Tag Archives: George Herbert

Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext

Yesterday we completed our journey through my new Sonnet Sequence After Prayer, and I thought it might be good to gather it all together in a Hypertext of Herbert’s Original sonnet ‘Prayer’, to which my sequence was a phrase by phrase response. So here is Herbert’s original poem, and a recording of my reading of it. But now, if you click on any of the twenty-seven glorious phrases of this poem you will be able to summon up my reflections on it and the sonnet I have written in response. I hope you enjoy it.

You can hear me read Herbert’s poem by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ Button

Prayer    George Herbert

 PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

        Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

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Lent with Herbert Day 27: Something Understood

Today we conclude our journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer.

Yesterday we looked at the final image, the Land of Spices, and now we see how Herbert himself looks back at the effort of the whole poem, in all its myriad images and insights, and modestly concludes that it might offer us some understanding. something understood, but not everything. It may well be that Herbert was consciously offering the preceding twenty-six images as a kind of primer, a table of the letters of prayer’s alphabet, helping us to spell out for the imagination a little more of the mystery of our prayer lives, but by finishing his poem with the phrase something understood he brings us back to the brink of experience itself, asking us to move beyond his images, his experience and understanding into our own. these at least were some of the thoughts in my mind as I penned this final sonnet and brought my own sequence of sonnets ‘After Prayer‘  to a close. Tomorrow I will post a ‘hypertext’ of the whole poem, where each of herbert’s phrases is itself a link to my responding sonnet.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing me read and reflect on them. I have been glad to share them here, (though I would also be glad if you were to buy the book, if you’ve not already done so), That way you can enjoy them privately and at your leisure, for poetry is always better on the page and on the tongue than on the screen.

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

Something Understood

And so the spell of Prayer comes to an end,

An end that offers us a place to start,

An invitation from a loving friend,

A colloquy where ‘heart speaks unto heart’.

These twenty-six attempts to say the Name,

The simple letters of prayer’s alphabet,

Bring us a little way, but end the same

Just on the brink of what’s not spoken yet.

 

With each new understanding we begin,

Again, and turn from text to mystery,

To prayer itself, that draws us deeper in,

Where knowledge ends, but love has mastery.

Still on that brink, I share, as pilgrims should,

Some of the somethings I have understood.

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Lent with Herbert Day 26: The Land of Spices

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

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.

His prayerbook was a garden of delight

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Week 5: prayer that pierces

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

Here is my usual Sunday posting, pausing the journey through After Prayer, and resuming instead our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.

The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith

Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.

But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’s beautiful poem The Incarnate One

The Incarnate One   Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,

And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.

I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,

Christ, man and creature in their inner day.

How could our race betray

The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake

Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

 

The Word made flesh here is made word again

A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there King Calvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled and bent

Into an ideological argument.

 

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,

And truer sight was theirs outside the Law

Who saw the far side of the Cross among

The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,

In ignorant wonder saw

The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,

Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

 

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,

Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,

The auguries say, the white and black and brown,

The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all

Invisibly will fall:

Abstract calamity, save for those who can

Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

 

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown

Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well

The bloodless word will battle for its own

Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.

The generations tell

Their personal tale: the One has far to go

Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

 

MONDAY

 

Golgotha   John Heath-Stubbs


 

In the middle of the world, in the centre

Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;

A stake stemmed in the rubbish

 

From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull

Gasped up through the garbage:

‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,

Ground down again to the red dust,

The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice

That sounded once over the billows of chaos

When the royal banners advanced,

replied through the smother of dark:

‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-

All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.

 

TUESDAY

 

The Agony   George Herbert


 

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states and kings;

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious thins,

The which to measure it doth more behove;

Yet few there are that sound them, ‒ Sin and Love.

 

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

 

Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like,

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Gethsemane   Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

 

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

 

THURSDAY

 

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day   G. M. Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

 

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

 

FRIDAY

 

God’s Grandeur   G. M. Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ‒

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

SATURDAY

 

Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

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Lent With Herbert Day 25: The Soul’s Blood

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. As we come towards the end of Herbert’s poem we arrive at one of his most profound and mysterious images. Herbert says that prayer is ‘the soul’s blood’! What does he mean by that? If prayer is to the soul what blood is to the body then we can think about prayer as the very life of the soul coursing through it, we can think about how blood absorbs and shares and circulates the oxygen it takes from the lungs, as prayer is open to and depends on the intimate breathing of God’s Spirit, we can think about how the blood must be nourished with iron and other elements lest we become anaemic; perhaps our prayer life too requires some real nutrients, some varied diet. I think too about how blood is circulating all the time even though we don’t consciously attend to it, and so is the prayer of the whole church and the innermost prayer of our souls. And just as we are only conscious of our blood when we are hurt or wounded and the blood comes to the surface, so too, many people who have not uttered a prayer for years will suddenly and rightly find themselves praying aloud in a crisis, as the soul’s blood comes to the surface. But most of all I think of how my heart keeps the blood in my body circulating, and Herbert’s image makes me realise that all prayer flows in and through Christ, that is why we end our prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. It is the sacred heart of Jesus, the heart of our loving saviour that beats in every prayer.

