Archive for the 'George Herbert' Category

Setting our eyes on things above

From George Herbert, Man’s Medley. He is talking about a man (or woman):

… Not that he may not here

Taste of the cheer,

But as birds drink, and straight lift up their head,

So he must sip and think

Of better drink

He may attain to, after he is dead.

Love Unknown by George Herbert

I’m going to try to reopen comments starting with this post.

I’ve posted a new poem by Herbert entitled Love Unknown. You can read the text without comments here, but since it is long I thought I would walk you through it. It is a little difficult the first time you read it.

The poem is written as if Herbert is telling his friend a story. The friend’s words are in italics. Herbert narrates the poem as if it is something that happened to him, but it is symbolic or allegory, a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.

Dear friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad:
And in my faintings I presume your love
Will more comply, than help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds, which may improve,
I hold for two lives, and both lives in me.

This introduction is a little obscure. There seem to be double or triple references here. (Pasternak says: “Unconvoluted, the sense runs as follows: I have a Lord some of whose grounds I rent, in return for my two lives. The two lives are life on earth and life in the hereafter; the grounds belonging to the Lord are the speaker’s soul, which may improve with the repentance about to be detailed.” But this does not explain the “both lives in me.”) At any rate, he brings his lord a dish of fruit, and the picture seems to be that the lord passes all dishes of food to his servant before partaking of them. However, the dish (or offering) has Herbert’s heart in the middle, and the servant sees that his heart needs some serious medicine, because it is a wicked heart. It needs the washing of the blood of Christ:
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day,
And in the middle placed my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Look’d on a servant, who did know his eye
Better than you know me, or (which is one)
Than I myself. The servant instantly
Quitting the fruit, seized on my heart alone
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issued from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and dyed,
And wash’d, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. Your heart was foul, I fear.
Indeed ’tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault more than my lease will bear;
Yet still ask’d pardon, and was not denied.
But you shall hear. After my heart was well …

The friend, in italics, observes that Herbert’s heart was foul, and Herbert admits it. But there is more to come:

But you shall hear. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one even-tide
(I sigh to tell)
Walk’d by myself abroad, I saw a large
And spacious furnace flaming, and thereon
A boiling caldron, round about whose verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION
The greatness show’d the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which I did fear grew cold.

The greatness showed the owner: that is, it was owned by the Lord. Herbert goes to his “fold” (i.e. sheep fold) to get a sacrifice…
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart that brought it (do you understand?),
The offerer’s heart. Your heart was hard, I fear.

The friend makes another observation.

Indeed ’tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug, than scalding water,
I bathed it often, even with holy blood,
Which at a board, while many drank bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Even taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardness.
[”supple” = soften]
Herbert realizes the problem, and he regularly bathes his heart (again) in the healing blood of Christ. Of course this is all figurative. We must take our hearts again and again and cleanse them before God in the forgiveness and healing of Christ. You thought the Gospel was just for the unsaved? No, my brother, it is to heal you daily also.

Note his interesting comment that many, when they approach, drink “bare wine.” In other words, without faith, the mere partaking of the outward symbols of the Christian faith has no more effect than drinking ordinary wine. The “friend” who mixes in blood is probably the Holy Spirit, in Herbert’s thinking.

…To supple hardness. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed:
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults,
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Dear, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures even my rest was gone?
Full well I understood, who had been there:
For I had given the key to none but one:
It must be he. Your heart was dull, I fear.

The friend again gives his helpful observation!

Indeed a slack and sleepy state of mind
Did oft possess me, so that when I pray’d,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behind

Herbert ends with his confidence that all his misdeeds are atoned for by his Savior. Then the friend wraps it all up with an extended explanation:

But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took the debt upon him. Truly, Friend,
For aught I hear, your Master shows to you

More favour than you wot of. Mark the end. [”wot” = knew]
The Font did only, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each hour, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be, new, tender, quick.

How can we not love Herbert, who sees that “And now I am happy all the day” is not at all a description of the true Christian life! Friend, are you worried and afflicted? God is merciful to you! Seek him in the affliction, not simply to escape the affliction. If you need a Font, a Cauldron, or Thorns, the Lord knows to give them to you.

The Exodus generation and us

My wanderings through the ESV Audio Bible and the adult Sunday School class on the Book of Hebrews have brought me right through the experience of the Israelites in Egypt. A complaining, murmuring, disobedient generation. And when the 38 years of judgment had killed off the generation that refused to go into the land, and Moses was facing a new generation about to enter the land under Joshua, he was dismayed at their continued unbelief:

“But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut 29:4).

