Herbert: [ ? ] you, Lord

I am thinking about George Herbert (1593-1633).

Like many people in the 17th century, Herbert was sick a lot, before his terribly young death. He wrote no fewer than five poems entitled “Affliction.” This, number five, is the best one.

MY God, I read this day,
That planted Paradise was not so firm,
As was and is thy floting Ark; whose stay
And anchor thou art onely, to confirm
And strengthen it in ev’ry age,
When waves do rise, and tempests rage.

At first we liv’d in pleasure;
Thine own delights thou didst to us impart;
When we grew wanton, thou didst use displeasure
To make us thine: yet that we might not part,
As we at first did board with thee,
Now thou wouldst taste our miserie.

There is but joy and grief;
If either will convert us, we are thine:
Some Angels us’d the first; if our relief
Take up the second, then thy double line
And sev’rall baits in either kinde
Furnish thy table to thy minde.

Affliction then is ours;
We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
While blustring winds destroy the wanton bowres,
And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.

A couple of clarifications (if needed): The “Ark” of the first stanza is a standard symbol for the church. Herbert, an Anglican priest, is saying that it’s more stable than Paradise — which, after all, got lost. “Wanton,” in the second stanza, is now archaic, but was very commonly used in the seventeenth century. It means “naughty” or “hedonistic.” “But,” in stanza 3, is used in the sense of “only.”

Herbert develops a prim little joke. In Paradise, before the snake and the apple and all that business, people lived “in pleasure.” But when we went too far, God graciously swapped that for “displeasure,” so that we wouldn’t feel rejected. And then, through the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ (Him), God came to share our “misery.”

So far, so Sunday School. But then Herbert rolls out that incredible statement about “joy and grief.” That’s all there is, he says, like some old biker who has them tattooed across his knuckles. “If either can convert us, we are thine” — God’s.

What the heck does that mean? I used to think it had to do with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has decided from before the beginning of time who will be saved and who damned. But that doesn’t really work, because in Calvinism damnation is certainly not a way to come to God.  More recently, I have thought about the line as a reflection on emotional disorders such as psychopathy. If you can feel joy or grief, you’re ok. You’re salvageable. They are vibrations of the same force, maybe. But if you can’t feel em — either of em —  you’re fucked.

But there’s more to this incredible poem, as it takes its hard-swallowing turn. Herbert returns to his Sunday School joke. All there is is joy or grief, he says — got it, class? YES, MR. HERBERT! Now, “some angels” — that’s Lucifer and company — “used the first.” It’s all gone, you see. So what’s left, class? GRIEF, MR. HERBERT! Very good, class. And that’s great, you see, because it means (1) we’re not left with nothing — no, we have grief for our stuffie, and (2) it means God has access to both species of His emotional prey. He is able, in that gruesome image with which Herbert concludes the stanza, calling back to the ancient, ancient idea of Christ as a fisher of souls, to “furnish” his dinner table just the way he likes it. Tucking into us: a swarming plate of grief.

It is stone-cold, this joke. Even as Herbert means it seriously. He is trying to articulate, like a good Christian sufferer, the word of patience: Thank You. But it comes out through gritted teeth, and blood from his tongue.

“We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more.” That’s his last try. It is a very good one. One of the greatest lines in seventeenth-century poetry. You almost glimpse, through that image, that idea, the possibility of understanding suffering. It makes us belong here. It’s what we belong to.

Wait–what?

While the “wanton” bowers just get all “ruffled”? What kind of Sunday School is this?

The kind where the conclusion contradicts the text. Herbert doesn’t end with ‘Thank you.” He ends with “please.” Directed at a God who is represented, not as a fisherman, but — a yet more ancient image — as a hunter. Not with a line, but with a bow. Which, through the bright beams that follow rain, may be tamed. Or at least, we can wish. And that’s what’s really left.

“My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.”

 

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

2 thoughts on “Herbert: [ ? ] you, Lord”

  1. Splendid post, James. You’ve helped me to see more in a poem I thought I knew well. Thanks.
    Tobias

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