Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 24th February 2024

Poem Of The Week: Prayer By George Herbert (1593-1633)


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 heaven and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversèd 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.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
Seventeenth century poet and priest, George Herbert’s, devotional poem reaches forward into our own time, not so much in terms of religious observance – the articles of Christian faith and belief are in apparently irreversible decline – but rather in tone. A free-flow of metaphors for prayer, for approaches to prayer, and for objects of devotion, Herbert’s otherwise formal sonnet is studied yet impressionistic, an inventory of themes rendered associatively.

In this inventive tableau, the poet describes the circuitous means by which salvation may be determined: the journey through prayer to redemption is laced with symbols, images whose meaning may reside in exalted mood, in the music of the spheres, in natural bounty, or in the focused and sibilant intensity of the ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’.

Herbert’s joyous accumulation of attitudes, of the sense of a theocentric cosmos ‘builded’ by poetic pause and accretion towards perfection, finds resolution in his simple, and utterly compelling, final phrase – ‘something understood’; something of beauty that is unseen but recognised and shared.

‘Prayer’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1950, chosen and edited by Helen Gardner, published by the Oxford University Press (1972)