The Flower

A few weeks ago, when the semester fell into full swing, I found my desk covered with books and notes-to-self scrawled in various places on bits of paper. That’s actually how I like things—I prefer to nest in at least a little bit of clutter—but at one point I became overwhelmed. There’s no snow here in Britain, but I had that grim, resigned feeling I would have felt back in Michigan marching out to shovel the sidewalk while more snow is falling, just to keep up.

When I sat down to get things sort of sorted, my eyes immediately fell on a single sentence scrawled on one slip of paper, right between various logistical details: “You must believe in spring.”

My wife had come across a recording of this song by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, and she had mentioned in an email that I needed to take a listen. I had jotted the title down so that I’d remember to check it out.

I have to say, she wasn’t wrong.

Stories of hope

I took two pictures on my flight from the USA to the UK in January. There had been some question of whether I would get off the ground at all. A winter storm was sweeping eastward across Michigan, and the airline was canceling flights left and right, including the one I had originally planned to take from Grand Rapids to Detroit. My wife and son had driven me three hours to the airport so that I could at least keep my original flight to London (and thereby make my trains and Covid test in the UK). The two of them had hurried home—into the blizzard—while I nervously watched the terminal monitors to see whether my flight would, in fact, fly.

The ice and snow had just been closing in on the airport as we fastened our seatbelts pulled back from the gate. For some reason, I took a picture. Several hours later, I looked out the same window just as the pilot announced our descent into London. And I took another picture.

So when I finally arrived in England and saw these two pictures back to back in my camera roll, I instinctively said, “hope.” They weren’t just isolated snapshots in time. Put together, they suggested a trajectory—a plot—of movement from darkness to light, from ice to sunshine, from the crowded ground to the wide open skies.

Our brains love narratives. Given two separate images, we will naturally try to connect them, often by filling in some causality in between them. That’s how we create a fluid sequence out of the separate frames of a comic book or graphic novel. And “hope” is one of the narratives we love to find or construct.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a run through suburban Liverpool. It was mild and cloudy when I left home. By the time I got down to the River Mersey, the wind was fierce, and it was hailing. Also, the sun was shining through the clouds. I took this picture:

And again, when I saw it in my camera roll, I said, “hope.” The dark anchor, a traditional symbol of hope in the lower left, with glimmers of hail showing against it, while high on the right—over the deep of the river—shines the sun. Read left to right, this image is the same narrative suggested by the two pictures I had taken on my flight here. 

Was I thinking of framing this story to match the earlier one from the airplane, deliberately matching narrative structures while I was buffeted by the wind, exhausted from running, and wondering whether it was safe to be out or whether I should seek shelter? No.

I just took out my phone, snapped the shot as quickly as I could, and hurried home. But there it is. Hope.

It turns out that our host institution here is Liverpool Hope University, formed when Catholic and Anglican schools merged. The name was largely inspired by the fact that Hope Street literally runs between the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals downtown.

Light will break through darkness; the sun will rise over the snow; new unions will heal old and bitter rivalries.

When I read the words “you must believe in spring” in light of these narratives, it seems to me less of an argument—something Tony Bennett is urging me to do—and more of a declarative statement, something we all just do instinctively, whether Tony Bennett wants us to or not. If you’re a human being, you must have a brain, and a heart, and a nervous system. And you must believe in spring, seeing connective patterns of hope in the world around you. It’s a narrative imperative: you simply will connect separate facts to spell hope.

This is especially true if you’re on the Semester in Britain, which runs only in the spring semester. You will begin in grim grey. You will end with daffodils, at the very least.

“The Flower”

We’ve been reading and analyzing at least one or two George Herbert poems each week, and for tonight I’ve picked “The Flower.” I consider it one of Herbert’s very best poems, and I’d like to save it for later, but last week’s reflective writings and our recent conversations have suggested that students are emotionally ready for it now. Many of the students have now been through not one but two rounds of homesickness, so their internal weather has cycled through a few seasons. Plus I’ve seen crocuses muscling their way through the dead leaves along my favorite running route. It’s time.

Those crocuses, though, are part of the problem.

When you read a poem called “The Flower” and see that it involves spiritual struggle—especially if you’re reading it during spring time, you will naturally read it as a poem of hope. I have seen many student essays on this poem, all of which treat it as statement of faith that God will see us through the hard times into better ones, and into the best time of all, which is eternity in heaven.

And passages of this poem do indeed present the story of springtime renewal and redemption in simple, vivid terms:

       How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
  Are thy returns! Ev’n as the flowers in spring;
       To which, besides their own demean,
  The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
               Grief melts away
               Like snow in May,
       As if there were no such cold thing.

How lovely is that? The frosts not only go away but, in their melting, water the flowers. The frosts not only retreat with their cold bite; they bring forth the pleasure of the blossoms.

Or these these lines, which have sunk deep into the heart of many a practicing poet:

       And now in age I bud again;
  After so many deaths I live and write;
       I once more smell the dew and rain;
  And relish versing…

The narrative of hope, the one that seems hard-wired into our interpretive apparatus as humans, is undeniably a part of this beautiful, challenging poem. But only one part—and only the easy part.

The stanza quoted immediately above, with the smell of the dew and rain, continues:

               It cannot be
               That I am he
       On whom thy tempests fell all night.

