Slowly Unfurling Structure

Magnificent Buckler Fern ( I think it is called ) unfurling its structure

Yesterday I said I’d be reading George Herbert, and so  here I am, a little later than usual because I slept way beyond my normal waking time, for which I am, as a five and sometimes four a.m. waker, always grateful.

This quiet country village pastor, a poet whose time falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Milton and whose poetry is like neither of them, has influenced my life as if he were a real person, known to me, knowing me for thirty years. If the dead live they live in poetry: here I’ve had a mentor  who has given good counsel, a shoulder to cry on cry, and recognition of my experience.  From him I have learned there are underlying structures in human inner experience, just there are in all nature.

It is hard (for me it was, in the beginning) to get past his religion. Here is a structure I cannot see. But I can see that George Herbert sees it, and that it orders chaos for him. I follow his human footsteps, all the time thinking (as it were in brackets) ‘don’t believe in God’. Translating his religious experience into some kind of analogue for my own inner life has become second nature after all these years, and I am hardly aware of the need to translate. But I can remember the need to do so at the beginning of our relationship.

During some of the very hardest times of my life Herbert was a, literally, inspiration. He breathed spirit into me. I was inspired through  the breath of his poetry. I learned to  believe that  the survival of the heart, scarred but ultimately undamaged, was possible because of his poems. The underlying message: trust in love.  I’m not very good at that, but he is a great teacher and I am a willing pupil.

There are many favourites. Today I’m going to start to read one I have not read for a good long time – maybe ten years.

Affliction III

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

I am going to look at the first six lines:

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.

Have you ever had a blow, unexpected, frightening? and did you say, ‘Oh God’?

The starting point of this poem is a moment of utter sadness or depression, or brokenness: one of those times when ‘my heart did heave’. I’m interested in that phrase now – because thinking actually of retching, isn’t ‘heave’ another word for ‘retch’ and could Herbert have  meant that? (Online Etymological dictionary). So, to lift up… and yes. retch is in there; your stomach heaves, because it lifts itself up. So, to go back to the poem, ‘my heart did heave’: this physical response to some situation (we don’t know what caused any of it) of a retching sensation, a huge sigh, results in a cry ‘Oh God.’

As it does, under such a blow, or a huge sadness, even for a non-believer like me. But where for me that cry would be understood as meaningless (I say ‘oh god’ because it is a  habit lots of people have: doesn’t mean anything, I don’t take any notice of it) for Herbert, it is a real sign.

By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,

For a believer, a practising Christian like Herbert, those words could never be meaningless, even if they were uttered without deliberate consciousness as a wordless cry might be uttered. For Herbert this realisation (that the words are a cry to someone, to Thou, that the words put God in the mix, make God part of it, even though, interesting to note here Herbert doesn’t now call him ‘God’, he calls him ‘Thou’) ) is itself an immediate relief. (Remember Wordsworth’s ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief’ in Intimations? )

What can this mean for me?

Something George Herbert understands by the word ‘God’ (I don’t know what that is, but I know he believes in it and that it helps him) is present. When it’s just me, no Herbert and no God, and I am struck a blow and my heart heaves and I cry out ‘Oh God’, I might now have an extra moment of consciousness, which is hard to see while it is happening but which might be broken down into the following movements:

  1. Though I do not believe in God, and the cry I’ve just uttered is an animal noise, yet it was not an animal noise (though, oh, I’ve made them, too in my time, with griefs). It was the word ‘God’. I  instinctively made a sort of unconscious, undeliberate prayer.
  2. For George Herbert and millions of other humans of all religious persuasions and over thousands of years, such cries have been uttered at times of troubles: people believe help will come. I may not believe as they believe, but their reality is part of my consciousness.
  3. Help is now in my mind as possibility
  4. Instead of only thinking fear, pain and other bad thoughts the thought ‘help’ is now in my mind

Oh dear, time’s up. This is the slowest close reading in the history of reading. Feels sub-atomic in its slowness. I’ll carry on tomorrow.

If you are willing to try him, you’ll find a great resource for reading George Herbert here. But I would recommend buying a book. Slim volume it may be, but going this slowly, it will last, usefully, the rest of your life.