George Herbert Poems
A Time for Preparation
A Time for Preparation
Cemeteries (and other places of burial) are terrestrial sanctuaries for the fragile remains of one’s mortal existence. Wandering these grounds can be a peaceful and hallowing experience. Some individuals speak to the graves and if one listens carefully, they may hear them whisper back. In Herbert’s poem, Church Monuments, which could act as a verse-like prayer, the speaker feels at peace in such an environment as he contemplates his own death while strolling through his sacred future burial ground. Among various religions and in the Bible, we can find parallels to this poem.
This poem has 24 lines, which could parallel the 24 hours that are in a day. This is significant to the poem due to the importance of passing time and the temporal state of the body in mortality. It says in Ecclesiastes 12:7 that the body is a temporary vessel for the spirit before it returns again to God. As time passes, the body wears thin, yet remains firmly attached to the soul within it.
The first three lines of the first stanza present the two main themes of the poem: religious devotion and the symbiosis between body and soul. We are then introduced to the speaker. He appears to be an old man preparing for his soul’s journey into the next life. In almost all religions, there is a spiritual journey involved when preparing to face the afterlife. For the Ancient Egyptians, death was a catalyst for their rebirth. It was their way to the Afterlife. They physically primed themselves for it by the special preservation of their body (the fascinating process of mummification) and through the storage of their worldly possessions with them in an elaborate tomb. Some of their ideas were not unlike those of Christian beliefs; there are a few broad parallels. The Egyptians, like the speaker of this poem, did not fear death. They knew that if they were adequately prepared, they could face it with comfort and confidence.
The speaker stops at a grave and admits that someday soon, he will be buried there, too. In a way, he is getting acquainted with his grave so he knows what to expect when death comes to claim him. He can sense that death is approaching his door; the time is near. Death moves forward because he is “[f]ed with the exhalation of our crimes” (line 5). This line is saying that without sin, death wouldn’t have a purpose. The more we sin, the stronger of a hold death has on our souls. Over the span of a lifetime, these sins take their toll, inviting death to claim its dues. For the speaker, “[h]is bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust” (Job 20:11). This verse is trying to convey that if we do not seek absolution for our sins before we die, we will carry them into the grave. They will be strapped to our shoulders when we face God at judgment day. This is a common belief with most Christian faiths.
The second stanza discusses the importance of a grave and what will take place there. Although they act as a dignified symbol of remembrance and as a connection between the living and the deceased, monuments are not eternal. They, too, are dust, and are a mere materialistic barrier between earth and body. They, too, will eventually crumble to dust, but the speaker entrusts his body to his grave and knows that it will be safe within it. He will be able to find solace beneath the “dusty heraldry and lines” inscribed on the headstone because he knows that death is part of the course of nature and of God’s plan (line 9). Ecclesiastes 12:7 confirms this when it says, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Life has a cycle. When the mortal remains wither and perish, they return to the earth; the spirit returns to be with God, its original source.
According to Hebrews 12:9, our spirits dwelled with God before we came to Earth. He decided to send us to Earth to test our worthiness to live in His presence. Earth and all things on it were then created and we were sent to inhabit it. Our bodies are a gift, a vessel to carry our spirits until our test is finished and it is time to rejoin Him in Heaven. When the day of Resurrection comes, we will be rejoined with our bodies, only this time, enveloped in paradisiacal perfection. No longer will we have to endure the cursed pains and limitations of mortal existence.
The perspective seems to change starting in the third stanza and into the fourth stanza. The body and soul appear to be conversing with one another. If that is true, the soul reminds the body to remember where it came from and to keep its cravings under control: “[F]lesh is but the glass which holds the dust / That measures all our time” (lines 20-21). This is implying that mortal trifles like instant gratification have no eternal significance compared to the higher divinity of eternal life in Heaven. “ For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). The materialistic goals we achieve here cannot be carried with us beyond the veil of mortality, as also expressed in the popular saying, “You can’t take it with you.”
