Becoming George Herbert : the transfer of human experience across time and death

two paths
Two Paths Diverging in Calderstones Park 2 May 2017

Yesterday, you left me with my fingers in my ears and my heels dug in,  shouting, ‘I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife!’ Not an edifying sight. I wish I could amend that to, ‘I don’t know if I believe in any sort of afterlife.’ I feel that would be a more reasonable, even more logical,  place to be. But reasonable, logical, as it may be, I’m not there. I’m here, in this Mayfly experience of being a human living on planet earth. It’s short and I’ve no sense of anything for me before or after. That ‘for me’ really matters.

To the universe I may look like a goldfish, swimming round and round in my bowl, forgetting I’ve been here before, not realising I’ll be coming round again. (Though they say that scientists now believe goldfish do have memory and consciousness: they are not as simple as we once thought. All of which is not a fact, but possibly fake news I probably read on the internet. I’ve no idea if it is true. But I believe it. Why?). To visit this area of thinking, reasons to consider the possibility  of an afterlife and many other oddities, read the much derided Rupert Sheldrake  – is he crazy, bad or just outside the box?).

I’ve been reading George Herbert’s poem, Affliction III. Here it is, don’t forget to read it aloud to get back into it. Nice and slowly, please.

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,                                                             5
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,                                                       10
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,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

My heels got dug in at the point where Herbert calls death ‘my bliss.’ That’s all very well for a Christian, I was shouting. For me it’s just game over!

I can’t get out of that state of mind. I’m stuck at some distance from the poem. Though this is a difficult place to find myself in, I’m  glad that this has happened because I think this is a common experience for many readers and that we thus  lose lots of good stuff because it doesn’t match our mindset. I love George Herbert, and I’ve known him long enough, and in some very hard circumstances, to know that I can rely on him. I trust him. Therefore, as a responsible person, I need to do something to fix this breakage in our relationship.

So now I have to do that thing that literature exists to make happen.

Just as I would have to do in a real-time relationship, I have to lend myself to him by allowing my imagination to draw on my own experience to help me understand his.  I have to enter George Herbert’s heart and mind, his being.

I’m going to transfer over. I’m going to be him. I read again, this time, reading as if I was George Herbert, not myself;

So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
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,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

The mortal agony of his broken state of mind, his ‘sighs’ seeming to bring him towards death (my modern self noting, like a doctor, ‘an almost life-ending depression’. This takes places even as  I am trying to read as GH).  As Herbert, I have to rest some time at ‘bliss’. (As Jane I rush away from it). I imagine the ‘bliss’ of escape from this pain, and of a greater bliss, the being one with ‘Thou’, who despite the pain  of this poem, is yet loving and kind. There are only two good words (by good I mean perhaps not pain-filled) words in the whole poem: they are ‘relief’ and ‘bliss’.  They both point to something, someone, ‘Thou’, outside of Herbert’s  pain-filled experience. That you might reach the bliss through being blown about by a gale is  still frightening. The main thing I have, as GH, is trouble, pain, fear, hurt, but I do believe there is an end to it. I do believe there is ‘bliss’ – somewhere.

As a reader, I note the full stop after that word. (The poem is five sentences long. It is worth reading each of them, as a sentence, as a thought in its own right). As Herbert rests for a little while with this thought of bliss the storm of his thoughts  seems to die down a little. Another thought arises. Still being GH, I read on:

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,                                         15

Now GH is feeling himself connected to ‘Thou’ through the pain, the grief, he suffers. God is constant to the nature of the life he lived as Christ, a man of sorrows. I wonder (as myself) if there is a third ‘good’ word in this poem: ‘constant’. and a fourth: ‘honour’. The pain does not abate, but this sentence offers a meaning for it. A paraphrase: God suffered as  man  on earth and that experience remains constant. Where Christ is in GH so pain also is, must be. And this is deliberate, necessary, right ‘a point of honour’. The grief is God. This is an amplification of the feeling I had at the beginning that God ‘was in’ the grief. At that point GH could hardly see God. Now he sees God’s suffering in his own suffering and is in fact at one with God in it. That’s a kind of relief.  It brings a meaning to a place where there was no meaning.

I’ve lent myself to GH to try to understand his experience as he tells me about it in the poem. I’ve no longer got my fingers in my ears, and given the level of his suffering and sorrow, I’m glad of that.

I’m going to leave the last two lines til tomorrow.