Lent with Herbert Day 13: Softness

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we emerged at last from his dark series, within the longer sequence, then passed through a passage of transposition and retuning in the middle two lines of the poem:

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

Kind of tune that all things hear and fear

Now we are ready to begin a beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

When I was first considering how to respond to Herbert’s Prayer with poetry of my own I wondered whether to treat this whole line as a single image, but in the end I saw that although the words here are all related, they are related by way of progression or ascent: each a step leading to the other, lifting us out of the pit into which we have fallen. So I decided that each distinct step should have a poem of its own, but that the five sonnets dealing with this line should form a little sequence in themselves, rather as the darker sonnets about struggle had also formed their own sequence. It was a challenge of course to commit to five sonnets in this way because, as Philip Larkin once remarked ‘Happiness writes white’ – it’s much more difficult to convey joy than sorrow, like writing with white ink on white paper, and the only way to do it is by contrast, which is the approach I have taken. So here is the first of this sequence, on softness.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title


Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss,

They rise like steps ascending to his throne,

Each step a blessing and a power to bless,

A strength in knowing and in being known

In Christ’s strong love. Softness is first: a grace

That sets aside our strife, undoes our stress,

As hard lines soften in a kindly face

And hard toil softens into real rest,

As when, on days all strewn with broken glass,

Days we have borne with bleakness all alone,

We turn at last to take the hard road home

And someone greets us with a soft caress,

Brushing away the tears that blind our sight,

Soothing the down of darkness into light.


Filed under Poems

8 responses to “Lent with Herbert Day 13: Softness

  1. Thank you so much Malcolm. This touched my heart, so very deeply. Thank you for listening the Spirit’s calling.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful poem which spoke meaningfully to me. I love the lines “hard lines soften in a kindly face” and “we turn at last to take the hard road home and someone greets us with a soft caress.”

  3. Pingback: Lent with Herbert Day 14: Peace | Malcolm Guite

  4. David C Brown

    Thanks: here is a response:

    To come quietly in the night
    And lay myself down
    At the feet of Jesus.

    To feel the oil
    Tenderly assuage
    The smart of my wounds.

    To have my scared chirps
    Smothered by the down
    Of the hen’s wings,

    To hear
    – After wind, earthquake and fire –
    A gentle voice.

    To repose
    On the bosom of Jesus.


  5. Something to read to our vicar, who is leaving us after thirteen years of faithful service and a gift of your book to send him on his continuing journey x

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

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