A problem that has taken society rampant since the beginning of time is the hedonistic desire for worldly goods. This is demonstrated in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:15-21). In this parable, the Lord blesses a man with a bounteous supply of possessions and property, but he has a condition. He must use this prosperity to build the kingdom of God. Instead of doing that, the man puts all of his energy into increasing his wealth for his own gain. We are not supposed to devote our lives to such endeavors; we can’t take it with us. In Proverbs 3:9, it says that we are supposed to honor God with the first fruits of our increase. He will bless us even more if we utilize His gifts selflessly, for you “cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
The last few lines of the final stanza bring the poem to an affective close: “Mark here below / How tame these ashes are, how free from lust, / That thou mayest fit thyself against thy fall” (lines 22-24). These lines can take two possible interpretations. The soul could be warning the body against the potential for falling into sin. It could also be referring to the body’s fall into death. Nobody knows when their time will come to an end. It is important for one to always be prepared for when it does come. Psalms 90:12 confirms this by advising us “to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” The time to prepare is now. Thomas S. Monson, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agrees with this statement when he says, “When the time for decision arrives, the time for preparation is passed” (Monson).
Our time on this planet is minute, a mere grain of sand in the grand existential spectrum. The speaker of Herbert’s poem knew this. By having the out-of-body experience that he did while pondering his death, he was able to better prepare himself for his impending passing. This poem, along with the Bible, teaches us the importance of preparing for death.
Herbert, George. “Church Monuments.” Volume B: The Sixteenth Century and the Early
Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2012. 1712-713. Print.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Print.
Monson, Thomas S. “You Make a Difference.” You Make a Difference-Thomas S. Monson.
Apr. 1988. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
Ambiguities of Religion: A Comparison of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and George Herbert’s ‘Prayer.’
Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’ present similarities in that they both explore the ambiguities of religion. The difference lies in their approach: Herbert contemplates the significance of religion, whereas Larkin, almost three centuries later, contemplates its very existence. The content and thematic elements of these poems perhaps differ so greatly due to the period they were written and published. Larkin first published ‘Church Going’ in the 1950’s, a relatively modern era where religion and the concept of a ‘God’ was beginning to be widely questioned. In comparison, Herbert composed his poem in the late 1600’s, shortly after the Tudor reign. At this point in history, religion was a much more commonplace part of people’s everyday lives, meaning that his poem assumes that religion will always be an established institution. It is interesting to consider that this may be why the two poems differ so much in content. However, this essay will also discuss how the two poets differ in their narration and choice of language to create these two opposing views.
Both these poems are based on the views of a narrator regarding religion. Therefore, to alter these views, the poets present two very different narrative perspectives. Throughout ‘Church Going’, the speaker appears awkward and one who is unsure how religion fits in to his current situation; Larkin names him ‘an interloper’: Hatless, I take off My cycle-clips in awkward reverence Larkin purposefully takes this traditional image and replaces it with an almost comical object; without a hat, the narrator takes off his cycle-clips as the only way he can think of to show respect. This reminds the reader of his modernity, both through his attire and how seemingly inappropriate it is for a church setting. Yet Larkin also perhaps suggests the opposite also: that religion and it’s home in the church is also now inappropriate for the modern life. This contrasts against the attitude in ‘Prayer’, where religion is valued as an undeniable aspect of society. Additionally, the phrase ‘awkward reverence’ suggests an attempt to show respect. A later line in the poem sees the narrator trying to ‘[reintroduce] religion on his own terms, speaking as someone without faith who is trying to recover the comfort that it used to give’. This completely changes the narrator’s perspective; the ‘awkward reverence’ is not through an unfamiliarity with religion, but a previous neglect that he is now only just returning to, seemingly years later. Therefore, Larkin’s poem presents a very personal narrative, where religion has moved transitioned from this worldwide movement to an individual battle for one person.
