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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Four Last Things: George Herbert’s “Judgement”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Four: Thursday after the First Sunday of Advent

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

In some ways the picture above would go better with yesterday’s poem, but Judgement follows on from Dooms-day, and in some respects are the same. The idea goes back at least as far as the middle of the second century BCE, when the Book of Daniel was written. The anonymous author writes:

At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12.1-2.

In Christian understanding Jesus of Nazareth – crucified, risen, ascended – will return as the Son of Man in glory to judge “the living and the dead.” Herbert plays with this in his poem.


Almighty Judge, how shall poor wretches brook
                            Thy dreadful look,
Able a heart of iron to appall,
                            When thou shalt call
      For ev’ry man’s peculiar book?

What others mean to do, I know not well;
                            Yet I hear tell,
That some will turn thee to some leaves therein
                            So void of sin,
      That they in merit shall excel.

But I resolve, when thou shalt call for mine,
                            That to decline,
And thrust a Testament into thy hand:
                            Let that be scann’d.
      There thou shalt find my faults are thine.


The poem is a simple AABBA etc. rhyme, of a mere three stanzas. The lines are

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

The second line introduces in four syllables the thought in the third, and likewise the fifth continues the thought of the fourth.

Our Peculiar Book

The poem here is addressed to Jesus as judge. In the poem Herbert suggests that every soul raised to life has a book of their deeds which will be reviewed by the judge, and presumably, make a judgement. It is a rather terrifying prospect, frankly, and problematic, because one’s deeds will condemn the soul “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Some resourceful folk intend to simply dwell on the positive and show the Son of Man the pages that are devoid of sin. Herbert, as the speaker in the poem, suggests another strategy. Instead of opening his own book, he merely takes a Testament and puts it in the hand of Jesus, who will find that his sins – Herbert’s – are Jesus’s own.

This is an unexpected conclusion. Usually, in Calvinist influenced theology, one will find that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner. In such a way of thinking it might be expected that Christ would find his own righteousness in the book of a Christian. Herbert flips this over – the sins of the sinner are taken on by Jesus and he suffers on the sinner’s behalf. Thus, the Testament thrust into the Son of Man’s hands is not just the New Testament, as some have suggested, but the Book of a Sinner in which all the sins are taken on, as if Herbert’s name is erased and Jesus’s put in its place.

Ann Pasternak Slater suggests (p. 488) that the testament is be a reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus “took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them [his disciples], saying, “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26.27-28). The word translated here as “testament” in the KJV/AV is διαθηκη which in more modern versions as “covenant”. She is undoubtedly correct that this is the testament which the poet intends to give Jesus – the testament that remits sins.

This is not one of Herbert’s great poems, but it is not a bad one. His conceit here is a simple one, that the “testament” inaugurated at the Last Supper is a book that one can switch for the book of one’s life. It is a bit of a stretch, especially the more one dwells on it, but it works in the moment.

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Four Last Things: “Dooms-day”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Day Three: Wednesday after the First Sunday of Advent

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

As I look at the detail above what strikes me, apart from the whimsy in the depiction of the demons and scary beasties, is how so many of the tortures of hell were, in fact, present in the 16th century of the artist. War and torture were an ever-present reality of the immediate pre-modern era, and civilians were rarely spared. We see the imminent evisceration of a man in the right, with a little creature waiting to feed on his flesh. The young couple are also being irritated by something like a crab and a goose – something I am sure has a deeper meaning of which I am unaware. I do not know what the demon with the Santa hat is doing, but were this a modern painting I would think he is taking a picture with his cell phone to put on Twitter or to sext to all the couple’s intimates. All in all, the tortures of hell were only a variation on what was already happening on earth.

George Herbert doesn’t do hell, and he is no Hieronymous Bosch. His Dooms-day is anything but hellish.


Come away,
Make no delay.
Summon all the dust to rise,
Till it stir, and rub the eyes;
While this member jogs the other,
Each one whispring, Live you brother?

Come away,
Make this the day.
Dust, alas, no music feels,
But thy trumpet: then it kneels,
As peculiar notes and strains
Cure Tarantula’s raging pains.

Come away,
O make no stay!
Let the graves make their confession,
Lest at length they plead possession:
Flesh’s stubbornness may have
Read that lesson to the grave.

