Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Notes on Poems of George Herbert

George Herbert is one of my favorite poets, and it has taken some time for me to begin to plumb a little bit of the depth of his poems. Only a little bit, I repeat! Here is a sampling of three poems with my humble notes following each. If you, while reading, see any other points and meanings I have missed, I would love to hear what these poems have to say to you. Enjoy!


A broken A L T E R , Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman's tool hath touch'd the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctify this A L T A R to be thine.

We can find references in this poem to Psalm 139 where we read that our frame was hidden when we were being formed in secret, but not hidden to the Master Craftsman. Herbert also refers to the Old Testament stone altars that God commanded to be made of unhewn stone.

Our hearts are like those unhewn stones that only God can shape and form so that we may be made according to His purposes and glory. God takes us, these stones of His, and builds "a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer acceptable sacrifices" as 1 Peter 2:5 tells us. As stones "fitly framed together" it is our honor to offer "sacrifices of praise," and if we aren't willing to do so, God can raise up other stones to cry out praises to Him. Additionally, Herbert has constructed this poem, as a craftsman himself, to show the reader his theme of altar and sacrifice.


Philosophers have measur'd mountains,
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk'd with a staff to heav'n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev'ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like;
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
WHich my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Though philosophers (and we) may study and acquire knowledge of the heavens, of men and states, and of the deep, there are two things even more immense, but nearby, in our hearts, that should be studied as well: Sin and Love. Unfortunately, we don't probe these depths. Perhaps because it is too painful.

It is sin that forces pain, death, and despair through every seen and unseen aspect of our beings. It was sin that wrung our Savior, so that His beauty and perfection were exchanged for our grotesqueness and failure. But, through that blood wrung from Him for our sakes, we have come to a cup of wine such as have never tasted - a cup given to us by Love.


Bright spark, shot from a brighter place,
Where beams surround my Saviour's face,
Canst thou be any where
So well as there?

Yet, if t hou wilt from thence depart,
Take a bad lodging in my heart;
For thou canst make a debtor,
And make it better.

First with thy fire-work burn to dust
Folly, and worse than folly, lust:
Then with thy light refine,
And make it shine:

So disengag'd from sin and sickness,
Touch it with thy celestial quickness,
That it may hang and move
After thy love.

Then with our trinity of light,
Motion, and heat, let's take our flight
Unto the place where thou
Before didst bow.

Get me a standing there, and place
Among the beams which crown the face
Of him, who dy'd to part
Sin and my heart:

That so among the rest I may
Glitter, and curl, and wind as they:
That winding is their fashion
Of adoration.

Sure thou wilt joy, by gaining me
To fly home like a laden bee
Unto that hive of beams
And garland-streams.

The revelation of Christ, the Word, shines down upon the darkness of our hearts to transform the Debtor, the sinner, into something better, something that better reflects the bright and shining image of God. That light which illuminates from Christ burns away our dross and refines us, causing us to shine as the light, the star, shines; and as the weight of dross burns away, the light enables us to follow it better than ever before, even eventually to the point that the Trinity of Light causes us to upward fly as sparks back to the very source of Light and Glory - the very face of Jesus, who is the Light of the World which shines in the darkness. (John 1: 4-5)

As we take our place before the Light among other debtors transformed, we will with joy adore Him; and He with joy receives us into His Glory.

"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Cor.3:18) Like the fireworks that we read about and literally see in the shape of this poem, we show forth the theme of ascending from glory to glory even unto the Father, Son, and Spirit - the Trinity of Light.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Hmm.... Unfortunately I see that the blog only saw fit to copy partial construction of "The Altar" and "The Star" which is too bad. The construction of "The Altar" is especially significant to the poem.