On this Easter morning I have already posted George Herbert’s glorious Easter poem but I thought I would add a couple of my own; the fifteenth and final sonnet from my Stations of the Cross sequence, and a villanelle for Easter which I composed one dark morning last year whilst out walking my dog. Lancia Smith has made a beautiful image with lines from the new poem.
This sonnet, and the others I have been posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
As usual you can hear the poems by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Here is George Herbert’s beautiful Easter poem, together with my commentary on it from The Word in the Wilderness.
I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage.
Linda writes about this picture:
For Easter day I tried to paint something that looks like an icon. An icon is not intended to show a real human face but is a simplification of composition and an absence of naturalism. Space and surface are emphasised, personal interpretation is eliminated and an icon is meant to be read as part of a religious practice.
The icon points us to the Divinity of Christ and as we come to Easter day we see Christ now with our “spiritual eyes”. Here Jesus is radiant with gold circling round his head and royal robes of blue. The incarnate One is now risen, and to me, he is once again the Word of God and the one we gaze on with the “eye of the heart”.
He is telling us that we too are children of the Light, that we come from the Light and we will return to the Light. We are the beloved of the Father.
As always you can hear me read the poem by Clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
For the last poem in this journey together on this day of glorious beginnings we return to George Herbert who has been such a companion and guide to us throughout.
So much of George Herbert’s poetry is in a kind of hidden dialogue, a call and response with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible that he knew so well. So in this poem his starting point is psalm 57.8−11, one of the proper psalms for Easter Day Matins, and especially verse 9:
Awake up, my glory, awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early.
Herbert responds to that psalmic injunction with the words ‘Rise Heart; thy Lord is risen’ and in the second verse, ‘Awake my Lute’! He has sung the psalm in his ‘common prayer’ his public worship, and now he is applying it within himself and to his whole day. But as so often, in that application, the personal becomes the present, the tactile, the deft, the courteous. The Risen Christ of Easter is not, in this first verse, the cosmic Pantocrator but the familiar friend or lover who offers you a hand as you rise in the morning:
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.
And then, in one of Herbert’s sudden luminous shifts, the poem takes an alchemical turn:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
‘Calcined’ was the term used by alchemists for the fierce heat that burns away any impurity, bringing whatever passed through the flame to a purer state. So another poet of the time could write, ‘Yet you by a chaste Chimicke Art/Calcine frail love to pietie’ (William Habington, in Wilcox, year, p. 141). And after that ‘calcining’ experience of Good Friday, Easter brings the great transmutation of which Herbert had spoken in his other alchemical poem, The Elixir, ‘this is the famous stone that turneth all to gold’. But the transformative element is not a fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’, it is new life in Jesus Christ: ‘His life may make thee gold’
So in the first verse Herbert calls on his heart to rise. He echoes the psalm of Matins, even as he is preparing himself for the Eucharist with its ‘Sursum Corda’; ‘lift up your hearts’
Now in the second verse, again following the morning psalm, he calls upon his Lute:
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
And here he leaves alchemy behind and begins some beautifully extended musical metaphors. First with the daring and beautiful idea that
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
Terse lines evoke a kind of mystical empathy in which even the wood of his own lute is somehow blessed and transformed in the blessing of all wood when the maker of the world was stretched on the tree. And that stretching itself leads to another, and even more daring metaphor:
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
The stretched strings of lute and viol were, of course in Herbert’s day, literally visceral and organic lines of gut which, stretched and struck, set up a sympathetic resonance in the wood. Indeed this whole poem is itself a kind of theology of resonance; of our tuned response to the striking music of Christ’s sacrifice. Herbert’s own language here is extraordinarily sensitive and resonant, so ‘The cross taught all wood to resound his name’ carries in the word ‘taught’ also the sense of the tautness of the strings evoked in the next few lines. Even on Easter Day Herbert looks back to good Friday and in the light of Easter sees Christ’s ‘stretched sinew’ on the cross making a new music.
So Herbert’s heart and lute are brought together in a ‘consort’, a word which meant both a musical ensemble and a social harmony. But is it enough? No, in the third verse Herbert brings in, draws in, the Spirit, the breath that Jesus exhaled to bring us new life. He does so through another fine musical metaphor. The basis of all harmony is the triad, all music is ‘but three parts, vied and multiplied’ so Herbert needs a third part, to join lute and heart and invokes the Spirit:
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
The heart is our inner feeling, the lute is the art and skill with which those inner feelings find outward expression, but neither is complete without the Spirit that gives life to all, that prays within us when we do not know how to pray. And here the Spirit comes, not as an overwhelming or overmastering experience from above, but alongside us, as a fellow musician who has come with us to ‘bear a part’.
So now, at the end of the first part of the poem Herbert is awake, his lute is tuned, he has found in the spirit an accompanist and he is ready to begin the song, and it is the song itself which forms the second part of the poem.
This lovely lyric adapts the courtly tradition of the Aubade, the lovers poem at dawn, and here Herbert playfully suggests that even the ‘Sun arising in the East’ would be presumptuous to compete or contend with the rising of this true Son. Indeed the final verse claims that Easter Day is the only day; ‘Can there be any day but this? … we count three hundred but we misse’ he says, meaning the three hundred and fifty (rounded to three hundred) days of the year are wrongly counted! ‘we misse’! there is only ever one day, the true Easter.
We have been travelling together in this book through forty eight days together, but if George Herbert is right it has only been one day! From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection and by its light we can look back over our long pilgrimage and see the glory of this day, hidden once, but shining now, in all we have been through.