Today we conclude our journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer.
Yesterday we looked at the final image, the Land of Spices, and now we see how Herbert himself looks back at the effort of the whole poem, in all its myriad images and insights, and modestly concludes that it might offer us some understanding. something understood, but not everything. It may well be that Herbert was consciously offering the preceding twenty-six images as a kind of primer, a table of the letters of prayer’s alphabet, helping us to spell out for the imagination a little more of the mystery of our prayer lives, but by finishing his poem with the phrase something understood he brings us back to the brink of experience itself, asking us to move beyond his images, his experience and understanding into our own. these at least were some of the thoughts in my mind as I penned this final sonnet and brought my own sequence of sonnets ‘After Prayer‘ to a close. Tomorrow I will post a ‘hypertext’ of the whole poem, where each of herbert’s phrases is itself a link to my responding sonnet.
I hope you have enjoyed hearing me read and reflect on them. I have been glad to share them here, (though I would also be glad if you were to buy the book, if you’ve not already done so), That way you can enjoy them privately and at your leisure, for poetry is always better on the page and on the tongue than on the screen.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website.
There are 26 distinct images or emblems of prayer, all sown, blossoming and bearing fruit in Herbert’s little poem Prayer, and this image, The Land of Spices, is the last of them. The whole poem has been a kind of Hortus Conclusus: a garden enclosed, and with this final image Herbert evokes the associations of the secret garden, the exotic herbs and spices, the rare planting. He may have been partly evoking the exotic travellers’ tales of his own day, of how even far out at sea the mariners, would scent, before they saw the welcome fragrance of the Spice Islands, but I think he also had in mind, as a particular locus of intimate mystical prayer, the evocative account of the spices in the garden of The Song of Songs, in Chapter 4 verses 12-16
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
He would also have been familiar with the lovely verse in psalm 142 which compares prayer itself to incense:
Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice
These verses were all in my mind too as I came to make my response to Herbert’s phrase.
As always you can hear me recite the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Tomorrow we will savour the last phrase in which Herbert looks back on his 26 emblems and recognises ‘Something Understood’
Here is my usual Sunday posting, pausing the journey through After Prayer, and resuming instead our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.
The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith
Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.
But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’s beautiful poem The Incarnate One
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.
We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website. As we come towards the end of Herbert’s poem we arrive at one of his most profound and mysterious images. Herbert says that prayer is ‘the soul’s blood’! What does he mean by that? If prayer is to the soul what blood is to the body then we can think about prayer as the very life of the soul coursing through it, we can think about how blood absorbs and shares and circulates the oxygen it takes from the lungs, as prayer is open to and depends on the intimate breathing of God’s Spirit, we can think about how the blood must be nourished with iron and other elements lest we become anaemic; perhaps our prayer life too requires some real nutrients, some varied diet. I think too about how blood is circulating all the time even though we don’t consciously attend to it, and so is the prayer of the whole church and the innermost prayer of our souls. And just as we are only conscious of our blood when we are hurt or wounded and the blood comes to the surface, so too, many people who have not uttered a prayer for years will suddenly and rightly find themselves praying aloud in a crisis, as the soul’s blood comes to the surface. But most of all I think of how my heart keeps the blood in my body circulating, and Herbert’s image makes me realise that all prayer flows in and through Christ, that is why we end our prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. It is the sacred heart of Jesus, the heart of our loving saviour that beats in every prayer.
As always you can hear me read this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
As I post these sonnets on prayer in the midst of the present crisis I pray for all my readers and ask you too, in your turn to pray for me.
We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is Church Bells beyond the stars heard.
So many poets have been inspired by the sound of bells, for their art also depends on echoes, reflections and reversals, on apparently spontaneous peals of sound that conceal their own patterns. Coleridge heard in the village church bells ‘most articulate sounds of things to come’, and centuries later, Bob Dylan, taking shelter in a church porch during a thunderstorm, seemed to hear in the flashes of thunder and lightening the tolling of great bells, ringing out, in his unforgettable phrase, ‘the chimes of freedom’:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
George Herbert also had this sense that the sound of the bells might be going both ways and so he made them an emblem of prayer. His phrase ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ is deliberately ambiguous: it might mean that our prayers rise beyond the stars, as the sound of our church bells rises to the skies, or it might mean that in prayer our ears are opened at last to hear the bells of heaven, ‘Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind/Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind’ as Dylan would later put it.
Those intuitions of double direction, of falling and rising, and of the time beyond time that every bell brings closer, were all in my mind when I came to compose my own response to Herbert’s phrase, but now, as I post this in the midst of our present crisis I think leo of the yearning I put in the final lines, and the hope of heaven, of the glorious day when the dark veil/ Is lifted and we say the radiant face/Of Love in everything.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
We are of course in the midst of the series I am posting to you of my sonnets from ‘After Prayer’ but I thought I’d use this extra little post to bring you some news. Like of all of you I am more than a little frustrated at being, ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ by the entirely necessary restrictions of our present lockdown. And one of those frustrations is that I can no longer entertain my friends to drinks, conversation, and the happy random browsing and perusal of the books on the shelves, and scattered across every surface in my study. So, by way of compensation and defiance, I have mastered the mysteries of Youtube and created a little channel there for a series called ‘ A Spell in the Library’, in which I invite you all to join me in my study, and do just what we would do, on any visit, take down the books, read favourite passages, and muse together on what Larkin called ‘The million-petales flower of being here’. I shall put up these little episodes two or three times a week, inviting you all to join me. Of course these usual blog posts will continue for my subscribers here. But if you’d also like to join me in this other mode of being together, that would be wonderful. I am pasting below the links to each of the three little films I have already posted, which should allow you to see the films on this page. But you might also like to pop over to my new Youtube Channel. If you would like to watch more of these, then do go over to Youtube and subscribe (entirely for free) to the channel and that way you can’ visit with me ‘ regularly for ‘ A Spell in the Library’. I hope you enjoy these and would like to come back for more.
So first off here’s the introduction:
Now here’s a little reading in which George Macdonald appreciates George Herbert:
We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.
Today we come to one of Herbert’s more intriguing emblems of prayer: he calls prayer the bird of paradise. Scholars tell us that in the seventeenth century it was believed that an exotic species called ‘the bird of paradise’ was unique in having no feet, no means of standing or perching, and it was thought therefore that it lived in perpetual flight, never stopping to rest, but ceaselessly beating its wings from birth to death. Of course this was a piece of folklore and mythologising, but the bird became proverbial, and it’s easy to see how Herbert might find in it an emblem of unceasing prayer. Perhaps too he thought of the bird as unable to rest in this world precisely because it was a bird of paradise, and could only rest at last in its eternal home. So it might be with our souls in prayer. All these thoughts were also in my mind as I wrote, but for me there was also something more. As I thought of that poor restless bird I suddenly remembered the beautiful lines in Bob Dylan’s heart-breaking song ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, lines in which he expresses our experience of brokenness and through it all out restless yearnings:
And when it all came crashing down
I became withdrawn
the only thing I knew how to do
was keep on keeping on
like a bird that flew
tangled up in blue.
So in my response I find Herbert and Dylan somehow singing together!
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title