The Book of Hebrews sees the Israelite wanderings as a symbol of the professing Christian’s ability to finally reject what he claims to have accepted. The author of Hebrews asks us to not reject the heavenly good news like the Israelites mostly rejected the earthly good news that was offered to them.

But for those who have received Jesus Christ in a heartfelt way and desire to follow him, the disobedient and backward wilderness generation has an all too familiar ring. We continually abuse our privileges, murmur against God’s providence, fail to gratefully accept his provision, despise our leadership, dabble in false teachings and false gods, and other offenses. This is why God’s most beloved attribute is possibly his mercy, since only a merciful God could put up with the people he chose for himself.

Today I ran across George Herbert’s application of the wilderness experience to himself. It bemoans the experience of personal backsliding and rebellion, but rejoices in the full experience of mercy that we have now through the finished work of Christ. The poem is not on my Herbert web page yet, so here it is, adapted from another website:
The bunch of grapes

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man
Hath let thee out again:
And now, me thinks, I am where I began
Sev’n years ago: one vogue and vein,
One air of thoughts usurps my brain
I did towards Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red sea, the sea of shame.

For as the Jews of old by God’s command
Travell’d, and saw no town;
So now each Christian hath his journeys spann’d:
Their story pens and sets us down.
A single deed is small renown.
God’s works are wide, and let in future times;
His ancient justice overflows our crimes.

Then have we too our guardian fires and clouds;
Our Scripture-dew drops fast:
We have our sands and serpents, tents and shrouds;
Alas! our murmurings come not last.
But where’s the cluster? where’s the taste
Of mine inheritance? Lord, if I must borrow,
Let me as well take up their joy, as sorrow.

But can he want the grape, who hath the wine?
I have their fruit and more.
Blessed be God, who prosper’d Noah’s vine,
And made it bring forth grapes’ good store.
But much more him I must adore,
Who of the Law’s sour juice sweet wine did make,
Ev’n God himself, being pressed for my sake.

New Herbert poems

After several months of nothing, I posted three new George Herbert poems today - Faith, Prayer (1), and Holy Communion. No matter how many years go by, I will never get tired of Herbert.

Excerpts from “Faith”:

I owed thousands and much more:
I did believe that I did nothing owe,
And lived accordingly; my creditor
Believes so too, and lets me go.

If bliss had lien in art or strength,
None but the wise and strong had gained it:
Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;
One size doth all conditions fit.


Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age.
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days’ world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, men well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

More Herbert

Affliction (1) and Repentance now posted.

Again here comes one of my favorite Herbert poems, “Repentance.” This one contains the immortal (to me!) line that our life consists of “a steady aiming at a tomb.”

New Herbert poems

Nature and Sin (1) now posted.

Once again, in “Nature,” Herbert uses the metaphor of a stone. He loves stones. Just look at how many ways he uses them in his poems. Here, a stone means at least two things: the stony heart that Herbert wishes were smoothed and engraved with the law, and the stony grave which might “hide my dust.”

Full of rebellion, I would die,
Or fight, or travel, or deny
That thou hast aught to do with me.
O tame my heart;
It is thy highest art
To captivate strong holds to thee.

If thou shalt let this venom lurk,
And in suggestions fume and work,
My soul will turn to bubbles straight,
And thence by kind
Vanish into a wind,
Making thy workmanship deceit.

O smooth my rugged heart, and there
Engrave thy reverend law and fear;
Or make a new one, since the old
Is sapless grown,
And a much fitter stone
To hide my dust, than thee to hold.

George Herbert again

Posted two more poems to the George Herbert Project today: Holy Baptism 1 and 2. Even though I am a Baptist, I love Herbert’s meditation on his (infant) baptism in #2. What lines of Christian poetry surpass this: “O let me still / Write thee great God, and me a child”? Herbert could say so much in so few words.

George Herbert

I posted three more poems from Herbert this week. Good Friday, Easter, and Easter Wings make complete Herbert’s mini-cycle on Easter week. Not all of his book is arranged thematically, but these poems are fit together: Good Friday/ Redemption/ Sepulchre/ Easter/ Easter-Wings.

Do you know Herbert? You should.

The Holdfast.

I’ll kick off this blog by posting the poem from which the blog takes its name.

George Herbert

I THREATENED to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power and might :
But I was told by one, it could not be ;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
Nay, evâ??n to trust in him, was also his :
We must confess, that nothing is our own.
Then I confess that he my succour is :

But to have nought is ours, not to confess
That we have nought. I stood amazâ??d at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend express,
That all things were more ours by being his.
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

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