Rhyme Thee to Good

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In the first post in this short series on the theology of the seventeenth Anglican poet, George Herbert, we considered the centrality of salvation by grace in the altar poem. It shows up throughout his other poems as well. But of course the Gospel is only good news if preceded by the bad news of sin, and Herbert has several striking poems that explore the nature and nurture of sin. One of them is "Sin's Round."

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am, 
That my offences course it in a ring. 
My thoughts are working like a busy flame, 
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring: 
And when they once have perfected their draughts, 
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts. 

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts, 
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill. 
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults, 
And by their breathing ventilate the ill. 
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions: 
My hands do join to finish the inventions. 

My hands do join to finish the inventions: 
And so my sins ascend three stories high, 
As Babel grew, before there were dissentions. 
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply 
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame, 
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am. 

Keep in mind that the "round" suggests both a circle and a song with overlapping repeating parts (such as "Dona Nobis Pacem" or "Scotland's Burning"). The poem presents repetitions or circles in the first and last lines, at the beginning and ends of adjoining stanzas, and the "thoughts of sinning" that start in stanza one and restart in stanza three. Herbert has brilliantly pictured the vicious cycle, the hamster wheel of sin; and his picture implies that only God's grace can break us free.

"Sin's Round" and "The Altar" are good examples of Herbert's so-called "emblematic" poems, which develop a theme in terms of a simple, concrete image named in the title. Many of the titles bear playful senses; for instance, "The Collar" suggests God's yoke and vocation. And some of the emblematic poems are rather enigmatic ("Jordan," "The Pulley"), leaving the reader to puzzle out the exact meaning of the image. Near the middle of The Temple we find a sequence of these poems based on the parts of a church building: "Church-monuments," "Church-lock and key," "The Church-floor," "The Windows" (discussed below). Each of these poems uses a feature of the church as an allegory of some aspect of the sin and sanctification of the church's people. The poems put to rest the thought that Anglican Herbert might prefer neat externals to the grit of applied redemption.

One of the emblematic poems develops Herbert's most ingeniously subtle and thoroughly Reformed image of Sola Gratia. Here is the "The Holdfast":
I threaten'd 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, e'en 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 amaz'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.

Christ owns and takes credit for everything, including our confession that he owns everything. We might glimpse several biblical texts behind this poem. First Colossians 3:3, which was a favorite of Herbert: "Our life is hid with Christ in God." Then there is the more familiar Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." The poem is a wonderful expression of the way works righteousness creeps in the backdoor even of the good Protestant soul: the speaker gets backed down from his desperate attempts to do something, have some credit, for his salvation. But no, it's all grace, from first to last. (Ephesians 2, by the way, goes on to say "we are his workmanship," literally his "poems" [poiema], which take us back to the message of "The Altar" and might suggest a greater role for poetry in spiritual formation than we are used to allow.)

The Spiritual Life: Practicing What You Preach

A major emphasis of the Reformation was a concern for the holiness of the church in daily life, especially the holiness of her shepherds. Recall Luther's scandal at the pomp and licentiousness of the Roman Catholic clergy. Herbert picks up this emphasis on faithful living in a poem called "The Windows."

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? 
He is a brittle crazy glass; 
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford 
This glorious and transcendent place, 
To be a window, through thy grace. 
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, 
Making thy life to shine within 
The holy preachers', then the light and glory 
More reverend grows, and more doth win; 
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin. 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one 
When they combine and mingle, bring 
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone 
Doth vanish like a flaring thing, 
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

The Christian life means we are to be scratched and broken windows, remade by Grace, through which others see God's life "annealed"-- that is, glazed or stained. With "doctrine and life" together, the Word preached takes shape and color, and the shapes and colors have meaning because the doctrine is sound. The image is provocative because it is Christ's "story" depicted in ours (the window) but also God's light that shines through us so that others may read the story. What, then, is the light? The Holy Spirit? Herbert is saying our lives are in a way sacraments that complete the Word.

But how do you become a "window"? Through the disciplines of the spiritual life--prayer, through Scripture reading and meditation, and through self-examination. Here Herbert celebrates the power and beauty of "Prayer":

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. 

This poem, which partly inspired Tim Keller's book of the same name (see chapter two), illustrates how poetry can take something familiar and show us its poignancy, depths, and cosmic resonances. Every image here could bear fruit in meditation. Prayer, if accompanied by faith, is "reversed thunder;" but the poem ends with the whisper that prayer is "something understood." Herbert is saying, "let me remind you, after the fireworks, of the still, small, but amazing truth that your father listens."

Conclusion

When we think about the Reformation, we think mostly of institutions and doctrines and liturgy and famous theologians. However, doctrine shapes worship and worships shapes culture, which in some ways shapes doctrine. The Reformation also gave us Charles Dickens and John Milton and Jane Austen and Marilynne Robinson and George Herbert. These broken altars, these crazy windows, these things understood, were also, as Calvin put it, "theaters of God's glory." They too are the Reformation.

What's more, our interest in the literary legacy of the Reformation should go beyond mere historical concerns. We are not just concerned with acknowledging the "fruit" and thereby importance of the Reformation. Although the modern novel is a largely Protestant effect, and although most of the great English poets of the past four centuries years have been Protestant, the last century saw a sharp decline in Protestant letters from the richness of that tradition. C. S. Lewis put his finger one of the symptoms:

"The difficulty we are up against is this. We can [often] make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from the lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel, and textbook undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent."

I think it is self-evident that today we have too many of these "little Christian books." Moralistic, platitudinous, sentimental, dry, clotted with the skim of a thousand proof-texts--these books pretend to inspire, pretend to feed our hearts, pretend to structure our minds; but when we close them much of that melts away, dissipates. Then our fancy returns to the charms and rage of pop culture, an allure that better imitates, tragically, the heavy fire God's kabod.

When we neglect the power of the imagination and the beauty of style, we are running with the world, and we but poorly worship the logos of John 1:1 and Hebrews 1:3. When we favor content over form and logic-chopping consistency over beauty, we not only disservice our Gospel and slight the Incarnation; we also depart from the best of our tradition.

Faced with this criticism and Lewis's call for an enchanted "mere Christianity," we could hardly find a better champion than George Herbert. Employing over a hundred different stanza forms, Herbert is inarguably the most structurally inventive of any English poet. What's more, he is a remarkably honest and subtle excavator of experience--of one's inner struggles with God and oneself over faith, doubt, the nature of redemption, the attractions of worldliness, and the hard road of sanctification. And yet, as mentioned earlier, we find consistent simplicity in his images and mindset, reflecting a childlike faith and anchorage to the Word. Herbert maintains some classic Reformed values--the importance of personal holiness, preaching, and the doctrines of Grace--but he can help enrich our currently impoverished theological imagination. For he shows that poetry can be emotionally honest and gripping, but also tightly and deeply biblical. Thus it plants truth in the heart and emotions as well as in the mind.         

You can, ironically, preach that doctrine must be completed by living, that faith without works is dead; but saying that can't draw the soul, inspire the heart, or sting the conscious the way the poem itself can. Let us, then, be willing to

Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice." ("The Church Porch," st. 1)


Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities John Witherspoon College.

Posted April 17, 2019 @ 7:17 AM by Bret Saunders

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