After pausing for St. Patrick’s Day, we resume our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, Today we complete Herbert’s 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
The final step on Herbert’s ladder of ascent, which we have been climbing together these last five days, is Bliss. It may seem odd to be contemplating Bliss amidst all the sorrow and fear that surrounds us in this present crisis, but this is precisely the time when we need to lift our eyes to the Heavens, and contemplate that full and final bliss for which we are made. Herbert knew this well and of course his generation had to deal with several severe plague seasons, withdrawing from the fulness of their usual lives and sequestering themselves away, but such a time of crisis is just when faith deepens and just where the poetry comes from!
Like joy, bliss is almost impossible to write about, to put into words, it is beautiful, fleeting, not to be seized or grasped, or even sought, but only received as a sudden gift. As Eliot says of the experience ‘Quick, now, here, now, always/ a condition of complete simplicity’. In my poem I tried to evoke my own experience through particular glimpses and moments and to be true both to its brevity and its promise. For even the smallest moment of bliss seems to promise something more. As I came to compose the poem I found myself remembering one of Milton’s rare uses of this beautiful word in his Ode On Time, lines he wrote to be engraved on a clock. The poem begins ‘Fly envious Time till thou run out thy race’ but the lines that went to my heart, and which I was remembering when I wrote this poem were:
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
I loved that juxtaposition of the eternal and the personal, the infinite and the intimate, and I hope something of that comes across in my poem too.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss,
Love made this way, and lifts us up each stair,
Our maker knows that we were made for this:
The utter bliss that Heaven loves to share.
We glimpse it sometimes in another’s eyes,
We taste it sometimes on the tongues of prayer
It takes us wholly, takes us by surprise,
But grasping it, our arms clasp empty air.
Our bliss has vanished with a word of promise,
A sweet come-hither wave that offers more,
Each ecstasy has been a farewell kiss
That left us weeping on the hither shore.
Yet every passing moment whispers this:
Eternity shall love us into bliss.