Here is an extract from my book The Word in the Wilderness, marking George Herbert’s Day, February 27th:
Today the Church keeps the memory of George Herbert, who has been so strong a companion with us on our Lenten Journey. Shortly before he died he sent the precious manuscript of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at ‘Little Gidding’, asking him to publish them only if he thought that they might ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’, but otherwise to burn them. Fortunately for us Ferrar realized what a treasure he had been given and took them to Cambridge to be published as The Temple. They have been in print ever since, and have turned to the spiritual advantage of countless souls.
This sonnet reflects on a number of Herbert’s poems, but particularly on his master-piece ‘The Flower’. In that poem he imagines himself as a flower, sometimes blossoming sometimes shriveled back to its mother root, but somehow still capable of recovery:
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; 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.
But, as he goes through these traumas of loss and recovery, an inevitable part of our being in time, he longs, in a beautiful metaphor, to be transplanted at last into the true paradise of heaven:
O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
So my sonnet celebrates the fact that he is now where he longed to be, in the place he had glimpsed ‘through the glass, in The Elixir. The Flower also contains the beautiful and mysterious lines:
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.
Just as Easter had suggested that there is really only one true day, shining through the ‘three hundred’ so here, in a moment of mystical intuition, Herbert senses that the one Word shines through and undergirds the myriad things we encounter, and I have alluded to that at the conclusion of my sonnet.
If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.
I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,
With all that passed between you and your Lord,
That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles
Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.
Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,
Has been entrusted now to every soul,
We make a new beginning in your end
And find your broken heart has made us whole.
Time has transplanted you, and you take root,
Past changing in the paradise of Love,
Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,
And listen for an echo from above,
Open the window, let me hear you sing,
And see the Word with you in everything.
3 responses to “A Sonnet for George Herbert”
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Thanks Brenda, I wondered why you are leaving me your address.
I’ve been mooching around your blog for a month or so, keeping finding fresh pleasures and edifications, with lots to comment on. I think it will give some pleasure to know that reading it sends me back to Herbert, though that wasn’t a long distance!
I think you capture his gentleness and his grapplings with his Master, like Jacob whom you bring in elsewhere.
I am now owner of a copy of “Sounding …” though I do have to overlook some liturgical stuff, and the Rev title! But the faith shines through, and the interest in pilgrimage is interesting. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
And “Keep calm and compose a sonnet” is a good motto.