Being Brittle Crazy Glass: translating two lines of George Herbert

On Saturday 3 June, I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading  in London, and really looking forward to a day in the company of fellow readers, with poems by one of my favourite poets, George Herbert, and prose from Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal by Reader Patron, Jeanette Winterson. I’ll be reprising the reading day in Liverpool on Thursday 15th June in Liverpool. I thought I could do a little prep for those days here by reading some  George Herbert this  week.
Why these two writers together? George Herbert writes about what I’ll call his inner life, and is expert in observing and analysing the movements of his spirit, his own thought, and feeling.  He has a lot to offer a world that is struggling with ‘mental health problems’.
I feel I need to put inverted commas around  that phrase, so little justice does it do to experience of  real people living with their real feelings.
We need to start developing a new way of talking and thinking about our inner lives that gets away from that destructive and deadening language. Jeanette’s memoir offers, in telling a large portion of her life story,  a rethink about what ‘mental health experiences’ are, and how humans might think and talk about them.
As regular readers of this blog know, I believe that a key power of literature is its ability to translate between people, across time and culture. An individual has an experience which seems to be  tied to that individuality.  Getting that experience into language means it can be shared – word by word – by another human. Language translates out of one person and into another: when we try to read someone, in writing, in conversation, or by body language, we are translating them into us. That act of translation is taking place all the time, but is more obvious when people are separated by hundreds of years, by being dead or alive, by having reductive and mismatched labels attached to them.
I’ll be looking for connections, for moments of  meeting, for light cast on George Herbert by Jeanette Winterson, and on Jeanette Winterson by George Herbert. By their works we shall know them, and we’ll see them speaking to each other, I hope, through those works.
This morning after writing the above, none of  which counts as my hour of Daily Practice,  I clicked through George Herbert’s Works, looking for something I’ve not read often before.  Here it is.
I’m not going to  pretend I don’t know a thing about George Herbert.  He’s a man who might have been an advisor to the Crown who has chosen to make a life as a very small town country parson, in the parish of Bemerton, in Wiltshire. You can read about him here.
So, I begin to read the poem, which likens the parson to the windows in a church, knowing that it is written by a man who works in such a church, whose job is preaching.
I read the poem through once, aloud.
The Windows
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
Yesterday Jamie commented on the Silas Marner reading:
It’s great how Eliot slowing strips away the external stuff so that by the end we’re no longer looking at ‘rural forefathers’, ‘them’ but ‘native human’ ,’men’, ‘circumstances common to us all’ – we are in the internal world, the emotional world
I hadn’t noticed  this until Jamie pointed it (one of the many benefits of reading with others). But with her thought in still in my mind now,  I see how, after I have located the poem in a particular man – George Herbert, preaching in Bemerton Parish Church – Herbert himself de-personalises  himself and writes about us all –  we are not in world of time and place and person, but as Jamie says, the internal, emotional world.
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Herbert may be  writing from his own experience, but he is here at pains to make that experience universal: it is ‘man’ not ‘me’.  The experience George Herbert may have had , as a particular man, in a particular place,  in a particular time becomes an experience we might all understand or share.
But for those of us who have no religion, or are actively against it, simply the word ‘preach’ might be a difficulty. How do  you translate such a thought into your own experience if you hate the idea of preaching, of preachers, of priests, of church, of religion? This might be an immediate difficulty on Shared Reading group.
One of things we learn when reading is the practice of imagination. So if I was leading a group and a person was bothered about the idea of religion,  and finding it a barrier to reaidng, I’d try to ask the group to  imagine what preaching, without all the paraphernalia and cultural history both acknowledged and unacknowledged, of the church, of  religions, what in the golden age, in the ideal state, a preacher might be.
I look up the word ‘preacher’. It’s about saying in public.  It’s ‘to say before’ (everyone). We might connect the idea to teaching, or to public health or even to Shared Reading. If you we goingto speak ,as members of groups soetimes do, about the value of Shared REading ,and you were going to speak in public, say, at an NHS conference – you might find yourself in a similar positon to George Herbert. He’s got to pass on a message to others. Something has to come through him.
I  that is what I do at first when I read, I imagine it as a story. When I read those first two lines I mentally see George Herbert entering his church, looking at the windows, thinking of his own position, both ‘brittle, crazy’ but also ‘glass’ through which God’s light must shine.
‘Man’ is mortal and temporary and far from god, but the preachr must preach ‘thy eternal word’. That is his job, and a job he feels not well fitted for: he is a ‘brittle crazy glass.’
I want to understandthe word ‘crazy’, which I think  here must mean broken, as in crazy paving.  Again I check the dictionary, looking at ‘craze’, where it is the verb we need to look at, crasen: shattered. I also look at crazy. It seems as if that connection to disease has been for a long time. If a pane was glass was ‘crazy’ is would be shattered, crazed (as in a glaze) but not necessarily totally broken. The brittleness, the propensity to break, to be broken is what we need to think on. It’s as if the very nature of man is to be broken, shattered, and not a clear medium through which anything might pass.
To go back to imagining being a Shared Reading leader and trying to get someone over the hump of barrier that is ‘I hate religion’ , I’d ask, can you imagine being asked to speak about something to people who really need to hear (let’s say mental health budget holders)  and knowing that you ere not a very good public speaker? Yes! we can almost all imagine that.  But can we also imagine really wanting to do it? Yes. Really feeling the people we were speaking to really needed to hear what we were going to say? Yes!
Then we can imagine what it feels like to be this preacher.  Let’s just reread the first stanza:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
Ah no, time is up: more tomorrow.
Keep reading:
I interviewed Jeanette  for The Reader magazine and you can read that interview here.
You can read Jeanette’s Times article about The Reader here.
There’s a good interview by Matt Haig, another writer I admire,  with Jeanette here.

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