Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, the fourth phrase in Herbert’s masterpiece is itself about phrasing: ‘The soul in paraphrase’. The idea of prayer as a kind of paraphrase is at once intriguing and encouraging. Paraphrase is a tentative, an exploratory, an inexact art. A paraphrase confesses at the outset that it is only an approximation, it indicates ‘something understood’, something, but not everything. The whole of Herbert’s poem Prayer can be seen as a series of paraphrases of the inexpressible mystery of Prayer itself, each paraphrase making up for, and perhaps balancing what is lacking in the others. And if our daily prayer is a mystery too great fully to paraphrase, what of the mystery and depth of our own souls? Herbert’s idea that prayer itself is a paraphrase of the soul invited me to make my own cascade of paraphrases for the soul, and, like Herbert, to admit, that the mystery is always more than the language which gestures towards it.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
A fledgling hidden in an ancient tree,
Singing unseen and darkling to the stars,
The fount and spring of meaning, just upstream
Of every utterance, unsullied, free,
A prisoner who grips and bends her bars,
The one who begs to differ, dares to dream,
A child astray, still calling to your heart,
A pattern, personal as all the swirls
In fingerprints on hands that hands have held,
Wholeness that knows itself within each part,
A flag whose emblem every breath unfurls,
A chasm bridged, and an old heartache healed,
A new day at the end of all your days,
A mystery you’ll never paraphrase.