Come away,
Thy flock doth stray.
Some to winds their body lend,
And in them may drown a friend:
Some in noisome vapours grow
To a plague and public woe.

Come away,
Help our decay.
Man is out of order hurled,
Parcelled out to all the world.
Lord, thy broken consort raise,
And the music shall be praise.


The rhyme scheme is simple, as usual: AABBCC, etc. The syllables per line are:

  1. 3
  2. 4
  3. 7
  4. 7
  5. 7
  6. 7

Of course, one could argue that it is really five lines of seven, but Herbert is doing something in the first two lines that suggest otherwise. First, there is the rhyme. Second, the first line, identical in all five stanzas, has an insistent quality as it is repeated, with the beats accented as a molossus ‘ ‘ ‘ or perhaps as ‘ ‘ ˘, depending on how one says it. The second line, different in each stanza, sets a brief theme for the next four lines.


As in Death, there is nothing to fear in Dooms-day. The poem is addressed to God, and perhaps Jesus Christ as the returning Son of Man. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that C. A. Patrides suggests in his The English Poems of George Herbert (London: 1974) that this is a parody of an anonymous aubade (1 : a song or poem greeting the dawn 2a : a morning love song b : a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn 3 : morning music (Merriam-Webster)) from 1600. If so, Herbert has transposed it, as Pasternak Slater says, to a more transcendent subject (p.486).

Doomsday here is the Day of Resurrection. Thus the charming picture of the resurrected coming out of their graves and saying, Live you brother? Herbert’s vision of the resurrection is influenced by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

In the second stanza Herbert borrows from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.52, where the apostle writes, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Herbert plays with the idea that the dead dust of human remains are deaf to anything except that last trumpet, and this overcomes the pain that comes from the spider known as the tarantula wolf spider.

The third stanza suggests that human stubbornness may have taught the personified grave a lesson, namely that possession is nine tenths of that law. English common law recognizes something called “adverse possession” but better known as “squatter’s rights” in which someone who does not have title to a piece of real estate but nevertheless lives on it, may over a period of time gain title to it. This old principle has been severely circumscribed over the past century, but it still exists in some common law jurisdictions. Herbert is suggesting that the grave may try to assert such rights over the dead, having held them for so long.

A few of the dead in the Paris Catacombs. Generally speaking, after being excavated the dead of a parish cemetery were kept together in the caves. The bones here would have been families and friends, known to each other in many cases, over many centuries.

The fourth stanza notes that decaying bodies (as dust presumably) may be buffeted by the wind, and fall into the eyes of their friend (a more modern concern given the frequency with which cremated ashes are scattered in tempestuous weather). A more common concern in Herbert’s times would have been the putrefaction of dead bodies and the perception that they might cause disease; there were no “garden” cemeteries on the edge of town, but rather the church kept on poring dead bodies into graveyards around city churches, even if they were already full. In Paris this led to the command in the late 18th century and early 19th century that all the dead buried within the walls of the city be exhumed and reinterred in the excavated caves underneath. In the end the bones of some six million souls were removed, and you can go on tour to see them (as my son and I did in 2014). In the poem Herbert is imploring God to end these problematic situations.

In the final stanza God is implored to “help our decay.” In the first case this refers to death, in which humanity is like a “broken consort” i.e. a shattered music group. It is also described as the dispersal of the human body as it returns to dust and is scattered to the winds, “out of order hurled, / Parcelled out to all the world.” In the resurrection of the dead we are restored to order, and we can now sing proper praise. In the second case, this might also refer to our current condition – we need a spiritual resurrection in this life, so that as a body of humanity we might rightly praise our God.

Two Questions

The Apostles’ Creed is said on a regular basis by Christians every Sunday. It is the baptismal creed in the Western Churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed Communions. Many people say it every day, twice, as part of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In it is said,

I believe in Jesus Christ . . . He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

I think this raises two questions. First, do I really believe this? And second, does one have to believe this to appreciate the poem?

