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
On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have come to the middle two lines, the very hinge of the sonnet, Herbert turns for comfort and wisdom to his beloved world of music:
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
Kind of tune that all things hear and fear
Yesterday we looked at the image of transposition and today I want to focus on prayer as ‘a kind of tune’. In Herbert’s conception prayer is at once the natural music of the soul. and also an act of discernment in which we hear at last the true music, the song of Chtist himself, and gradually tune ourselves or rather allow him to tune us to that. These are both insights he may have received from Donne who expressed them both together in a remarkable sermon which Herbert may have heard:
God made this whole world in such an uniformity, such a correspondancy, such a concinnity of parts, as that it was an Instrument, perfectly in tune: we may say the trebles, the highest strings, were disordered first; the best understandings, Angels and Men, put this instrument out of tune. God rectified all again, by putting in a new string…the Messias, and onely by sounding that string in your eares, become we musicum carmen, true musick, true harmony, true peace to you.(Sermons II, p.170.)
I think this passage, which struck me forcibly when I was studying Donne’s sermons for my PhD, was also in my mind when I came to write this sonnet, which is paired with the one we read for day 11.
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.
On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we conclude in this dark series, within the longer sequence, in which Herbert explores the experience of frustration, struggle and anger in our prayer life, with an image that at once sharpens and resolves, and re-frames all the preceding images of struggle and conflict: ‘Christ’s side-piercing spear’.
Here we are no longer in the realm of some great, general struggle, figured under the image of siege warfare, now it’s personal. And more than that. As I came to write my sonnet in response to this image of prayer I realised that it changes my understanding of all the previous images. It is as though, all that time I was besieging what I thought was God’s castle, I was really facing in the wrong direction, and imagining God himself in entirely the wrong way. For all the while I was looking up, he had, without my noticing, slipped out of the castle and come down. He was not ‘up there’ any more, he was down here, on the ground amongst the wounded, as vulnerable as I am, standing with open arms, just behind me, waiting for me to turn around and come to him. There had never been any question of my breaking his siege, on the contrary, he had come down to break mine, and the spear that pierced his heart was the true emblem of all my prayers.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or the title.
‘Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian,’
It is good for us to thunder back at God, if we need to. The psalms and Job are full of it and God is big enough to take it. But in my own poem on this phrase I was drawn to meditate on what produces the thunder in the first place, on the growing tension before the storm, the darkening clouds, the gradual build up of a powerful electric charge, a current that must somehow find release. It seemed to me that if Herbert is right, then prayer is a reversal of those lightening conductors we all have on the top of our church spires, with their wires ‘earthed’ in church yard, to conduct a lightening strike away from the building and into the earth. In prayer it is all the other way round, and when we finally release our tension in prayer and let God have the full blast of what we’re feeling, all the energy of our prayer runs up the conductor, who is Christ himself, and is ‘earthed’ with him in Heaven.
On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we continue in this dark series, within the longer sequence, in which Herbert explores the experience of frustration, struggle and anger in our prayer life. In yesterday’s post we saw how Herbert introduced the image of siege warfare with the phrase ‘Engine against th’almighty’, and it seems to be continued in today’s phrase ‘Sinners’s Tower’. There is some debate amongst Herbert scholars as to whether this leads directly from the previous phrase and refers to a siege tower, constructed so as to help the besieging forces get up over the battlements, or whether it might be a reference to the tower of Babel. I believe it is both, because the tower of Babel, mankind’s attempt to reach Heaven by its own power and with its own culture and technology, is precisely a kind of siege tower since it depends on the idea that God is somehow (and only) ‘High and Mighty’ sealed up in heaven. The incarnation tells us otherwise! The key term, indeed the shocking moment in the Genesis narrative telling the story of Babel, is the moment, just before the tower is completed, when God says ‘Let us go down‘ (Genesis 11:verse 7). As so often an act of judgement in the Old Testament prepares for, and opens out an act of blessing in the New Testament. In Genesis God goes down to confound our misguided efforts and to scatter us. But this is only because, having brought to nothing our false religiosity, He will truly come down in Christ, and become one of us, take our nature and deal with our sin, so us to lift us up, in His strength, not ours, to Heaven.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we find, after the Christian plummet, that we have entered into a dark sequence of four further sonnets of struggle and conflict, and I would like to say something by way of preface to this dark sequence within the wider sequence of the whole poem, before I give you each day the individual poems:
‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’
This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a catapult or similar siege engine.
The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors (e.g. Ephesians 6:13 forward) but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his older friend John Donne:
‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’[The Sermons of John Donne ed. Potter and Simpson, (Los Angeles, 1953-1962) vol. V p.364]
But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ
Now here is my poem for ‘Engine against th’Almightie. As I say in the preface to After Payer, I found that following Herber’s images allowed me to open out and give expression to some of my own experiences of struggle and desolation in prayer.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
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.
Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we come to a phrase which in some ways parallels ‘soul in paraphrase’ and that is ‘heart in pilgrimage’. They are both modest: the paraphrase is never perfect, the pilgrim has not yet arrived. Pilgrimage is indeed a rich theme for understanding prayer, suggesting that each prayer is itself a step on a journey, and that though the journey is towards a holy place, the holiness of that end reaches back and sanctifies the journey itself. We learn as much, and are sometimes blessed as deeply on the twists and turns of our long journey, as we are when we arrive at the place of pilgrimage. And so it is with prayer. For me the archetypal prayer/pilgrimage is the story of the pilgrim Dante, and each of us with him, starting ‘In the middle of the way of this life’, astray in a dark wood, but found again by Love (through Poetry) and set on the right path once more. So this sonnet uses Dante’s Terza Rima rhyme scheme.
Once Dante had come into my poem, it was natural that he should be joined by the other great writers on pilgrimage, Chaucer and then Bunyan, ‘a tinker our of Bedford/A vagrant oft in quod’ as Kipling called him. My sonnet here addresses my own heart, as Dante addresses his, and is an encouragement to set off and to keep going, much needed at this stage in Lent!
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, the fourth phrase in Herbert’s masterpiece is itself about phrasing: ‘The soul in paraphrase’. The idea of prayer as a kind of paraphrase is at once intriguing and encouraging. Paraphrase is a tentative, an exploratory, an inexact art. A paraphrase confesses at the outset that it is only an approximation, it indicates ‘something understood’, something, but not everything. The whole of Herbert’s poem Prayer can be seen as a series of paraphrases of the inexpressible mystery of Prayer itself, each paraphrase making up for, and perhaps balancing what is lacking in the others. And if our daily prayer is a mystery too great fully to paraphrase, what of the mystery and depth of our own souls? Herbert’s idea that prayer itself is a paraphrase of the soul invited me to make my own cascade of paraphrases for the soul, and, like Herbert, to admit, that the mystery is always more than the language which gestures towards it.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Fledgling Eastern Phoebe, one of at least three successfully fledged young present in willow thickets in the Hastings creek area on the Seward Peninsula, alaska, on 25 July 2016. Photo by Lucas H. DeCicco/USFWS
As well as the new series on Lent with George Herbert, I will be continuing, each Sunday in Lent, to post the poems for the coming week, from My Word in the Wilderness anthology, for those who are following that. In this first week in Lent Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.
So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.
This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.
You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice