the dust as dust which had made both eyes and wit (wisdom) blind. God takes back that which usurping lust has taken, knees bend in worship, and wits rise to praise God.

Today’s sonnet reads as a resolution to the first. It uses the image of fire – an image not unaquainted with lust and passion – but uses it to undermine ungodly lusts. Herbert, in a curiously chaste way, asserts the erotic in love for the divine, and that human gifts of wit and beauty are rightly directed towards God.

The modern reader will ask for more. Is the erotic and passionate in a human being only to be directed towards the divine, or can it be directed towards another person? How does this relate to the passion one has for one’s sexual partner. Herbert was married, and apparently happily so – does this impact on his understanding of love for God and others? Of course, Herbert married late – perhaps this was written before marriage, and so reflects that restrained understanding. Does this passion have to be sexual, or can it simply be altruistic, desiring the common good and the relief of the most afflicted in society? In the dust that God made can we find the reflection of the Creator?

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Herbert’s Sonnet “Love (1)”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Seven: Monday after the Second Sunday of Advent

Love (I)

Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

This is a sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Pasternak Slater observes that it is one of many of his poems that contrasts divine love with romantic love, and also that it is one of five in the whole of The Church that mentions hell.

While from our perspective Herbert lived in a profoundly more religious age than our own, the point of the poem is that more attention is paid by poets to romantic love than God’s. Who was he thinking of? Shakespeare and his sonnets, which are entirely devoted to themes of romantic love or related issues? The young John Donne? Since Herbert does not say, we do not know, but the impression that is given is of a very serious, pious young man whose brilliance is put to service in this complaint.

Anthony Martin, in the essay “Herbert’s “Love” Sonnets and Love Poetry” (George Herbert Journal; Spring 1994; 17, 2; pp. 37-49), points out that Herbert unusually describes God as an “author”. This suggests that God is a poet, too, whose words are spoken and become act. Thus, the gift and skill which human poets have is “sprung from that beauty” which is God’s. God made the heart and the brain and the dust out of which human beings are made, as well as the wit and beauty which conspire to celebrate each other while ignoring the divine.

The last two lines of any sonnet usually introduce a new theme, a twist even, and this is true here. Martin notes the enigmatic quality. What is with these gloves and scarf? Martin spends several pages considering options, and notes that in Herbert’s time a “scarf” could also be a veil, and that in conventional love poetry of the time much was made of ladies’ veils and gloves. Herbert mentions them, only to subvert this allusion, speaking of them being his own. Martin eventually concludes:

The question “Who sings thy praise?” is neither rhetorical nor so simple as to be left unanswered. Rather, a complex strategy is indicated: that the poet who wishes to sing the name of love necessarily adopts conventional imagery — “only a scarf or glove” that the poet needs such convention — “Doth warm our hands”; and that it it is only through the adoption of such a submissive, secondary position that the poem can be written — “and make them write of love.” Thus the uneasy position regarding eroticism which the young Herbert expressed in the early sonnets has now been accommodated into a mature vision in which the transcendent Author, or his name, effectively underwrites any expression of love.

This sets us up to consider the poem which immediately follows “Love (1)”, namely “Love (2)”.

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Herbert’s Anthropology: A Celebration of the Human Being

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Six: Saturday after the First Sunday of Advent

Vitruvian Man (c.1490) by Leonardo da Vinci


My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is man, to whose creation
All things are in decay?

For man is ev’ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
Reason and speech we only bring;
Parrots may thank us if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.

Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides;
Each part may call the furthest brother,
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.

Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
His eyes dismount the highest star;
He is in little all the sphere;
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.

For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav’n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.

The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head;
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.

Each thing is full of duty;
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguished, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above, our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat!

More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.

Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.


This is a complex poem, for each of the nine stanzas of six lines has a different rhythm scheme, with one exception:

Stanza 1: ABCCBA.
Stanza II: ABCABC.
Stanza IV: ABACCB.
Stanza V: AABCBC.
Stanza VIII: ABCABC (the repeat)

As well, each stanza contains three different iambic meters, which create a metrical chiasm, a symmetry around the centre of each stanza.

