George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer

Another long-haired, lute-playing, Anglican priest

Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the
city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us
new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting Wednesday
May 11th I will be exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now.

May 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,

May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’

June 1st Tennyson and the insights of doubt,

June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the insights of science

So here is number two in the series. As always you can hear the recording either by clicking on the ‘play’ button, if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. I am also posting, below the link for the lecture, a copy of the poems read and discussed, together with a written commentary on the poem “Prayer” which covers some of the same ground as this talk and which is taken from my book Faith Hope and Poetry

herbert on prayer


Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The Soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian Plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’Almightie, sinners tower

Reversed Thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world-transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune which all things hear and fear;

softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,

The land of spices; something understood

From Providence
O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
Strongly and sweetly movest! shall I write,
And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
To hold my quill? shall they not do thee right?

Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise.

Beasts fain would sing; birds dittie to their notes;
Trees would be tuning on their native lute
To thy renown: but all their hands and throats
Are brought to Man, while they are lame and mute.

Man is the worlds high Priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as springs use that fall, and windes that blow.
Wherefore, most sacred Spirit, I here present
For me and all my fellows praise to thee:
And just it is that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.

We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendent, and divine;
Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,
While all things have their will, yet none but thine.

…..Thou art in small things great, not small in any:
Thy even praise can neither rise, nor fall.
Thou art in all things one, in each thing many:
For thou art infinite in one and all.

The Following is an extract from the Introduction to Faith Hope and Poetry

A Cascade of Images

Our first impression is of the sheer wealth, almost over-abundance, of beautiful images contained in striking and memorable phrases we are being offered. This is not the honing and concentration on the single vision, but a kind of rainbow refraction of many insights, a scattering of many seeds broadcast. For each of these images is in its own way a little poem, or the seed of a poem, ready to grow and unfold in the readers mind. And the different seeds take root at different times, falling differently in the soil of the mind each time one returns to this poem. I have been reading it for over thirty years now and I still find its images springing up freshly in my mind and showing me new things. For the purpose of this Introduction we will delve in and examine four of these little seeds, these poems in themselves within the images, before we take a wider view and see how they all fit together in the larger poem itself.

‘Prayer the churches banquet’.

This opening phrase carries, with the choice of the word ‘banquet’, a picture not of some puritan modicum, some strict or grudging allowance of necessity, but rather of largesse, generosity, and the good measure of a royal occasion. It’s a phrase that sets the poem’s tone, for of course a banquet is exactly what Herbert gives us; course after course, and layer after layer, of nourishing images. In fourteen lines he heaps up twenty-seven different images of the experience of prayer. But the phrase ‘churches banquet’ alludes to and summons up the rich complex of feast and banquet imagery in Scripture and the Church’s life. Behind this passage lies the covenant meal of the Old Testament, the great wedding feast with which Jesus so often compared the kingdom, to which we must bring ourselves ‘well drest’, but most importantly the Last Supper and through it the Holy Communion which is the foretaste of the banquet of heaven, to which, in another of Herbert’s poems Love himself bids us welcome.

‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’

This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last[1]

. Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:

And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’[2]

Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord.

‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’

This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, much as we saw in the Heaney poem, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a canon shot at God, since the other ‘engine’, the siege tower, is already covered in the phrase ‘sinners tower’. Herbert uses this image even more explicitly in his poem ‘Artillery’ where he says:

‘then we are shooters both and thou dost deign

To enter combat with us and contest,

With thine own clay’.[3]

The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors[4] but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his friend John Donne:

‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’[5]

But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ.

 ‘The six-days world-transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear’;

Transposition is very much what poetry and all literary art is about. To hear snatches from the huge unknowable symphony of experience, to catch them and transpose them to a key that resonates with our understanding, so that at some point they harmonise with that unheard melody from heaven we are always trying to hear, that is the purpose of poetry. ‘Transposition’ for Herbert in this poem involves taking of the whole story of creation and a reworking of it within our individual life of prayer. Meditating on the six days of creation as a key to understanding ones own place in the order of things was a tradition which had begun for the West with Augustine’s beautiful meditation on Genesis at the end of his Confessions. It had been continued in Herbert’s age by his older contemporary Lancelot Andrewes whose private devotions were ordered around the governing images derived in each day’s creation, and there is a beautiful contemporary example of ‘the six days world’ transposed literally in ‘an hour’ in a sermon of John Donne’s ‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth’[6], which takes us symbolically through every step in the genesis creation narrative and was written to be heard in exactly an hour.

These transpositions lead to the making of ‘a kind of tune’ and if this is true of prayer it is also true of poetry and of this poem for here again is Heaney’s ‘music that you never would have known to listen for’.

One might take each of these twenty-seven images in turn and find as much fruit in them: the window on the mysteries of communion in ‘exalted manna’, all the sense both of life and sacrifice packed into ‘soul’s blood’, the evocation of the riches of the enchanted and far away in ‘land of spices’, and perhaps most tellingly the superb compression and paradox in ‘Heaven in ordinary’, a phrase which in itself sums up the heart of the Gospel in God’s incarnation in a stable, but also stands for the heart of the kind of poetry we will explore in this book. It is precisely the restored vision that sees the ordinary afresh, and allows us to see heaven in it, to be with Blake in ‘The Auguries of Innocence’;

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour[7]

or as we were with Heaney, to enter heaven through the ear of a raindrop.