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

As I post these sonnets on prayer in the midst of the present crisis I pray for all my readers and ask you too, in your turn to pray for me.

The Soul’s Blood

Oh unacknowledged, rich and living stream,

Dark river in each vein and artery,

You pulse within us, even as we dream:

Our lifeblood, our salvation’s mystery,

We all ignore you till we bruise and bleed,

And you bloom red and reach the upper air,

And then we know and see you in our need

And every heartbeat is our body’s prayer,

 

As every pulse of prayer is our soul’s blood:

Some coursing through us all unconsciously,

Some owned and known and spoken out for good,

All given and returned, all flowing free

From heaven to earth and back to heaven, where

The heart of Jesus beats in every prayer.

The heart of Jesus beats in every prayer

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Lent With Herbert Day 24: Church Bells Beyond the Stars Heard

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. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is Church Bells beyond the stars heard.

So many poets have been inspired by the sound of bells, for their art also depends on echoes, reflections and reversals, on apparently spontaneous peals of sound that conceal their own patterns. Coleridge heard in the village church bells ‘most articulate sounds of things to come’, and centuries later, Bob Dylan, taking shelter in a church porch during a thunderstorm, seemed to hear in the flashes of thunder and lightening the tolling of great bells, ringing out, in his unforgettable phrase, ‘the chimes of freedom’:

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

George Herbert also had this sense that the sound of the bells might be going both ways and so he made them an emblem of prayer. His phrase ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ is deliberately ambiguous: it might mean that our prayers rise beyond the stars, as the sound of our church bells rises to the skies, or it might mean that in prayer our ears are opened at last to hear the bells of heaven, ‘Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind/Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind’ as Dylan would later put it.

Those intuitions of double direction, of falling and rising, and of the time beyond time that every bell brings closer, were all in my mind when I came to compose my own response to Herbert’s phrase, but now, as I post this in the midst of our present crisis I think leo of the yearning I put in the final lines, and the hope of heaven, of the glorious day when the dark veil/ Is lifted and we say the radiant face/Of Love in everything.

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

Church bells beyond the stars heard

 Is it our bells they hear beyond the stars,

Or theirs whose echo sounds to us below?

Or is it both? The music of the spheres

Which we imagine, and yet cannot know,

Whose ringing joy we hear and do not hear,

Elicits a response, and our church bells,

Whose steepled peals still ring in each New Year,

All cry and clamour for the time that tells

Us time itself is over, the dark veil

Is lifted, and we see the radiant face

Of Love in everything; the mournful bell

That tolled for all our funerals gives place

To Heaven’s music truly heard at last,

Our last change rung on earth, our last pain past.

 

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Lent with Herbert Day 23: The Bird of Paradise

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.

Today we come to one of Herbert’s more intriguing emblems of prayer: he calls prayer the bird of paradise. Scholars tell us that in the seventeenth century it was believed that an exotic species called ‘the bird of paradise’ was unique in having no feet, no means of standing or perching, and it was thought therefore that it lived in perpetual flight, never stopping to rest, but ceaselessly beating its wings from birth to death. Of course this was a piece of folklore and mythologising, but the bird became proverbial, and it’s easy to see how Herbert might find in it an emblem of unceasing prayer. Perhaps too he thought of the bird as unable to rest in this world precisely because it was a bird of paradise, and could only rest at last in its eternal home. So it might be with our souls in prayer. All these thoughts were also in my mind as I wrote, but for me there was also something more. As I thought of that poor restless bird I suddenly remembered the beautiful lines in Bob Dylan’s heart-breaking song ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, lines in which he expresses our experience of brokenness and through it all out restless yearnings:

And when it all came crashing down

I became withdrawn

the only thing I knew how to do

was keep on keeping on

like a bird that flew

tangled up in blue.

So in my response I find Herbert and Dylan somehow singing together!

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

The Bird of Paradise

Poor bird of paradise: she finds nowhere

To rest or settle on her long flight home,

But circles the blue heavens endlessly,

Or so we once believed, and she became

A perfect emblem of unceasing prayer:

Born out of paradise and restlessly

Seeking return, pressing on steady wings,

Beating perpetual blessing through the air,

Which parts to give her passage, and still brings

Us echoes of the haunting song she sings.

