George Herbert’s ‘Prayer 1’

Herbert, Brodsky, Rilke, Weil . . . Having read John Drury’s excellent biography of George Herbert, ‘Music at Midnight’, a while back, I was re-reading the poem Prayer (I). The poem is really a list of images of prayer, multiple perspectives, full of vigorous relish and un-churchy energy.

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;

The whole poem is one sentence, rushing across line breaks and quatrains to herald prayer as a feast, an inversion of inspiration, a precis of our spiritual self, holy journey, a measuring or plumbing not of depth but height –

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;

The scale roughly switches to the power of prayer here – Herbert’s religion is bracing and unsentimental – militaristic images and thunder (again reversed in direction – all things come from God but prayer is our chance to respond), even a wounding of Christ. The ambiguity of ‘transposing’ (transfiguring, translating, transcending) leads Herbert to the quieter image of prayer as a cosmic music.

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,

The third line of Q3, balanced around the caesura, captures the role of prayer as go-between, conduit, glue between the height of heaven and the fallen state of man – the former leaning sympathetically down towards the ordinary, the latter aspiring to our best. The four phrases of the concluding couplet are marked by speed, a testing of the elasticity of the reader’s imagination (the ‘land of spices’ perhaps the least successful of the poem’s images), and the extraordinary understatement of the two last words.

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What the poem has done is prepare the ground for what ought to strike as inadequate vagueness, but what here reads as fullness, a plenitude which encompasses all that has gone before and gestures towards more, far more, the entire creation. ‘Understood’ has also been broken free of its moorings to suggest far more than an intellectual grasp – perhaps a literal under-standing or underpinning of our place in creation. Brodsky says poetry accelerates our minds; here, the reader does not need to share Herbert’s religious views to experience the graceful jemmying open of our mind by the poem. Prayer in a secular age is Rilke’s praising; it is as Simone Weil thought, “absolutely unmixed attention”, a rich mindfulness.

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