Today is the feast day of George Herbert, a poet who has quietly but powerfully shaped both the way I write and the way I relate to God.
I brought very few books with me to England—it turns out that books weigh a lot!—just a few of the texts I’d be teaching. But I brought two copies of George Herbert: Helen Wilcox’s doorstopper of a scholarly edition, but also my little beat-up paperback from college days. When I walk in the door of a Herbert poem and have a good look around, I almost always feel less alone.
In honor of the day, here are two poems, with a little bit of commentary.
Lord, I will mean and speak thy praise,
Thy praise alone,
My busie heart shall spin it all my dayes:
And when it stops for want of store,
Then will I wring it with a sigh or grone,
That thou mayst yet have more.
When thou dost favor any action,
It runs, it flies:
All things concur to give it a perfection.
That which had but two legs before,
When thou dost bless, hath twelve: one wheel dost rise
To twenty then, or more.
But when thou dost on business blow,
It hangs, it clogs:
Not all the teams of Albion in a row
Can hale or draw it out of door.
Legs are but stumps, and Pharoah’s wheels but logs,
And struggling hinders more.
Thousands of things do thee employ
In ruling all
This spacious globe: Angels must have their joy,
Devils their rod, the sea his shore,
The winds their stint: and yet when I did call,
Thou heardst my call, and more.
I have not lost one single tear:
But when mine eyes
Did weep to heav’n, they found a bottle there
(As we have boxes for the poor)
Ready to take them in; yet of a size
That would contain much more.
But after thou hadst slipped a drop
From thy right eye,
(Which there did hang like streamers near the top
Of some fair church, to show the sore
And bloody battle which thou once didst try)
The glass was full and more.
Wherefore I sing. Yet since my heart,
Though press’d, runs thin;
O that I might some other hearts convert,
And so take up at use good store:
That in thy chest there might be coming in
Both all my praise, and more!
I won’t say too much about this poem (as I will about “The Altar,” below); it reads pretty well all on its own. I’ll just point out the way its varied meter works in various ways. Even before you begin to read, a quick glance at the page shows you that the line lengths, and therefore the meter, are quite irregular. But they’re regularly irregular—each stanza is metrically identical to the others—and they’re quite effective in communicating different ideas. For example, look at the short second lines of the first three stanzas.
- In the first stanza, the suddenly short phrase “thy praise alone” emphasizes the poet’s focused attention on God. The line itself zooms in.
- In the second stanza, the suddenly short “it runs, it flies” suggests rapid motion. Whereas “thy praise alone” is just a phrase, a little piece of a sentence, this little four-syllable line actually includes two independent clauses—two complete sentences! It accomplishes a lot, quickly.
- In the third stanza, the suddenly short “it hangs, it clogs” is grammatically identical to the short line in the second stanza, but here it suggests the exact opposite of speed. And the exact same poetic trick of truncating the meter works to reinforce these opposing ideas. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because “hangs” and “clogs” seem redundant, stuck, whereas “runs” and “flies” suggest a forward-moving narrative, the two actions Pegasus might take at lift-off.
Similar analysis might be made of the long lines in each stanza.
This entire poem moves through contrasts such as these—and that is very rare for poems and songs of praise, which often seem (to me) to drone on in an exalted monotone. How many other poets would include so much attention to tears in a poem of praise?
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
For years and years, I always skipped this poem when reading or teaching Herbert, because it seemed too easy and obvious. Get it? It’s an altar! Joseph Addison mentioned this poem in particular as an example of “false wit,” and I was inclined to agree with him.
But it’s not at all a simple poem. This is one of the things Herbert does: he’ll give you something that seems superficial, obvious, and plain—but that impression is a deliberate rhetorical choice on Herbert’s part. Every sophisticated orator has the ability to sound like someone who’s unsophisticated and not an orator. Herbert, once the Public Orator of Cambridge University, uses that skill all the time.
To start with the shape of the poem, then. Yes, it’s an altar. It’s also an “I.” The thesis of the poem is that “I am an altar,” and “I = altar” is the implied visual pun of the poem’s shape. Already, the poem is not as simple as it seems: it’s about psychology and identity, not just about a church table.
We’ll get to the psychological dimension in a moment, but it’s also worth noting that Herbert’s presentation of the altar itself was witty and innovative for his day. He seems to have had in mind emblem books, which were quite popular in the early seventeenth century. An early modern emblem has a title, a picture, a motto, and a poem—all of which work together to teach a moral lesson. Several emblems featured a heart on an altar:
In “The Altar,” Herbert condenses such emblems. Instead of a picture plus some text, Herbert gives text that is the picture. Similarly, he doesn’t just set his heart on an altar; his heart in the poem is the altar—which allows him to draw on the many “stony heart” references in scripture. When we see this poem in the context of early modern emblems, it begins to look less like an unimagined stunt and more like the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Similarly, when we move beyond the shape of the poem to its theme—specifically, the issue of identity—it’s complicated. The poem’s governing idea is Luther’s point that a believing Christian is simul justus et peccator, simultaenously righteous and a sinner. That paradox emerges here in several ways:
- “A broken altar, Lord, thy servant rears…” No, he doesn’t. Just look at the shape of the poem: it’s an astonishingly unbroken altar. “Praise (3)” above is shaped much more like a broken altar than this one is.
- “Whose parts are as thy hand did frame.” So, wait: did God frame a broken altar? And if they’re in a “frame,” shouldn’t the “parts” be considered some sort of whole?
- “No workman’s tool hath touched the same.” Well, except for the poet and the typographer. (I had to insert spaces by hand to get those lines all even in the version above.)
At the end of the altar, we have an equivocal ethos, an identity that wavers between “thine” (justus) and “mine” (peccator). We have the poet’s ego and also his (pardon me) altar ego. It is very tempting to read the title of the poem as an implied pun on the word “alter.”
“The Altar” is the first poem in “The Church,” the main collection of Herbert’s poetry. (I wrote a few weeks ago about this placement.) The very next poem, “The Sacrifice” picks up on this equivocal ethos. It is written in the first person (the “I” to which we’ve just been introduced), but the first person is not the poet: it’s Jesus as he is betrayed and crucified.
Yet another context for this poem seems to be Herbert’s own vocation. His biographer Izaak Walton recounts the story of the night when Herbert was installed as priest in his parish at Bemerton. Herbert went inside the little church—which students and I will visit in a few weeks—to ring the bell, and… he just didn’t come out. For a long time. “He stayed so much longer than an ordinary time,” writes Walton, “that his friend Mr. Woodnoth looked in at the church window and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar; at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnoth) he set some rules to himself for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.”
Herbert probably did not get up off the floor that night, give his apologies to the good Mr. Woodnoth, and go home to write “The Altar.” But I suspect that Walton’s anecdote and the poem represent the same spiritual moment, a moment of existential wrestling and reckoning.
Rest in peace, George Herbert, and live in joy.
On this feast day four years ago, I had a George Herbert encounter in York Minster, which you can read about here.