I find in her a fitting emblem too,

She sings in me, but now she is the one

In Dylan’s song, who keeps on keeping on,

Like all of us, still tangled up in blue.

the bird of paradise

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Lent with Herbert Day 22: The Milky Way

The Milky Way from an Indiana back road

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. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is The Milky Way. I have used this sonnet to explore a little of what made the Milky Way an emblem of prayer for Herbert, but I have also availed myself of images he could never have seen, but would have loved: the glorious pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Herbert could see Heaven in Ordinary but he could also lift his eyes above the horizon and see how the heavens themselves declared the glory of the lord. In these dark times we need sometime to lift our eyes, and I hope this poem and these images might offer us all a little burst of light and colour. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, if you enjoy Herbert you might like to know Ive started a little Youtube Chanel the latest episode features a reading from George MacDonald about Herbert.

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


The Milky Way

It’s always there, but when our lights are low,

Or altogether out, we see it shine;

Only when things are darkest here below

Do we discern its soft pearlescent sheen,

Gracefully traced across the midnight sky,

In whose light Herbert saw the path of prayer.

Though pale and milky to the naked eye,

The view from Hubble, far above the air,

Shows us a star-field rich with many colours

‘Patines of bright gold’ and blue and red,

Abundance of a hundred billion stars

Whose centre lies in Sagittarius,

Darting their glory, like the myriad

Of saints and angels who all pray for us.

The view from Hubble

 

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Lent with Herbert Day 21: Man Well Dressed

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.

In our last post, Heaven in Ordinary we saw how for just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through. Now, in the mysterious phrase ‘Man Well Dressed’. In his Cambridge days Herbert was knows as a dapper, even a natty dresser and he had a taste for the finer things in life. All these he gave to Christ who gave him in return a new and even richer clothing.

This phrase in  Herbert’s poem keys in to one of the great themes of Scripture, the meaning of our nakedness and out clothing, the deepest senses in which we are all naked before God and yet God, in his infinite kindness, comes to us and clothes us in his own righteousness, wraps and mantles us in his holiness and his Love. Herbert was aware of the early tradition that saw the moment in Genesis, when we were cowering behind the fig-leaf of our excuses, God in his compassion made us clothes, (Gen. 3:21) as an anticipation of the coming of Christ, that one day we would ‘put on Christ’, that Christ is himself the wedding garment we all need but cannot make ourselves, to fit us for the high King’s feast. Paul’s letters are full of this, how we must be clothed in meekness and humility, and girdle all these virtues together with Love, and how that meekness, humility and Love are all given us in Christ. Indeed in his lovely poem ‘Sunday’ Herbert reminds us of what it cost Christ to make us this new garment:

The brightness of that day
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expense,
Whose drops of bloud paid the full price,
That was requir’d to make us gay,
And fit for Paradise.

That lovely fusion of Genesis and Paul was in my mind too when I came to write my sonnet. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Man Well Dressed

That old voice from the past: I was afraid,

For I was naked; and I hid myself.

And somehow I’m still there, lost in that glade,

Feeling exposed, ashamed, and, in my stealth

Still holding the fell fruit. He finds me as

My withered fig leaves fall away, and still

He clothes me, for the way of heaven is

Always to give and give to those who steal.

 

But now the skin I’m clothed in is his own,

He makes himself a garment for us all,

At once the bridegroom and the wedding gown.

I step forth from the thicket of my fall

Already dressed in every gift he gave,

Gathered and girdled in his circling love.

Herbert in the vicarage garden at Bemerton

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Lent with Herbert Day 20: ‘Heaven in Ordinary’

 

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.

In our last post on Gladness of the Best, we saw how, having been lifted up by Christ, Herbert has a chance to look around and be glad, to delight again in the goodness of God’s creation as well as the wonder of his grace and mercy. But he knows that we cannot yet remain on the heights forever, but that we must instead, descend again from the mountain of vision, back into the ‘ordinary’ world, but still taking that visionary gleam with us, ready to see the light of heaven suddenly shining out from anywhere in the midst of the every day, and so the next phrase in his poem is Heaven in Ordinary.

As you can imagine I approached this, perhaps the most famous phrase in Herbert’s poem, with some trepidation. The phrase ‘Heaven in ordinary’ always seems to summon that other famous verse of Herbert’s, which we sing together in church:

A Man that looks on glass

On it may stay his eye,

Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass

And then the Heavens espy.

Just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through, and we have a brief anticipation of Paul’s great hope for us all: that though ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, one day ‘we shall know as we are known’, one day ‘we shall see face to face’, and the face we shall see is the face of Love. It also happened that I wrote this poem just before Christmas and it seemed to me that any understanding of Herbert’s phrase must start with the moment the Lord of Heaven was born on earth,a midst the dirt and clutter of the stable and the manger.

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

Heaven in Ordinary

Because high heaven made itself so low

That I might glimpse it through a stable door,

Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,

And call me through the voices of the poor,

Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through

Amidst the clutter of the every day,

Illuminating things I thought I knew,

Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.

 

Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,

A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,

The moment holds me in its strange surprise,

The gates of paradise are drawn apart,

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,

And nothing can be ordinary now.

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

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