Herbert is pulling a bit of a fast one here. He’s saying that it’s impossible to imagine that the God who restores him had also depleted him. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says when he describes the difference between guards and prisoners in the Gulag, “Don’t expect someone who’s warm to understand someone who’s cold.” But by saying that it’s impossible to imagine it, Herbert makes us imagine it. By naming the thing that he cannot see, he makes it visible.

This is Herbert through and through: when he is saying one thing, he’s also often saying the exact opposite. He’ll tell you that he’s “a broken altar” in a poem that literally forms the shape of a complete altar on the printed page. He’ll say that his heart “scarce can groan” in the concluding couplet that polishes off a perfect sonnet. 

(My basic scholarly line on Herbert’s poems is that they’re dialogic: there are at least two voices operating in most of his poems, often one that dictates what the poem says and a totally different one dictating how the poem says it.)

In “The Flower,” Herbert insists that winter seems impossible in spring time—“as if there were no such cold thing”—and in saying so remind us of those old cold things we would otherwise deny. Even the sweetness of the opening lines comes with a bitter shadow: God’s refreshing “returns” presuppose God’s departure.

Other passages of the poem clearly show God angrily punishing, rejecting, freezing the poet.

So the poem is not just a progression from pain to joy. If a part of the poem’s tonality comes from the Song of Solomon (“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth”), another part of it comes from Job (“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”).

In fact, one of the subtle but notable features of the poem is its persistent present tense. The positive moments of the poet’s experience are emphatically present: “How fresh… are thy returns”; “And now in age, I bud again.” But don’t let the “hope archetype” fool you: the negative moments are also in the present tense: “Thy anger comes, and I decline.”

One critic (Anthony Low) points out that there are three forms of the present tense in the poem: the simple present, the historical present, and the eternal present. The poet is both inside time and outside of time—at the same time. Which is to say that the poem somehow embodies the reality of Christian existence.

In short, both the joy and the suffering are fully present—in one form or another—in the multidimensional moment that is the poem. Herbert has taken the two separate phases in the narrative of hope and stacked them on top of each other.

The second stanza, especially, seems to me a masterpiece:

       Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
  Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
       Quite underground; as flowers depart
  To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
               Where they together
               All the hard weather,
       Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

If you’re a poet writing about a flower, and you come to the point of your poem when you need to describe the flower in winter, I’ll bet you reach for imagery of graves, dust, darkness, and that kind of thing. 

What you don’t do is to describe birth, community, housekeeping. Not in that part of your poem. But that’s exactly what Herbert has done. That dead moment in the narrative? That’s part of God’s rhythm, too. It’s strangely alive.

But even that beautiful stanza doesn’t negate bitter realities. The next two stanzas show God not nourishing an apparently dead flower from below but striking down an apparently growing one from above, all under the topic sentence “These are thy wonders, God of power.” (Note the present tense verb.)

Herbert’s larger point in “The Flower” is not that God gets us through the tough times; it’s that the tough times also come from God.

That’s an unsettling point to accept in the abstract, and almost impossible to accept in the middle of a tough time. Herbert doesn’t intend this to be a poem of comfort; he intends to tell the truth. And the whole truth is that fall and winter are also divinely ordained seasons. Tragedy is also an archetypal narrative. 

So yes, Herbert says, you must believe in spring. But you must also believe in that other thing. And “believe” is exactly the right verb here, because winter seems impossible in spring time, and vice versa.

I’ve reached for this poem a couple of times in low moments over the past month and found it profoundly unhelpful. Sure, when I wake up well-rested and ready to write, some of its lines come to mind unbidden. But it never works as a framework within which to understand my own homesickness or sense of failure—at least in the moments when I am feeling those things most acutely.

I fully believe in the big, broad God whom Herbert describes in this poem—a God who is much more than just my personal protector, a God whose plans are far larger than my own well-being and therefore often seem to me dismissive, negligent, or even cruel. 

But when it comes right down to it, I’m a middle-class white American male, which is to say that I’m used to a world which is largely designed by and for people just like me. (It also calls into question my earlier assertion that the narrative of hope is embedded in human nature; surely there are less-privileged humans who would beg to differ.) Whatever my theological convictions, I just don’t like being discomforted; it seems wrong.

And I think my students are on my side here. We’ve been reading Psalm 90 every week, discussing the verses that seem particularly relevant, and students are persistently surprised at the idea that God punishes sin and afflicts believers:

    For we are consumed by your anger;
        by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
    You have set our iniquities before you,
        our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
    For all our days pass away under your wrath;
        our years come to an end like a sigh.

That’s not the God they know, or at least not an aspect of God they’ve often experienced or considered—which is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen “The Flower.”

My main job here in Britain is to blend the academic and experiential aspects of the program: to get students to physically explore British culture as we study it, and to get them to think in a scholarly way about the things they’re experiencing. Sometimes that doesn’t mean climbing a castle. Sometimes it’s just reading one’s own emotional weather in terms of a good poem.

As much as I would love my students to leave my class with intimate knowledge of this poem—or any poem, for that matter—what I’m going for is not so much knowledge as skills: the skill of being able to recognize a misleading narrative through which you’re reading something; the skill of stepping outside that narrative; the skill of bringing one’s own experience into genuine dialogue with a text.

We’ll see how that goes.

Published by


Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."