Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.

“Flie with angels, fall with dust” –– Appreciating George Herbert

 

Angel guiding Joshua (detail, c. 1500), St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

The seventeenth was almost the last century to succeed in looking within without falling in head first and being submerged––probably because its thinkers had as a governing conception not reality conceived as within the individual consciousness, but, rather, the possibility of inner harmony with reality.

–– Rosemund Tuve [i]

When we find words of the right sort to ask about the divine––words like ‘delight’, ‘enjoy’, ‘pleasure’, and persevere’––God can do nothing better than answer us in our own vocabulary.

–– Helen Vendler [ii]

In his lifetime, George Herbert was appreciated for his attractive personal qualities, his pastoral sense and sensibility, and his faithful Christian practice. But his extraordinary poetry, a primary domain for his soul work, remained hidden from the world until after his death in 1633. I have written about Herbert previously (Heart Work and Heaven Work), and return to him often for devotional reading as well as literary pleasure. In celebration of his feast day (February 27), let’s take another look.

Many of Herbert’s poems do not feel entirely accessible today. His seventeenth-century language and syntax require some translation, while his inventively constructed metaphors and images assume a biblical and theological literacy no longer widely possessed. “[T]his change in the sensibilities of his audience,” laments Rosemund Tuve, “damages some of Herbert’s poems appreciably. The waste for us is more unhappy by far than the unfairness to him.” [iii] I myself find the extensive footnotes and commentary in Helen Wilcox’s magnificent edition of The English Poems of George Herbert to be immensely helpful in letting the poems speak with proper force and meaning.

But the form of Herbert’s poems is not the only hindrance for the modern reader. In the prevailing atmosphere of our secular era, we don’t even breathe the same air as the metaphysical poet. As a recent biographer explains, “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world . . . Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” [iv]

In contrast, even believers can find themselves acting and thinking like atheists these days, excepting the moments when they engage in conscious religious practice. We no longer live in a world––or a cultural consciousness––saturated with divinity. It is too easy to act as if God is neither necessary nor present. Herbert’s fervent I-Thou relationship with the transcendent can seem alien to the secular mind. Who’s he talking to anyway?

Compared to the modern flattening of human experience in a depthless and disenchanted world––no longer “charged with the grandeur of God” [v]––Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance. The gate of heaven might be anywhere, admitting the attentive soul to a luminous eternity beyond the self.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. [vi]

Herbert’s passionate engagement with transcendence––among us, within us, over-against us––was not theoretical or abstract, but intimate and experiential, employing the first-person form of lyric poetry to open a clearing where his inmost feelings could show themselves to both the speaker and his readers. In his striking play of words, images and sounds, a consort of meanings both public and private, we overhear Herbert’s prayers, and witness the argument of his soul. The brilliance of his poetic invention is never for its own sake. He seeks not to show off his skill, but to surrender his will.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms. [vii]

Herbert’s humility was one of his most distinctive traits. He was hardly immune to ambition and acclaim, but renounced them for greater treasure. He would die, before his fortieth birthday, as a country priest far removed from the glitter of worldly success.

He seemed perpetually amazed that grace would take up residence in his “poore cabinet of bone.” [viii]

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing els to do? [ix]

He prayed to be worthy of the gift:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave. [x]

And he never forgot to praise the Giver:

Blest be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart. [xi]

Herbert’s life was not all sunshine and flowers. Five of his poems are called “Affliction.” The first of these begins happily enough:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no month but May.

But then come sorrow and woe, dissatisfaction and disappointment, illness and loss. After a long litany of troubles, the poem ends with a deceptively simple vow crammed with multiple meanings: surrender, self-doubt, anxiety, acceptance, and perhaps a hint of resistance to the demanding terms of the divine-human relationship.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. [xii]

Even worse than personal suffering was the experience of divine absence. For a faithful person in a religious world, such absence was nothing like the “out of sight, out of mind” of our secular age. If God does not “exist” in cultural or personal awareness, then the lack of divine presence goes unnoticed and unfelt. But for anyone whose heart belongs to God, the times of divine absence are excruciating.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse . . .
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing. [xiii]

As the Psalms so often remind us, God is not an easy partner. Luther supposed that God often “hides his grace” to teach us not to grasp the divine “according to our own feelings and reactions.”[xiv] If faith always needs evidence, how can it be faith? Or as Emily Dickinson described her own wrestling with “that diviner thing,” it does not always respond to our advances, but rather “Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves––/ Returns––suggests––“ [xv]

If it were otherwise, and Presence were always immediate, filling every place and every moment with plenitude, our journey would be over, and we would no longer be the “heart in pilgrimage.”[xvi] Herbert, like every saint, accepted God’s terms with faithful ambivalence. “I will complain, yet praise,” he said. “I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” [xvii]

And in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of thing be well: [xviii]

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where. [xix]

 

 

 

Related post: Heart Work and Heaven Work

 

[i] Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.

[ii] Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery(Princeton, 2005), q. in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336.

[iii] Tuve, 103.

[iv] Drury, 11.

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkns, “God’s Grandeur.”

[vi] “The Elixir.”

[vii] “The Holy Communion.”

[viii] “Ungratefulnesse.”

[ix] “Mattens.”

[x] “Christmas.”

[xi] “The Church-floore.”

[xii] “Affliction (I).”

[xiii] “Deniall.”

[xiv] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, q. in Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 219.

[xv] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below” (F285, 1862).

[xvi] “Prayer (I).”

[xvii] “Bitter-sweet.”

[xviii] I hope Herbert would appreciate the poetic conceit of combining fellow English artists the Beatles and Julian of Norwich in the same line!

[xix] “The Temper (I).”