What Is Prayer? The Poetry of George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican priest and poet whose clear, vivid language connects spiritual reality with ordinary day to day reality – and in the process shows us that our lives and the world around us are anything but ‘ordinary’ if we see rightly.
In this talk, I discuss three of Herbert’s poems that have a particular application to prayer – poems that often sound startlingly modern. In “The Collar,” the poet-narrator rages against God in words that sound like they came out of the mouth of an angry New Atheist: “leave thy cold dispute / Of what is fit and not; forsake thy cage, / Thy rope of sands, / Which petty thoughts have made.”
In “Mattins,” Herbert reflects on human frailty and idolatry as contrasted with God’s almost-unbelievable attention to mankind. In “Mattins” we also see Herbert’s metaphor of God’s love as light — a sun-beam that we can see, but by which we also are made able to see. C.S. Lewis echoes this image in his wonderful line from “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Finally, in “Prayer (I)” we get a marvelous series of images that evoke the height and depth, the richness and splendor, of prayer – each image worth reflecting on (prayerfully) at length.
The text of the poems is included below. If you are intrigued by Herbert’s poetry, I recommend the Everyman edition. (Here is a good paperback edition). For the audio of the talk, you can use the player or click here.
I struck the board, and cried, “No more!
I will abroad.
What! shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures; leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not; forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.”
But as I rav’d, and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, “Child“;
And I replied, “My Lord.”
I cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.
My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things or all of them in one?
My God, what is a heart?
That thou should’st it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?
Indeed man’s whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav’n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.
Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sun-beam I will climb to thee.
Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angels’ 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, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.