The gates of bliss

Over the past several Easters I've posted a number of George Herbert poems, but I've never posted his longest and most moving Passion poem: “The Sacrifice.” It's the story of Jesus' capture and execution from his own lips, overlaid with his God's-eye view of myth and mystery. Every aspect of the episode is given its symbolic resonance, its echo through the law and the prophets and the long history of God's forbearance. Even now, I won't post the whole thing because it's immense, but here are a few stanzas. You can find the whole poem here - it's six times as long, and full of riches.

Arise, arise, they come. Look how they runne!
Alas! what haste they make to be undone!
How with their lanterns do they seek the sunne!
Was ever grief like mine?

Judas, dost thou betray me with a kisse?
Canst thou finde hell about my lips? and misse
Of life, just at the gates of life and blisse?
Was ever grief like mine?

All my Disciples flie; fear puts a barre
Betwixt my friends and me. They leave the starre,
That brought the wise men of the East from farre.
Was ever grief like mine?

Ah! how they scourge me! yet my tendernesse
Doubles each lash: and yet their bitternesse
Windes up my grief to a mysteriousnesse:
Was ever grief like mine?

And now I am deliver’d unto death,
Which each one calls for so with utmost breath,
That he before me well nigh suffereth:
Was ever grief like mine?

Weep not, deare friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were bloud, the while you slept:
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept:
Was ever grief like mine?

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climbe the tree;
The tree of life to all, but onely me:
Was ever grief like mine?

Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sinne,
The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
Was ever grief like mine?

But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,
The sonne, in whom thou dost delight to be?
My God, my God ------
Never was grief like mine.

But now I die; now all is finished.
My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head.
Onely let others say, when I am dead,
Never was grief like mine.


Thou wast up by break of day

“Easter,” by George Herbert, 1633.

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                  Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                  With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
                                                  With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
                                                  Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
                                                  Pleasant and long:
Or, since all music is but three parts vied
                                                  And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.


We lose what on ourselves we spend

Thinking about living beautifully and well, the words of this hymn stood out to me when we sang it last Sunday. Peaceful homes and healthful days - as good a summary as any of what we all want - are indeed treasures, but we can't keep them, not least because we live in a world undone. Curious, I looked up the hymn and found it was written by Christopher Wordsworth (1807 - 1885), nephew of the much more famous William. Later in a splendid ecclesiastical career Christopher became Bishop of Lincoln, but one of his first posts was University Orator at Cambridge - a job George Herbert had roughly two centuries before him. There is something Herbertesque in this hymn's strange rhythm and homely idiom. Herbert would certainly have agreed that we lose what on ourselves we spend, though, like me, I think he would have found the move from the affirmations of the first three stanzas to those of the final two hard - and lifelong - work.                   

O Lord of heaven and earth and sea,     
To Thee all praise and glory be.
How shall we show our love to Thee,     
Who givest all?

The golden sunshine, vernal air,     
Sweet flowers and fruit, Thy love declare.
When harvests ripen, Thou art there,     
Who givest all.

For peaceful homes and healthful days,
For all the blessings earth displays,     
We owe Thee thankfulness and praise,
Who givest all.

Thou didst not spare Thine only Son,     
But gav'st Him for a world undone,
And freely with that Blessed One     
Thou givest all.   

For souls redeemed, for sins forgiven,   
For means of grace and hopes of heaven,   
What can to Thee, O Lord, be given   
Who givest all?

We lose what on ourselves we spend;   
We have as treasure without end   
Whatever Lord, to Thee we lend,
Who givest all.   

To Thee, from whom we all derive   
Our life, our gifts, our power to give. 
Oh, may we ever with Thee live, 
Who givest all!

The good fellowship of dust

Reading George Herbert and teaching Shakespeare I became intrigued by one of the period's most insistent images: dust. It stands in for death, decay, futility, vanity - many things of which they found it necessary to remind themselves. It's both the stuff and the doom of human life. Hamlet’s ‘quintessence of dust’ is everywhere in Herbert. The dust of worldliness ‘stings his eyes’ whenever he’s tempted to want the world. His habits and frailties make him ‘guilty of dust and sinne’ when Love invites him in. Christ’s death makes his heart dust, before it can be transmuted into gold by the resurrection. One of my favourite poems is the slightly strange “Church Monuments”, where he bids his wayward body take acquaintance of a heap of dust, so it can grow accustomed to its fate. I wonder if Herbert's parishioners very often came into the church to find their pastor lying on the floor, or in earnest contemplation of a monument.

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death's incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent; that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

No solid happiness

The few women poets contemporary with Shakespeare and Donne were more or less completely overshadowed. (Germaine Greer and others have helped a few of them into the light.) Later in the seventeenth century, women poets were better known, particularly the introspective, devotional kind. George Herbert did a lot to make poetry part of being devout, and Ann (or sometimes An) Collins was one of the more gifted of his many admirers. The themes and images here are conventional, but she brings a simplicity and felicity of phrase that are very pleasing, and a gentle conviction that she knows of what she speaks. I like the last line especially. This is “The Soul's Home,” published around 1650.

Such is the force of each created thing
That it no solid happiness can bring,
Which to our minds can give contentment sound;
For, like as Noah’s dove no succour found,
Till she returned to him that sent her out,
Just so, the soul in vain may seek about
For rest or satisfaction any where,
Save in his presence who hath sent her here;
Yea though all earthly glories should unite
Their pomp and splendour to give such delight,
Yet could they no more sound contentment bring
Than star-light can make grass or flowers spring.