George Herbert lived at the turn of the 16th/17th centuries during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I (by English reckoning) and Charles I. He is chiefly remembered for his poetry and for his faithfulness as a pastor during one of the many periods of religious turbulence in England. I don’t find his poems an easy read – some of that is down to the distance of years where words and turns of phrase have shifted in meaning or, more often, simply unfamiliar. This one “Prayer (1)” piles on the metaphors and similes for prayer, most of which takes some time and effort to digest. It is a poem to read more than once.
For myself, one message is that prayer is not just so many words said, sung, written or signed. There is something else going on inside us. Prayer could be accompanied by this notice: “Warning! Holy Spirit at work!”. Although I more or less stumbled upon this poem, I found that I recognised some of the phrases such as “heaven in ordinary” and “something understood” which writers and also friends of mine have quoted. I would like to draw attention to “the soul in paraphrase”, “heart in pilgrimage”, “reversed thunder”, and “church-bells beyond the stars heard”. Each phrase would repay turning over in the mind in meditation. Alternatively, they could be the titles of four books in a series of fiction. I wonder who the main characters might be?
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.
George Herbert (1593-1633)