This questioning of religion simply doesn’t occur in Herbert’s ‘Prayer’. The narrator is in utmost praise of religion and is utterly convinced of its fulfilling power, shown through the consistent use of religious language: ‘Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age/ God’s breath in man, returning to his birth.’ The metaphor ‘Churches banquet’ alludes to this idea of the Eucharist; prayer is seen as akin to physical nourishment. Additionally, the connection between the physical and spiritual –‘heav’n and earth’ – suggests a complete reverence for the Bible’s teaching, rejecting this ambiguity of belief that Larkin imposes. It also alludes to the idea that man was made in God’s image, once again connecting humanity to a deity-like image. Herbert also refers to the crucifixion where ‘God [is] returning to his birth’. Through presenting the very origins of religion, it suggests that religion is still as relevant to Herbert’s narrator, and will continue to be as relevant in the future. Once religion has been cemented as a concept, Herbert also reflects on how a person can be respectful to God, specifying that the spirits will bear witness to our own spirit. This suggests that religious worship must be an action – as prayer is – to show reverence. Therefore, these overtly religious metaphors provide a comparison to ‘Church Going’; its vague imagery of ‘the holy end’ reflects how Larkin’s narrator is so unfamiliar with religion that he cannot use the correct terminology to describe his surroundings or lost faith.
As it has been previously discussed, both poems discuss the relevance that religion has in society. The contrasting element is in how secure this institution is, and for what period of time religion will continue to be important to society and its members. This can be seen through the endings to each poem and the consequent last impressions the narrators impose on the reader. In ‘Prayer’, the metaphors have been resolved. Helen Vendler comments, the ‘final definition of prayer as “something understood” abolishes or expunges the need for explanatory metaphors.’ Herbert seems to allude to this almost directly in his poem, suggesting the ‘land of spice’ as ‘something understood’. This suggests that the metaphor has been universally understood and can be comprehended by all those within the religion who will automatically understand. This perhaps presents an exclusivity of community; only those who understand the Biblical reference can understand the poem. Therefore Herbert’s poem asserts that as long as this understanding remains, the power of the Church and religion will also be relevant. However, the use of this ambiguous pronoun is interesting to consider as a contrast to the previously used, extremely specific religious metaphors. Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ would consider this ‘something’ as an indefinable, ambiguous aspect. However, in the context of ‘Prayer’, ‘something’ instead seems to mean faith, and it’s ambiguity only means that it is not a tangible object. Thus the ending of Herbert’s poem is both ambiguous to the non-religious yet evident to the religious, suggesting the possible potential relevance that religion could have in society.
In ‘Church Going’, the poem’s conclusion almost actively rejects religion, confirming that ‘the place was not worth stopping for.’ The ending suggests a modern way of thinking that assumes this belief will ‘be an inevitable evolution in people’s thinking’:
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
This suggests that Larkin’s narrator is representative of an entire generation, which automatically makes this negative ending increasingly more poignant. This is reflected in Larkin’s reference to the graveyard, mirroring the Church’s future status and what it will come to represent: a past, and metaphorically dead, entity. He also comments on the appropriate role for the Church in modern life; it is seen as a peaceful place that was ‘proper to grow wise in’, but not to live a life through. This lack of regimented belief is reflected in the poem’s structure, as well as the ending. ‘Church Going’ has neither a rhyme scheme nor structured stanzas. If we consider that Herbert believed ‘[the] ultimate method of reflecting God’s glory was the creation of a work of decency and order, […] an ordered poem….’, then Larkin’s poem displays the exact opposite. Whereas Herbert’s poet exudes this idea of order with neat stanzas, regular rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter, Larkin presents a less traditional structure. His third, fourth, and fifth stanza are almost prophetic in questioning the purpose of this ‘special shell.’ Larkin also employs a stream of consciousness as a structure, mirroring this unstructured contemplation of religion. This presents an image as if the narrator is writing the poem as he stands outside the Church, bringing a sense of immediacy to his words. This stream of consciousness also presents an uncertainty of what could be said next, reflecting the precarious position the Church holds in a society that will ultimately let it crumble. In the final stanza, the speaker is back to the reality of ‘[standing] in silence’. This leaves not only the speaker but the reader also in ambiguity; even after intense contemplation, a concrete conclusion has not been reached.
The symbolic meanings of ‘Church Going’ and ‘Prayer’ have been examined, and both display extremely different attitudes as to the meaning of religion. Despite all their differences, there is a similarity in the realization that life is precious. In ‘Church Going’, it is important to the narrator that he seeks meanings somehow in his life, whether this is through religion or not. Similarly, ‘Prayer’ comments on how religion can give purpose and meaning to a person’s life in order to preserve their sanctity of life. Both poems present this view that how a person spends their life is important, and perhaps religion goes beyond physical acts such as prayers and buildings; it is the faith that you live your life by.