  1. 6
  2. 10
  3. 8
  4. 8
  5. 10
  6. 6

The structure of the poem demonstrates double complexity in meter and rhyme. This duality serves the theme of Herbert’s poem.


I once took a course at the Toronto School of Theology back around 1987 simply because of the oddness of the name: Ante-Nicene Anthropology, Part II. As is turns out, the course was all about the theology and anthropology of Origen, arguably the first systematic theologian and the first real biblical critic in the Christian world, way back in the third century. Origen should be a canonized saint but he had a few odd ideas derived from Neoplatonic thought and his reading of scripture. For example, he believed that the soul and the body were both created at separate times. He also believed that all creation would be saved. It was claimed that he literally made himself a eunuch for God, castrating himself; this may just be slander, as it is pretty extreme. He ran afoul of influential authorities, namely the Bishop of Alexandria, by being ordained a priest in Palestine although he was from Alexandria and they claimed authority over him. Finally, where he did not go down certain soon-to-be-labelled heretical paths, some of his disciples did, becoming Arians, and the master was condemned for the sins of his followers.

The key learning I took away from the course, taught by Fr John Egan SJ of blessed memory, is that anthropology is theology and vice-versa. What you think about humanity will influence your thinking about God, and what you think about God will influence your opinions on humanity.

What is striking about today’s poem is that Herbert celebrates the wonderful creation of the human being. Not for him is there Neoplatonic disparaging of the body, as some lesser mode of being than the immortal soul. Likewise one does not get the sense that the body is suspect, prone to temptation and a too frequent occasion for sin. He does not quite say with Walt Whitman, “I sing the body electric” but he is heading there.

A couple of things may be a bit disconcerting for a 21st century reader. First, Herbert is, of course, a 16th century male in England, and so he uses the term “man” to represent all of humanity; presumably anything written in the poem would apply to a woman as much as a man. That said, he probably idealises the human being as male, much as da Vinci did in his famous sketch of the Vitruvian Man. Second, he puts “man” at the apex of creation and at the centre of it. In an era which has been much affected by Darwinism and the knowledge that human activity is damaging the ecology, this assumption of prestige might sound arrogant.

I suspect Herbert here is, if anything, trying to challenge the distaste the body that shows up in certain pieties of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. And so he celebrates it, picking up on the idea of God in Christ dwelling in human beings just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. This gives Herbert the image of humanity as “a stately dwelling”.

“Man” surpasses the rest of creation, in Herbert’s thought. Humanity is like “a tree, yet bears more fruit;” and following Aristotle, is “a beast” but with “reason and speech.” The body is symmetrical (on the outside at least) which gives to in a kind of beauty. At the centre of the Ptolomaic universe, humanity is in accord with the herbs that help that cure the ills of the flesh. Being at the centre, God appears to have crafted night and day, the oceans and the waters above and in the ground, all to our benefit. Only in the penultimate verse – the one that is a repeat – do we get a note of the arrogance of humanity that “treads down that which doth befriend him.”

Herbert uses the curious image of a human being one world “and another to attend him.” Ann Pasternak Slater notes that he states this in The Country Parson:

Thy hands both made us, and also made us Lords of all thy creatures; giving us one world in our selves, and another to serve us.

The final stanza invites God to swell in the human being, and begs that the Divine “afford us so much wit, / That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee, / And both thy servants be.”

I would like to think that were Herbert to write the poem today he would eschew the masculine imagery, and perhaps play down the supremacy of humanity over creation. We exercise a mastery over the world that is both greater and more fraught with danger than he could ever had imagined 400 years ago. We are no longer in a Ptolomaic universe, but a Copernican one, in which we are not the centre of anything except in a subjective way. As amazing a creature as we are, we are equally fascinated by the mysteries and wonders of other living things.