 The Integration of the Poem as Whole:

We could meditate further on these individual images but I want to turn now to look at how they are related to each other and to the poem as a whole, for the ability to feel the energy that arises from the forces and tensions within the poem is part of what we need to rediscover in order to enjoy poetry at depth. Looking at the poem as a whole it seems almost modern in the way Herbert allows himself freedom from syntax and logic. The poem is technically a single sentence with only one full stop at the end of it bringing us to a rest after the roller-coaster ride through the images, with the quiescent phrase ‘something understood’. But it is a strange sentence. There is no main verb. It makes no statement. Its meaning is not carried on the surface of its grammar. It is a world away from Sprat’s ‘bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as we can’[8]. No, the meaning of this poem is carried not by the syntax of the sentence, but by the images themselves, by the way image speaks to image in point and counterpoint. For here there is both a congruence, which gives the poem flow and unity, and also a disparity, which gives it tension and energy. There are lines of congruence between ‘banquet’, ‘softness’, ‘manna, and gladness, well-drest’, ‘land of spices’, all suggesting sumptuousness and celebration. There is congruence between the music imagery of ‘transposing’…’kind of tune’. and ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’, but there is a power in the tension of a poem which in lines 4 and 5 has the loud violence of ‘engine against th’almighty’ and ‘reversed thunder’ yet has moved in line 9 to ‘softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss’. At the end of the poem something is understood precisely because the poem has been able to hold these extremes in tension with each other, which is of course exactly what the life of prayer does for the practising Christian.

Then there is the whole subtle achievement across this poem of transposition and paraphrase, both terms mentioned in the poem itself. The theme of giving back to heaven what heaven first gave, which is what prayer essentially is, is transposed across a series of different keys from ‘breath returning to its birth’ through ‘reversed thunder’, to its fullest expression in ‘exalted manna’, the offering to God of his own gift in the Eucharist. When Herbert speaks of prayer as ‘the soul in paraphrase’ he is using that term to describe the way in which through prayer we find a new language, a new set of terms in which to express ourselves and in paraphrasing ourselves to God in our hour of prayer we are, through the terms of our paraphrase, seeing ourselves afresh in His light. And this in turn is what the poem itself does. Each of the twenty-seven images it offers is itself a paraphrase of the experience of prayer. Between them they offer us a series of new understandings of who we are and what we are doing when we engage in prayer. These notions of ‘transposition’ and ‘paraphrase’ will be a key to understanding much of the poetry we encounter in this book.

The other thematic key which we have already noted both in this poem and in ‘Rain Stick’ is paradox and reversal, the sudden setting of things on their heads, the ‘reversed thunder’, the ‘up-ending’ of the rain stick. Through the break in our world made by the shock of paradox there sometimes flows a new light.

It is the combination of all these things, working together within the subtle unity of the poem which enables us to hear ‘a kind of tune’, that stirs ‘The souls blood’, and leads at last to ‘something understood’.

[1] Luke 23:46

[2] John 20: 22

[3] ‘Artillery’ lines 25-28 in The Complete English Works p.136

[4] For example Ephesians 6:13 forward

[5]  The Sermons of John Donne ed. Potter and Simpson, (Los Angeles, 1953-1962) vol. V  p.364

[6] ibid vol. II  pp.235-249

[7]Auguries of Innocence lines 1-4 In The Poetical Works of William Blake edited by John Sampson,( OUP 1952) p171

[8] See above p.00


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems, St. Edward's, Theology and Arts

27 responses to “George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer

  1. Pingback: Christ and the Cambridge Poets 3: Christopher Smart | Malcolm Guite

  2. Pingback: Christ and the Cambridge Poets 4: Tennyson and the insights of Doubt | Malcolm Guite

  3. Pingback: Christ and the Cambridge Poets 5: Gwyneth Lewis | Malcolm Guite

  4. Ken Evans

    I loved this web site, very thought provoking ! Thanks

  5. Pingback: Paraphrasing “Prayer” « cosmographie

  6. Karen Looby

    I just finished listening to your lecture on George Herbert and might I say that it was a banquet as well. The poem “Prayer” was beautiful to read, but with your insights and explanations, it became a rich feast. I thought of Isaiah 55:2-“…your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” When I had finished listening, I felt as though I had had a deep drink for which I did not know I had a thirst. I have always loved poetry and your commentary illuminates the ideas which Herbert penned. Your comments on his phrases “‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,” reminded me of Steve Bell’s thoughts on “censoring the laments”. Thank you so much for making these lectures available. I am planning to listen next to your thoughts on Edmund Spenser.

  7. Thank you for a lucid analysis of this poem, parts of which had really puzzled me. A great poem.

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  14. Dennis Bruce

    Thank you again!

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  18. I am re-reading Dennis Lennon’s ‘Turning the Diamond’, his series of reflections on Herbert’s ‘Prayer’. He is full of enthusiasm but tackles them as a theologian – that yields some rich insights but as a literature graduate I find myself sometimes dissatisfied – he has not understood the text, nor its context! I came to you for your ‘take’ on it, Malcolm – especially the phrase ‘Six days’ world transposing in an hou’ which was really puzzling me this morning. Having read this, all is now clearer – it takes a Christian poet to understand another. So thank you.

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