I answer the first question with a “yes”, but immediately qualify it. I do believe that God is not done with us when we die, but I do not have any literal idea of what that looks like, other than that it is characterized by God’s love. As a student of philosophy I studied the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who suggested that each different field of discourse are like a “language game”, with their own rules and assumptions. To apply scientific literalism to theological propositions is to confuse two different language games. The minute we start speculating on the ontological status of the resurrection we will tie ourselves into knots, leading to errors and bad behaviour. The Resurrection of the Dead is more than a poetic idea, but it is not the same as talking about Newtonian physics or Quantum mechanics. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the firstborn of all who have died, but his appearance in the world after his death was real and spiritual, not ghostly but not quite the same as my current bodily existence. So I will use the language I find in scripture to talk of what happens to the dead, and what I trust will happen at the Last Trumpet, but I will not assert that it looks anything like “The Good Place” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

And I would answer the second one that one can certainly appreciate Herbert’s poetic mastery without necessarily believing what he (and I and billions of other Christians) believe. That said, perhaps it is not an accident that agnostic poets of the Twentieth century like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden became observant Christians in the middle of their lives. Just as Christian musicians often find that their deepest piety is expressed in music, so poets may find that they are expressing something divine in their own words, and cannot help but be transformed by it. At the very least, I would hope that someone is challenged by these words, and if not themselves brought to faith, at least be impressed by the faith and skill of those wrote them.

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Four Last Things: Death

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Tuesday after the First Sunday of Advent
Day Two

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

In Medieval Catholic teaching, and subsequent Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Advent was associated with the Four Last Things, namely Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is not that the readings in the lectionaries ever lent themselves to such topics, but the yearly remembrance of the First Coming of Christ calls to mind the Second Coming. The Second Coming is filled with aspects of apocalyptic judgement from Revelation, Mark 13, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and many other New Testament passages, informed by the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Also, fours Sundays of Advent lend themselves to a preaching series, so the Four Last Things were a useful peg on which to hang some hellfire and brimstone preaching. The themes were also used in retreats and other situations – for a literary example of this, one might look to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

Herbert was probably aware of this tradition, as three of his poems towards the end of The Temple are titled Death, Judgement, and Heaven. However, whereas the priest in Joyce’s novel seeks to terrify the young students to faith, Herbert’s poems are more hopeful and gentle. Let’s consider Death.


Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
                           Nothing but bones,
      The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
                           Or ten years hence,
      After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
                         Where we did find
      The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Saviour’s death did put some blood
                           Into thy face,
      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
                           As at Doomsday;
      When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
                           Half that we have
      Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

On Death

Human beings seem to have two attitudes towards death.

One is to see it as a horrible thing, a constant tragedy for humanity. Christians also think like this – Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” and in Revelation 20.14 it is personified and “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” We in Europe and much of North America live in a western death-denying society, where old people are warehoused in poorly funded government care facilities and a premium is put on youth and looking young. The elderly are not looked upon as resources of wisdom, but as impediments to the freedom of their children and a challenge to pension plans. Herbert captures this in his description of death as “an uncouth hideous thing”.

Another approach is to see it more positively – as the conclusion of a life lived, something to be accepted and dealt with. The Order of the Good Death is a US based organization that attempts to empower individuals as they deal with death and the $20 billion funeral industry there. Their buzz-word is “death-positive” in that they seek to encourage people to talk about death and overcome death anxiety, and to look to more environmentally friendly options for the disposal of the body. Most of us do not have a clue about the options around the death of a loved one or what might happen to our own bodies, and so most of us go with what is considered “normal” or the least bother to our loved ones. They have originated “death cafés” in which people come together to talk about death, and sponsor “death salons” in which fans of death-positivity come together in conferences.

In some respects this is compatible with the view of death found in the Hebrew Bible. Death is inevitable, and after death one’s soul goes into a shadowy kind of existence in Sheol, from which no one comes, and one’s normal capacity is so diminished that one cannot even praise the Lord. A good death, in the Hebrew Bible, comes after a long life in which one has many children and grandchildren, and one is blessed with flocks and fields. We see this at the end of the Book of Job, in which the protagonist’s fortunes are restored twofold.

Jews and Christians have the hope of the resurrection of the dead, and this is reflected in the poem, where Death is transformed: “Thou art grown fair and full of grace, / Much in request, much sought for as a good.” Death is now “gay and glad”, in the knowledge that “at Dooms-day . . . souls shall wear their new array, / And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.” This is a long way from the terror used by the Jesuit priest in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and is more in line with the discipline of love described in yesterday’s poem. Through Christ Death is overcome and the fear of death is taken away.