Emotion and Religious Urgency in “Denial”
In ‘Denial’, George Herbert presents a narrator appealing to God to help him reconfigure a disordered mindset, and yet the form of monologue is used to imply that there is little hope that the narrator’s pleas will be answered, hinting at his fate to remain ever-alone. Through use of simile, the poet suggests that the speaker’s psyche and physicality must be repaired by God, and the desperate appeals throughout the poem work to convey the increasing alarm of the speaker in his belief that he cannot carry on his life without divine assistance.
Herbert’s use of direct address helps foreground the narrator’s desire for spiritual reconciliation with his God. Such desire is made apparent in the exclamative used to address God: ‘Come, come, my God, O come!’. The repeated verb and positioning of the phrase in at the heart of the stanzas suggests that God’s absence is the primary source of the narrator’s suffering, and use of possessive pronoun dramatises the narrator’s attempt to regain a personal and individual spirituality rather than appeal to abstract religious entities, which finds further grounding in the opening lines ‘When my devotions could not pierce/ Thy silent ears’, in which the perfect masculine rhyme between personal pronoun ‘my’ used to refer to the speaker, and ‘thy’ alluding to the addressee is further evocative of the narrator’s wish for a close relationship with his maker.
Nonetheless, the monologue form of poem, paired with the poet’s decision to open and close the poem in reference to the isolated individual through personal pronoun ‘my’ is suggestive of the futility of the poet’s desire to reconnect with God, as does the phrase ‘But not hearing’, twice repeated in the middle of the stanzas. The simplicity of the clause is made all the more pejorative in the phrase ‘My heart was in my knee,/ But no hearing’, with the prior part of the sentence suggesting an utter distortion of the narrator’s physical being, thus heightening the audience’s pathos when we learn of god’s ignorance to his plight, which is immediately foregrounded in the title- ‘Denial’ which perhaps alludes to God’s refusal to reply to the narrator’s constant prayer.
Throughout the poem, Herbert’s frequent use of simile and metaphor works to present the narrator’s persona as something that must be fine-tuned and improved by a divine figure. There is a semantic field of high culture that filters through the verse (‘verse’, ‘unstrung’, ‘chime’) used to depict the speaker’s soul as a precious entity deserving of divine repair, and this is evident in the opening stanzas’s declarative ‘Then was my heart broken, as was my verse’ in which the line is literally fractured by a caesura to dramatise the similarities between the ‘broken’ verse and the heart; perhaps heightening the emotional appeal of the poem itself as an expression of the poet’s heartfelt dejection.
The poem’s metaphors and similes not only refer to the physical parts of the narrator’s being, but also the metaphysical, which is suggestive of the persona’s desperation to be cured both mentally and physically: ‘my soul lay out of sight,/ Untuned, unstrung’ comments the poet, and the separation of the dual adjectives as a single line heighten the poet’s painful feelings of isolation and abandonment from his creator. Indeed, to close the poem with a metaphor likening the persona’s mindset to music (‘They and my mind may chime,/ And mend my rhyme’) further marks out the narrator’s ‘self’ as something that must be refined and developed, like a musical instrument, by God, and the alliteration ‘m’ coupled with prior alliterated ’t’ in previous lines (‘O cheer and tune my heartless breast’) develops the poem’s cadence into a musical register, implying the hopeful idea that his prayers for spiritual rejuvenation are progressively being answered: indeed, to end on a rhyming couplet furthers this suggestion through implying an eventual reconciliation between the persona and his creator, with the regular rhyme scheme of the poem further implying that God has not absolutely left the speaker’s soul ‘unstrung’.
Overall, in ‘Denial’, Herbert presents a narrator desperate to regain a relationship with his God in order to improve his physical and mental health. Whilst it initially seems that the speaker has little hope to gain divine help from God, the intrinsic ‘music’ and rhythm of the poem prioritises the pleasing concept that God continues to progressively answer his prayers as the poem develops.