Tag Archives: George Herbert

Echoes of harmonies and blisse.

St Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire

This is the church where George Herbert served as rector for a only a few years before his death at the age of 39. He was born in Wales in 1593, into a wealthy and powerful family. The poet John Donne was his godfather, which was surely an important role, as his father Richard died when George was three years old. After his university education he held posts at Cambridge, was briefly a member of parliament, and held the clerical post of prebend.

But it wasn’t until 1629 that he decided to enter the priesthood and was appointed to the parish where “he lived, preached and wrote poetry; he also helped to rebuild the Bemerton church and rectory out of his own funds.”

He knew he was dying (of consumption); it was in that last year of life that he sent all of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish them if he thought they were good for anything. He said that they held “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master.” Commenting on George Herbert’s religious poetry later in the 17th century, Richard Baxter said that the poet “speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”

His prose works include a volume of nearly 1200 “outlandish proverbs” that he collected, and which is currently available on Amazon. That’s one that looks interesting to me, too.

Charles Cotton described George Herbert as a “soul composed of harmonies,” and it seems that he was also a skilled lutenist and composed hymns. More than ninety of Herbert’s poems have been set for singing over the centuries by composers like Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. When I read that the Wesley brothers adapted a few dozen for the Methodist hymnal, I checked out our family’s inheritance of hymnals from Methodist and Presbyterian churches but only found one attribution to Herbert.

But I do have a collection of his poems. I’ve shared other works of this poet; now here is one that I only recently noticed, whose echo-dialogue and themes I like very much. I found online a thorough exploration of the poem by Inge Leimberg, who tells us that “In Herbert the three themes of death, being restored from death, and spiritual vision are closely bound up with music and poetry (which to Herbert are one and the same).” I haven’t finished reading her essay, but I did catch one example of the layers of meaning he was famous for; “holy leaves” likely refer not just to leaves, but also to pages of the Bible.

One friend was of the opinion that Herbert would be singing his melodies with the angels in heaven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the angels do join in with this harmonious and persevering soul.

HEAVEN

O who will show me those delights on high?
Echo.         I.
Thou Echo, thou art mortall, all men know.
Echo.         No.
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
Echo.         Leaves.
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
Echo.         Bide.
What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.
Echo.         Holy.
Are holy leaves the Echo then of blisse?
Echo.         Yes.
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
Echo.         Light.
Light to the minde : what shall the will enjoy?
Echo.         Joy.
But are there cares and businesse with the pleasure?
Echo.         Leisure.
Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?
Echo.         Ever.

-George Herbert 1593–1633

A theme of love and serving.

This sign on the wall in our church kitchen shows evidence of its location above the coffee maker. I was looking at it as though for the first time this morning as I prepared the agape meal at church. It was my fourth time cooking for 100-120 people; I don’t know exactly how many ate today, but the important thing is we didn’t run out of food. 🙂

I went back and forth from the kitchen to the church as needed to put things in the oven to warm, and to worship. Before Divine Liturgy there was a glorious baptism, and I was surprised to miss the actual immersion of the baby, but I came in to the heady scent of Holy Chrism as he was being lifted out of the font, which in an Orthodox baptism is no more than halfway through, so there was plenty of praying left to do, and rejoicing in the love and joy that filled the place.

The next time I had to leave and come back, I entered when Father Peter was giving the homily. I’d never heard him preach before, and his words were full of warm encouragement. Near the end he recited the whole poem below, with a fitting and enlivening amount of expression.

It was a great honor to be the one serving and feeding my fellow worshipers a few minutes later. All week I’ve been grousing and anxious about the upcoming event, even though I had planned and organized well and had young and competent helpers, an easy menu, etc. As has been the case before, I began to relax on Saturday when we did the first steps of cooking. I was so grateful for my assistants who are my friends and love me.

Today, even more people helped, were thankful, told me that they loved the food — all the hugs and kind words I could want, to make me feel what a gift it is to be part of this parish and of Christ’s Church, and to work with people on a worthy project.