Arnold Stein analyzes the poem in great detail in pages 37-42 of George Herbert’s Lyrics (1968). He notes that the first three stanzas “give us the old wrong view of death, the next two supply the corrected present views, and the conclusion is drawn in a single [final] stanza” (p.37). He suggests that “the reader is not likely to know that an argument is . . . being produced until . . . the “Therefore” at the beginning of the sixth and last stanza” (ibid). The argument takes us through two contrasting views of death, with the result being that we no longer need have any anxiety about death, and whether we fall asleep only to rise awake again or whether we fall asleep only to die, and yet rise again, should make no difference. The calm of eternity enters into the present.

Technical Stuff

I am terrible at scanning poetry, and figuring out where the accent or stress is. It comes up in my pronunciation of Modern Greek, too, when I put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. So I won’t even try, That said, I do note that the lines of each stanza have the following number syllables:

  1. Ten
  2. Four
  3. Eight
  4. Ten

The rhyme is ABBA, CDDC, etc. We might wonder at the rhyming of blood with good but try imagining it like a Cockney would say it, or someone from northern England, where the double -oo- is shorter than we might prounounce it today, more like a short -ou- . The way the aristocracy spoke in the early 17th century was not the way their heirs did in the 20th century, with a BBC received pronunciation or the Queen’s English. For an example of how it sounded, have a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiblRSqhL04.

Arnold Stein makes another astute observation about this poem, but which may be extended to Herbert’s style in general, which he describes as “plain” and relatively passionless:

the colloquial phrasing contributes to the casualness with which a complex and difficult human attitude is made to seem natural and easy. (p. 57)

Compared to his contemporaries Herbert does seem more accessible, and yet his themes are no less complicated and high than theirs. Stuck midway between William Shakespeare and John Milton, and overlapping with John Donne, he shares their love and mastery of phrase, but eschews some of the more dramatic effects for a direct address to the reader. With Donne you have a man whose reputation and excellence precedes him, Milton is literally on an epic level incomprehensible to someone well-versed in both the Classics and Christian theology, and Shakespeare is, well, the Bard, the genius of the Globe, whom you want to applaud. George Herbert is different: one feels as though one is sitting down with a very learned but even more approachable friend.

Tomorrow I will look at the next poem after Death, entitled Dooms-day.

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Love’s Discipline

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Monday after the First Sunday of Advent

To start this retreat let’s begin with Herbert’s Discipline.


Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
                  O my God,
Take the gentle path.

For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
                  I aspire
To a full consent.

Not a word or look
I affect to own,
                  But by book,
And thy book alone.

Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
                  Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.

Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
                  For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.

Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
                  And can shoot,
And can hit from far.

Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
                  Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
         Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.


The title might make the reader think that it is a celebration of God’s discipline, understood as punishment, but it is not. My sense is that the word “discipline” had a pluriform meaning in the early 17th century, as it does now. As a verb or as a noun we might understand it to be the punishment from a teacher to a wayward student; hence, it may involve a beating with a rod or a strap, on the hand or one’s backside. In its simpler sense, though, it may merely be the becoming a disciple, adopting the rigors of training in order to master a field of study. This kind of discipline may be challenging, sometimes costly, but it is not a punishment, merely the price of admission to a guild.

Biographical Speculation

We do not know when Herbert wrote this poem, but that doesn’t have to stop us from speculating and interpolating biographical detail into its meaning. We know enough of Herbert’s biography to imagine that he may be expressing in this poem his exasperation with disappointment. Most of his adult career was focused on finding an important position in government, perhaps even at court, hopes that ended when James VI and I of Scotland and England died in 1625. He did not intend for a career in the church, and delayed ordination until the age of thirty-six; in all likelihood never expected he to be the incumbent priest of a small parish outside Salisbury. As well, he had health issues, including tuberculosis, which led to his early death at the age of thirty-nine after only three years of ordained life.

Technical Issues

Whatever Herbert was thinking, a close reading on the poem and see what its internal structure reveals. Regarding the poetic meter, Ann Pasternak Slater notes that it is

metrically interesting, each stanza alternating between an urgent trochaic trimeter catalectic ( ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ) in the long lines slowed by a molossus ( ‘ ‘ ‘ ) in the short third line. (George Herbert, The Complete English Works, p. 482)

Yeah, I need a dictionary to figure out what she is saying, too.

