St. Augustine’s Jubilation: a new sonnet

St. Augustine by Bruce Herman

Today is St. Augustine’s day and I thought I would post here a sonnet inspired by Augustine’s beautiful commentary on the psalms. I wrote this sonnet in response not only to Augustine but also to Jeremy Begbie’s use of the Augustine passage in his excellent new book Redeeming Transcendence, and the poem was first published in that book this year. Here is the passage from Jeremy’s book, which includes the Augustine quotation, followed by my sonnet!

A remarkable passage from Augustine is worth mentioning here. In meditating on Psalm 32:8, he writes: “Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation.” And what does that mean?

“It is to realize that words cannot communicate the song of the heart. Just so singers in the harvest, or the vineyard, or at some other arduous toil express their rapture to begin with in songs set to words; then as if bursting with a joy so full that they cannot give vent to it in set syllables, they drop actual words and break into the free melody of jubilation. The jubilusis a melody which conveys that the heart is in travail over something it cannot bring forth in words. And to whom does that jubilation rightly ascend, if not to God the ineffable? Truly is he ineffable whom you cannot tell forth in speech, yet we ought not to remain silent, what else can you do but jubilate? In this way the heart rejoices without words and the boundless expanse of rapture is not circumscribed by syllables. Sing well unto him in jubilation.[1]

The experience is well known in charismatic and Pentecostal worship. Ecstatic song bursts the bounds of verbal language. Augustine reminds us of the limits of speech, in the face of both the need for a particular affective articulation of the heart and the need to recognize that God exceeds all speech. The sung jubiluscan “say” the unsayable, affording a “boundless expanse of rapture”. And yet there is no suggestion that we are thereby to take flight from any obligation to scriptural words, or are absolved from the need for clear speech to, or about God – even a few minutes with this theologian’s major texts would make that clear. On the contrary, Augustine’s “boundless expanse of rapture” stems from attending to the God whom he believes has graciously employed frail human language in his saving purposes.

[1]Augustine, St Augustine on the Psalms, trans. Scholastica Hebgin and Felicitas Corrigan, vol. II (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1961), 111–2.


And here is my sonnet, you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Bruce Herman for permission to use his striking painting of Augustine.


St. Augustine ‘s Jubilation

What else can you do but jubilate? St. Augustine On the Psalms


Augustine hears the sound of jubilation,

A snatch of song, hurrahing in the harvest,

He pauses, poised and open, pen in hand,

Held in the gracious space between God’s words,

And once again his restless heart is lifted

Within and through the song, into the Son.


A wordless song restores to him the words

Of scripture and his psalter breathes again.

Not circumscribed by syllables, but still

Delighting in them, jubilant, his pen

Turns to the furrow, opens the good ground,

So that the seed a psalmist sowed in tears

Might bear rich fruit for us in time to come.

We reap with joy and bring the harvest home.




Filed under imagination

7 responses to “St. Augustine’s Jubilation: a new sonnet

  1. Erika

    Thank you, Malcolm, for your jubilant pen that “turns the furrow” for us.

  2. Mr N Anderson

    St Augustine at his best; beautifully translated by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey.

  3. Listened to you read it last night and read it to myself but this morning it opened up to me like a flower blessing my day.

  4. David C Brown

    Jubilate is a great word. That’s an interesting form you’ve used.

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