When I heard Herbert’s poem, I immediately thought, “I must share that on my blog!” I forgot to take any pictures of the food to share, but I think you can envision a hefty chunk of cheesy polenta with a scoop of the meatiest possible red sauce ladled over, plus a dollop of pesto on top. Mixed greens on the side, and ice cream for dessert. I might do this same menu again sometime, it was so relatively easy and successful.

For the good of our souls, it was not worth much, though, compared to the Love that Father Peter talked about, and George Herbert sang of, and which we had tasted in the Holy Mysteries that morning.

But it was an echo and a reminder, and gave us sustenance so that we could sit around basking in our family happiness for a while. “O taste and see that the LORD is good!”

LOVE

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

–George Herbert

Giddiness

I have described myself as “giddy” when I am euphoric or joyful, but the sense of the word in the following poem is more along the lines of dizzy or flighty. The poet muses about his giddy state of mind and how he needs God to save him from it.

We Orthodox are often exhorted concerning this problem of the mind’s whirlwind, and the way to calm it, as in this post: Be Still and Know That I Am God, in which we read: “This constellation of desires and feelings is a constant swirl within the mind. Since it consists of desires and feelings, it is extremely ineffective in guarding against outside desires and feelings. We are deeply vulnerable.”

The human condition has not changed much since George Herbert wrote the poem in the 1600’s. Herbert (1593-1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Another more famous poet and priest, John Donne, became Hebert’s godfather when his own father died.

What has changed more is the English language, and besides the word giddy I found in this poem one that had been completely unknown to me: snudge. Merriam-Webster speculates that it is an alteration of snug, and basically means to snuggle or nestle.

But there may be more subtle and unpleasant connotations, having to do with antisocial attitudes or behavior. Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime quotes a 1676 use of the word related to robbery: “[He] gives it to his snudge, who snudges away with it to his [fence] who buyes it.” By the time Robert Nares included it in his Glossary in 1822 he said it meant “a miser, curmudgeon, a sneaking fellow.”

Obviously I am attracted to this word snudge, describing something I am prone to doing, which might be perfectly wholesome — or not. I won’t try to determine which, because that effort sounds like too much temptation for my giddy mind.

GIDDINESS

Oh, what a thing is man! how far from power,
From settled peace and rest!
He is some twenty sev’ral men at least
Each sev’ral hour.

One while he counts of heav’n, as of his treasure:
But then a thought creeps in,
And calls him coward, who for fear of sin
Will lose a pleasure.

Now he will fight it out, and to the wars;
Now eat his bread in peace,
And snudge in quiet: now he scorns increase;
Now all day spares.

He builds a house, which quickly down must go,
As if a whirlwind blew
And crusht the building; and it’s partly true,
His mind is so.

O what a sight were Man, if his attires
Did alter with his mind;
And like a Dolphin’s skin, his clothes combin’d
With his desires!

Surely if each one saw another’s heart,
There would be no commerce,
No sale or bargain pass: all would disperse,
And live apart.

Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
Will not suffice our turn:
Except thou make us daily, we shall spurn
Our own Salvation.

-George Herbert

From Earthsea to Alexander

To prepare for a recent road trip, I visited the public library looking for a book on CD. I ended up with a whole stack of boxes to take along in the car later that morning and was very pleased with a few of them.

My car was also loaded down with a Thanksgiving turkey, baking pans and tablecloths and some already cooked food, things to contribute to a feast at Pippin’s house. I was taking myself early to help prepare, and Mr. Glad would follow later.

Ray Bradbury

Two slim library cases held one disk each of an introduction to a book in the Big Read program of the National Endowment for the Arts. I was only vaguely familiar with the list and the program, not having any family member that I know of participating. But of the offerings I browsed I was interested in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin because of recent recommendations from someone, I can’t remember who. And Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was a book my reading group discussed a decade or so ago. The recordings were about 30 minutes each.

