Today is national poetry day. Anglicans have much to celebrate – our liturgies old and new are loaded with poetry; there’s poetry in any translation of the Bible, not least in the Psalms; there’s poetry in our hymns. Two Anglican priest-poets spring to mind: George Herbert who died of TB in 1633 after a few years as a country parson, and R.S. Thomas, a Welshman with a cut-glass English accent who died in 2000, bequeathing (along with poetry on other themes) many, many poems which question the nature of God and our relationship with him as a scalpel questions flesh. Both were consummate craftsmen and were highly innovative in their use of line and rhythm and metaphor. Both searched their own hearts.
Many people who flirt with George Herbert seem to stick with one poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’, which is a pity. What about the flight of Easter Wings? What about ’God’s breath in man returning to his birth’? Or the spring resurrection in The Flower:
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse?
Maybe it’s the hospitality of ‘Love bade me welcome’ which attracts. Poems can invite us in: the author may have included more than one interpretation for us to explore, or we may bring our own. We might uncover new riches in a well-loved poem many years after we first met it. (In a similar way, when I visit an Anglican church I feel welcome, and sometimes I’m aware of a rich feast: I might help myself to something from the architecture, from the light at the window, from a hymn, from a smile or a kind word. I often feel myself pulled further in towards some undefined second course, some intangible gift.)
So here it is:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, the ungratefull?
Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
The last four lines are incredibly compressed. Insert at least one long dramatic pause (after ‘blame’) and imagine what the eyes of guest and host are doing there. After that, like the prodigal son, the guest offers to serve, but instead is offered an outstretched hand to lead him or her to the feast.
But the poem’s yours to read as you wish, George Herbert’s gift to you. In his book The Contagion of Jesus launched on his 90th birthday, the Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore delights in telling us the story of a young friend with no religious upbringing coming across this poem for the first time, aged 17. He thought it described a good sexual encounter, overcoming all his inhibitions. Sebastian writes “Herbert’s poem registers at every level, from the nervous adolescent having his first sexual experience to the divine.”
I keep coming back to the shame/blame lines – Love takes the blame, but we are always trying to claim it back! I’ve used one of the lines in this short poem on my website.
There’s recently been a discussion on this site on whether it’s legitimate to rewrite hymns. The general consensus was that it’s not – still less, then, a revered poem. Yet sometimes I need to tweak or rewrite poems, prayers, Bible verses, creeds to enter more deeply into them. (Wendy Cope has added to my appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land by rendering it brilliantly in five limericks!) Sometimes it’s a single word I change. It’s a round trip – I end up back at the original, with a deeper appreciation.
So for what it’s worth here’s my moustache on the Mona Lisa (see Marcel Duchamp). It goes a bit hippy at the end.
To George Herbert with love
Life bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Unwilling to engage.
But quickfoot life, observed me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here.
Life said, That’s you baby.
I, the undead, the ungrateful?
Ah my deare, I cannot dance with thee!
Life took my hand and smiling did reply
Who made thy feet but I?
I see your point, but I’ve messed up.
I think I’ll just sit this one out and have another drink.
The music came over me in waves. I shut my ears and it seeped into my soul. The room fell away; the sun warmed my cold bare feet on the dewed grass. Life’s hand was still in mine, and catching the dawn of hope in my eyes, pulled me to my feet, towards her, away again, jiving, twirling, swirling, jumping. The music was in the ground, and the dance never ends.
For some, church is inaccessible and poetry (or other arts) does some of the job that religion once did: words serve as sacrament, as I wrote on the last national poetry day. Others might approach church as if it were a poem or an anthology. For those whose faith is in prose, a little of the power of poetry to subvert words and juggle them joyfully might not go amiss.
” The Church of St Andrew, Bemerton, is known as George Herbert’s Church. It is in the parish of Bemerton. In George Herbert’s day the other little church in the area was St Peter’s Fugglestone which now comes within Wilton parish although in Herbert’s day there was the one parish of Bemerton-cum-Fugglestone. On the 14th June, 1934, the stained glass in the West window, as shown here, which had been given by admirers of George Herbert, from all over the world, was unveiled by the Bishop of Salisbury (Dr St.Clair Donaldson). It depicts the Poet and his great friend Nicholas Ferrar. Caroline Townshend and Joan Howson were responsible for the window’s design and execution.” Photographed by Weglinde, and downloaded from Wikimedia under CCL