And yet, in the end, we will praise the Creator, not only for ourselves, but for all things, and while we may see ourselves more as stewards than lords, we still seek to serve God and each other. The poem has a technical mastery that serves its theme well, and as we consider ourselves “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14), may we be deflected to the Creator who allows us to praise God in such a manner.

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Four Last Things: “Heaven”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Five: Friday after the First Sunday of Advent

“Heaven”, “ a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).


O who will show me those delights on high?
                            Echo.         I.
Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.
                            Echo.         No.
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
                            Echo.         Leaves.
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
                            Echo.         Bide.
What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.
                            Echo.         Holy.
Are holy leaves the Echo then of bliss?
                            Echo.         Yes.
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
                            Echo.         Light.
Light to the mind : what shall the will enjoy?
                            Echo.         Joy.
But are there cares and business with the pleasure?
                            Echo.         Leisure.
Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?
                            Echo.         Ever.


I first came across what is known as Echo verse in W. H. Auden’s long poem The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, written in the depths of the Second World Wat in New York City. The final section is called, appropriately, “Postscript” and it is Ariel’s words to Caliban, left behind on island after everyone else have gone back to Milan. Without printing the whole poem, I note that the last line of each verse has an echo, that of the prompter. Thus:

I can sing as you reply
. . . I

I will sing if you will cry
. . . I

One evaporating sigh
. . . I

This is as simple as it gets.

The inspiration goes back to the story of Narcissus and Echo, best preserved in Latin in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story is told of the nymph Echo who pissed off Juno – never a good thing to do – and is cursed to be only able to say the last word or words that someone else says. She falls in love with Narcissus. She longs to call to him, but is incapable because of the curse. Finally he says, ‘ecquis adest?’ “Who is here?” and she responds ‘adest’ “Is here!”This goes on at some length until she flings herself at Narcissus, but he is repulsed – he is, after, the character after whom “narcissism” comes from, and only loves herself.

A technical depiction of an echo.

By the late 16th century and early 17th century Continental poets and English dramatists were using this effect in their own work, and Herbert is part of that trend.

Each line of the poet is ten syllables long, and the echo is one or two. The effect is of a strange dialogue in which the echo gives an answer.


It is the poet who speaks here, and the echo replies, and is, as it turns out, God. The poet in the first line asks “who will show me those delights on high?” and the echo comes back, “I”. The poet presumes to know the echo as mortal in the second line, but it denies mortality, tells the poet to wait (bide), and over the next few lines identifies itself as being among the “holy” “leaves” of bliss – scripture, probably, where pages might be called leaves (Ann Pasternak Slater, p. 488). There may also be an allusion to the leaves of the trees along the flowing river of the New Jerusalem, and “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22.2); as those leaves are eternal, so are the holy leaves of the poem.

The bliss that is conveyed by the holy leaves are: Light, Joy, and Leisure. These will persevere forever, as the last line suggests (the rhyme would have been there in Herbert’s time).

Herbert is doing a couple of interesting things here. His description of heaven sounds to me as if it is not far from what he experienced at the best moments of his life. This was a life revolving around his home, prayer, and interaction with others, and so it appears will heaven be. We do not have something complex like the painting by Bosch, with St Peter at the gate, demons tugging at us only to be fended off by angels, and an assortment of saints kneeling and standing around the throne – an extension of church, perhaps. For Herbert the description encompasses all aspects of life.

The other thing Herbert does is to find God in the echo of a human voice. Humanity does not expect to find the divine in the reflection of its own voice. recognise. But this is not that much of a stretch. Human beings are made in God’s image, so the reflection of that image speaking may contain something of the divine. The echo, an apparently meaningless, transient artifact of nature, likewise reveals God’s response to humanity’s questions.

We can find the divine in things we say or sing, and in the things we produce, the echos of our nature. We might even find the divine in poetry, even if not hallowed as sacred scripture. While many these days find the divine directly in nature, I personally find it in the other person, in my neighbour, and my obligation to be a neighbour. If we want a foretaste of heaven, we need to be with an other, and see the image of God in that person. We will find God in the unexpected places.

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