So the first four poems of ‘The Church’ – “The Altar”, “The Sacrifice”, “The thanksgiving”, and “The Reprisall” –with “The Sacrifice” as focal point — deal primarily with the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the human situation. They express the speaker’s intentions to conform to the image of God as epitomized in the simplicitas of Christ, particularly demonstrated in his passion and death.
Initially he is uncertain of his response to the simplicitas of Christ:
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
Copie thy fair, though bloudie hand?
– “The Thanksgiving” ll. 15-16
Again in “The Reprisall” he laments:
I have consider’d it, and finde
There is no dealing with thy mighty passion:
– “The Reprisall”, ll. 1-2
But with his inability to experience the ‘simple’ reality of God through the sacrifice of christ comes the inability to fulfill his function as a poet – to express that reality which is ultimate simplicity, in art. He can only look to a future time when his art will embody that reality which he seeks, for before he an function as an artist, he must experience the reality of God in his own life which will in terms of a recurring image “tune” his soul so that it may resound with that divine harmony of which the human being in the image of God is a part:
My musick shall finde thee, and every string
Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
And prove one God, one harmonie.
If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appeare,
If thou hast giv’n it me, ’tis here.
Nay, I will reade thy book, and never move
Till I have fund therein thy love,
Thy art of love, which I’le turn back on thee:
O my dear Saviour, Victorie!
Then for thy passion — I will do for that —
Alas, my God, I know not what.
“The Thanksgiving”, ll. 39-50
Experiencing the reality of God in his life, the speaker will “turn it back” to God in his “musick”, his “utmost art” (Praise II”, l. 19).
But for the time being, conscious of the desire to respond to God effectively, he continues to probe the implications of the sacrifice of Christ in terms of his own particular experience. In the poems from “The Agonie” to “Redemption”, for example, he seeks to “measure” his own sinfulness against the love of God manifest in Christ:
But there are two vast, spacious things
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.
– “The agonie”, ll 4-6
Thus at this stage of his interaction with God, the speaker sees his relationship to God in a narrow legalistic way that is well summarized in “Redemption”:
Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I reseolved to be bold,
And to make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th’ old.
In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, whih he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight return’d, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.
Gradually freeing himself from this limited concept of his relationship to God, he will embrace a more complete reality which will be reflected in his art.
He begins to do so almost immediately as he turns from the sacrificial death of Christ to consider His triumph over death. At this time his thoughts turn again to his desire to respond to God specifically through poetry. In “Easter” and “Easter Wings” he identifies with the resurrection of Christ, embracing it as the means to a heightened life and art:
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
I best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
– “Easter”, ll. 1-18
The music metaphor again stresses the fact that order is introduced into the speaker’s experience as he “imps” his wing onto Christ (“Easter Wings”, l. 19). Thus he can respond to God. Note that a song (i.e.. “musick”) actually makes up the last 12 lines of “Easter”.
Here Herbert reinforces the idea introduced in “The Thanksgiving” that God as the source of order, of all “musick”, is ultimately the source of the perfected response offered back to God by humans. Only the indwelling of God can turn “dust” to “gold”, and make a life or a poem, acceptable as a sacrifice of praise that faithfully reflects the reality of God:
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.
“The Elixir”, ll. 21-24
The speaker shows readiness to enter into a deeper and more intimate relationship with the Divine.
Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and one of the blogmasters at New Westminster Anglican Blog. This series on Anglican writers and poets began with a series of pieces celebrating the life and art of George Herbert who is commemorated in the Anglican Church of Canada on February 27.
If you have a favourite Anglican poet or writer you would like to celebrate here, please send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org