When I slid the Wizard introduction into the player and the narrator’s voice came into my car, it took me a few seconds to realize that it was Dana Gioia, my favorite book reviewer, poetry critic, and literature teacher. His voice was recognizable, but his intonation was all jazzed up, brighter and more dramatic, I suppose to keep the average somewhat reluctant American reader listening.

His commentary was in brief snatches, and mostly introductory to several other authors who talked about the book, including LeGuin herself, and to short passages read from the text. None of the comments or readings was longer than a minute or so, and most were much briefer than that, which made it easy for me to pay attention; I’m sure this feature was also designed for listeners of diverse ages who are used to having their short attention spans catered to.

The Big Read program is intended to reverse or at least slow the decline in the number of readers in our nation, and I haven’t heard if it is working. But this recording was a wonderful introduction to LeGuin. I enjoyed myself thoroughly while listening to what seemed like a sort of CliffsNotes in audio technicolor. There is music in the background that also adds to the drama.

CliffsNotes (Yes, they do squish the name together like that nowadays) seems to have some videos out, and digital flashcards, but for literature I think these NEA audio files would be much preferable, being a better bridge to visual and private reading activity than listening to a talking head, as I assume the CliffsNotes videos are.

The general plot and themes of the novel were discussed, and the particular skills of that writer. LeGuin talked about her background as a reader and writer and how she developed into the writer she is. Her childhood was spent in an intellectually rich household in Berkeley, where her father founded the anthropology department at the university and her mother wrote a book on Ishi.

There were many refugees from Europe in town then, such that “everyone had an accent.” It seems that her exposure to many cultures nourished her imagination to create new worlds and people groups. The Earthsea books do sound appealing to me now, and if I keep looking at that cover illustration I pasted here I’ll be bound to buy the first one soon.

But the first CD I took out of the box from my library stash was not from the NEA; it was a 2-disk collection of Popular Poetry, Popular Verse, Volume II from Naxos AudioBooks, a broad offering of everything from Shakespeare and Longfellow to Donne and Robert Herrick. It’s not surprising that I didn’t remember hearing most of the poems before  — but I’d like to listen again. The many love poems made me miss my husband whom I had only seen a couple of hours before.

Quite a bit of music was interspersed between groupings of poems. I skipped most of this because I was impatient to hear more poems, and I had no idea how long I might have to wait through the instrumental portions. The poems were read by Tony and Jasper Britton, and by Emma Fielding, all of whose voices and reading were not over-dramatic or annoying in any way. Here are some of the rich words that fell upon my ears:

Prayer (I) 
By George Herbert

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 heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
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, man 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.

Out of the 5+ hours I was on the road on the way up the state, there were only 10 minutes or so that I didn’t need my windshield wipers. The rain was often drenching, so when I had to stop for refueling and resting I was back in the car lickety-split and pushing the Play button again.

I tried a speech by author David McCullough, his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities from 2003, but he was very dry, in content and delivery. I have found from Mars Hill Audio Journals that some writers of the most fascinating books are not good at speaking even in interviews.

The last thing I was listening to when I arrived home again the day after Thanksgiving was Alexander the Great and His Time by Agnes Savill. It is nine CD’s and I only heard three of them, but it was the most detail I’ve ever read on Alexander, who is certainly a fascinating ancient man. The descriptions of battles sometimes were hard for me to follow, but overall it was an easy “read” and I’m trying to figure out when I might finish it.

I kept thinking about the great contrast between my comfortable life — just sitting in my heated car snacking on food that I had easily bought at the store — and that of the high-achieving, fighting, indomitable but gracious man who slogged all over his world under the harshest conditions and must have had comparatively little ease in his relatively short life.

Alexander in The Battle of Issus

And the other Big Read disk? That was my favorite of the two I tried, because I still remembered Fahrenheit 451. It was wonderful to hear the author tell how he and his brother would run, not walk, to the library, and spend hours there every week. He started writing stories as a young child, and never stopped.

Here’s a list of books in the Big Read program. I’m planning to listen to more of the introductory recordings, which are lots of fun even if I never get around to reading the actual book.