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’
The land of spices is not far away
But planted close and gathered in one place
Ready to loose its perfume as we pray
And steal into the soul with subtle grace.
My prayer is set as incense in thy sight,
So Herbert and the whole church prayed their psalm,
His Prayer Book was a garden of delight,
Of many herbs and spices, myrrh and balm,
A fountain sealed, an orchard of rare trees
Of frankincense and aloes, cinnamon,
Whose scents, all summoned by a southern breeze,
Roused him to love and loving, stirred him on.
My soul too yearns to be where it belongs:
The fragrant garden of The Song of Songs.