Lent with Herbert day 6: The Christian Plummet

A Stone Cold Jonah
Image by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo taken from the Tablet


I am continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, this time responding to Herbert’s line ‘The Christian Plummet, sounding heaven and earth’.

Herbert is referring to the plummet or sounding line used on ships to measure the depth below the keel, lowered into the waves on a marked line and then hauled up so that the linesman could tell the helmsman what depth he had below his keel. In my own poem though I felt moved to imagine things from the point of view of the plummet itself, and to put into the context of prayer my own and other people’s experience of  suddenly plummeting down into depression. I especially responded to seeing the words ‘Christian’ and ‘plummet’ together. Some Christians can give you the impression that unless your constantly cheerful you’re not a true believer or haven’t ‘heard the gospel’, as though Jesus had never endured the agony in the garden. But it’s my conviction that a person is just as much a Christian when they are plummeting down and sounding depths others may not know, as when they are cheerful.I hope this poem may help those who have had similar experiences of plummeting.

With this line in Herbert’s Prayer, and this sonnet, in my responding sequence, we begin as it were a new movement in the overall music of the piece, we transpose from a major to a minor key. We might call the first movement, the one we have just completed, ‘Abundance’, its key motif set by the opening phrase ‘the Church’s Banquet’, and the second movement, which starts here and carries through to ‘christ’s side-piercing spear’, we might call ‘Plunge and Shadow’ as it deals with the darkness and struggle which is also necessarily part of our prayer lives. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’button.

The Christian Plummet


Down into the icy depths you plunge,

The cold dark undertow of your depression,

Even your memories of light made strange,

As you fall further from all comprehension.

You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,

Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,

A stone cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,

A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.


But someone has their hands on your long line,

You sound for them the depths they sail above,

One who takes Jonah as his only sign

Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,

And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,

The everlasting arms are underneath.


Filed under christianity, Poems

15 responses to “Lent with Herbert day 6: The Christian Plummet

  1. I love the line, “You sound for them the depths they sail above”. The experience of darkness feels so cut off. Everyone else is above, sailing on a sunlit sea. The thought that you share here encourages me to believe that in the dark below I am there for them and not just for myself and suddenly I am reconnected to them.

  2. Dr J.P. Cornthwaite

    Another beautiful sonnet.

    The shift from plural pronouns (‘their’, ‘them’, ‘they’) in lines 9 and 10 to singular ones (‘One’, ‘his’, his’) in lines 11 and 12 was initially puzzling, but on second reading it became apparent that they refer to one and the same person… or Person.

  3. lynndmorrissey

    I really appreciate this, Malcolm, as one who has plunged the depths of deep depression–plummeted down and down and down. Those Christians above water generally have a “Just pull yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps” counsel. If one could, one would. It’s lonely at the bottom of the ocean . . . suffocating and scary is this drowning. Truly, the only way up is by being held underneath by those everlasting, powerful arms you mention–and unable sometimes even to grab out for them, one must be lifted out of the depths. Thank God He does that. Thank you for your honesty in sharing what is reality for many.

  4. Anne Roberts

    Utterly beautiful.

  5. Kathryn Penner

    This poem brings to mind a dream I had years ago when I was sinking into deep depression. In my dream my grandmother (gone from this world) said to me “May the hell into which you’re descending teach you about heaven.” And it did.

  6. J Martin

    Hello what a consoling and empathetic devotional thank you

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  7. One who takes Jonah as his only sign

    Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,

    And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,

    The everlasting arms are underneath.
    – Malcolm Guite

    As a little girl, I went to the head of the stairs to find my father. In my hurry to get to him, I tripped and fell, tumbling down the stairs, into his paint stained, waiting arms. Those lines just grabbed me and cradled me the same way. Beautiful Malcolm.

  8. revcharmaine

    Malcolm you get it so well.

  9. Pingback: Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext | Malcolm Guite

  10. Tracey

    Just heard you reading this aloud on Russell Moore’s podcast as I was washing dishes. The part of the poem beginning, “One who takes Jonah as his only sign” caught me off guard, and I had to stop and cry, listening to the rest. Yes. The One who “descended into hell” has truly sounded the depths, truly knows, truly lifts us up from underneath. Thank you.

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