  • So, the stanzas are the four line sections, with two long lines, one short third line, but then another long line (although none of them are very long.
  • If something is trochaic then it is made up of trochees (of course). A trochee is “a metrical foot consisting of one long syllable followed by one short syllable or of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable” (Merriam-Webster). You are probably more familiar with iamb, which consists of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable; it is sometimes suggested that English is naturally iambic. A foot in English poetry usually consists of two syllables, but sometimes, following Greek and Latin poetry, may have three.
  • Trimeter means there are three metrical feet. Shakespeare usually wrote in iambic pentameter – five feet of iambs. Herbert is not Shakespeare, and so plays with a wide variety of poetic forms.
  • Catalectic indicates that the last foot is missing a final syllable.

So, putting this all together, Pasternak Slater, in saying that the first, second, and fourth lines are each a trochaic trimeter catalectic, she means that each line has five syllables ending on an accent, represented symbolically by ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ . We can see this in the first line: Thrów awáy thy ród.

  • Finally, a molossus is just a foot of three long syllables: ‘ ‘ ‘ : O my God, It does indeed interrupt the trochees. In terms of content the third line sets up the fourth, and the third and fourth either contrast with the first two lines, or expands upon those first two. Finally, the rhyme structure is simple enough, ABAB, CDCD, etc.


In the first few stanzas the poet pleads with God to “Throw away thy rod . . . thy wrath.” The speaker in the poet does not want God to act in anger, but to recognise that they have already turned to God. The poet is all too aware of how far they fall short of the glory of God.

Then, in the fifth stanza – just after the midpoint of the poem – he introduces the figure of Love – capital “L” Love. Love will remove love, and is described as having a bow and a “man of war.” There is some connection here to Cupid/Eros, who shoots arrows of romantic love, although we are not to imagine this Love as being a chubby boy with wings or someone whose projectiles result in romantic love between humans, but between God and human. Really, Herbert here imagines Love as someone quite different. Not the image at left, but more like the one on the right.

Indeed, not even God escapes this Love. Herbert writes, “That which wrought on thee/Brought thee low” – a reference to the fact that in love God emptied the Word into human form and death on the cross. The poet desires that this same kind of love work on him. The final stanza restates the first and generalizes this desire for Love’s arrows all humankind.

Perhaps, then, this is another kind of discipline, a discipline of love. It has an erotic dimension, not in some fetishized way, but as an ascetic practice that makes the “stony hearts” bleed.


In my own life punishment or the fear of it has never featured very greatly; perhaps that speaks to the privilege that I as an upper-class “white” male enjoy. I have never felt the whip to be much of a goad to action, but the promise of recognition or simply the pleasure of achieving something has always been more influential. For much of my life that manifested itself as being competitive, as I attempted to climb the career ladder, such as it was in the Anglican Church of Canada. Now it mostly shows itself in a desire to be of use to others, whether in the parish in which I work, to my family, to the church in general, or the community in which I live. I like to tell myself that this is more of a discipline of love, which is itself grounded in the love of God. The discipline is kenotic – as Christ is poured out from divinity to humanity, from life to death, so I am called to let go of things to which I am attached in order to be able to give of myself completely.

Of course, Love has its erotic dimension as well, which Herbert would have appreciated. C. S. Lewis famously differentiated between “eros” and “agapē” in his book The Four Loves (1960), and argued that only the latter was divine love. However, in both the pre-Christian Jewish-Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint) and in the New Testament the division is not so obvious – divine love is described using both terms. And it may be that Herbert sees the Love that makes a stony heart bleed is a positive thing – that one wants to change, that one will do something against one’s predisposition for love of another, whether a spouse, a child, or God. In terms of carrots and sticks, Gods wrath is a stick, but God’s Love is a carrot and is more powerful.

“Love needs work on me.” I am not fully there, but “my heart’s desire / Unto thine is bent”. “Though I fail . . Though I halt in pace / Yet I creep / To the throne of grace”. I’ve never been big on the wrath of God, and I was not raised to understand God as a wrathful judge. I do not see people’s misfortunes and automatically think that God is judging them (although I do believe the world is set up in a way such that evil deeds will usually cause an evildoer’s downfall). My God has always been a loving God who gives of God’s own self from creation to redemption and everything in between. So the discipline I desire is that of Love.

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