Wholeheartedly for the Ideal: George Herbert, The Elixir

Albertine and Hops .JPG
Flourishing: Albertine Rose and Golden Hop, 1 June

On Saturday I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading at the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. You can sign up for it here. We’ll be reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  I’m interested in seeing how ancient and modern languages for what we call ‘mental health’ or George Herbert called his ‘soul’, can fit together.

Today I’m reading ‘The Elixir’  by George Herbert,

As usual, I start from the uncomfortable position of being someone who doesn’t have a religion, faced with trying to understand a message from someone who does.  I have to translate Herbert’s ‘God’ into something I can understand.

This morning I’m thinking about the  place of Shared Reading at Calderstones – so sorry if my reading is peculiarly biased towards my own obsession. I’ll try to think outside my box as well as from deep within it!

The Elixir

Teach me, my God and King,

         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.
         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav’n espy.
         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
         Will not grow bright and clean.
         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.
         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.
When I begin reading I have to read a couple of times to get into a non-sing song mind-set, and start concentrating deeply on the words.  for someone like me., with no God, what can the first lines, ‘Teach me, my God and King/ In all things Thee to see’
If I think of ‘God ‘ as  highest aspiration, best endeavour, an ideal, then I can begin to read the line as about learning to concentrate, the development of a sort of devotion to seeing the best that can be. For Calderstones, I’m thinking, how can I keep Shared Reading at the forefront of my mind, while developing businesses, a shop, the heritage centre?
In our time we have to find a way of re-understanding what ‘King’ might mean as well as ‘God’. I imagine a boss that I could really look up to, someone who was my leader,  and whom I would obey, utterly admirable, commanding respect. If I try to transfer to translate that thought to an ideal of set of ideals, then I feel I can read the poem’s opening as about demanding from myself a commitment to seeing and doing and being the best that can be. The poem begins with the word ‘teach’: in this endeavour I am, and need to see myself as a learner.  This boss is asking everything of me and I don’t know how to do it! Or am I asking my boss to ask everything of me? ‘Teach me, my God and King’.
The second couplet in that first verse is about the creation of habits. It is incredibly hard to do everything well, or even not badly. To aim for ‘anything’ (by implication, everything) is a massive ambition, and dedication. No wonder you have keep learning it every day, every time you do something.
Having a ‘God and King’, Herbert seems in  happier position than me,  because there is teaching, not just learning. Having a teacher can be a marvelous thing: learning by yourself alone is hard. I wonder if there is any way I can use those ideals, that sense of ‘the best it could possibly be’, to teach me? I’d have to keep them in mind, which is hard to do, as the days  unfold so busily.
I look at the next stanza:
Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
First, there’s an odd thing happening with pronouns here in the third and fourth line. I’m not sure if it is important. But come back to that – start with the beast!  hhmm, keeping the good, the best, the ideal of anything in mind and not running ‘into an action’… oh dear, yes. I recognise this problem.
Now I like beasts and am in favour of them and think humans underestimate them. But I do think that humans have, or seem to have, more consciousness of a particular sort. This is our special quality – we  are conscious, we have language and forethought and we seek meaning.  Why then, do I so heartily recognise the rushing into action without thought Herbert describes here?
Is the poem asking me to develop extra consciousness, to be more conscious and more dedicated to consciousness than I have been?
I begin to think about the word ‘prepossest’ but I’m late – how frustrating – and my time is up – more tomorrow.

One thought on “Wholeheartedly for the Ideal: George Herbert, The Elixir

  1. loubyjo June 1, 2017 / 7:23 pm

    hi Really enjoyable reading !!!! but ( their is always a but ) I sometimes think u overthink !!!! I can heavily vizulize over doing it although as stated it is yr thing i suppose you more learned than me and switch off with the technical side ( adverbs verbs etc ) but variety is the spice of life and makes me think must come back to this and be more knowledgable !!! ( sorry again ) will leave u with a thought
    True wisdom is a loss of misconceptions rarther than an accumulation of knowledge do not hoard facts and call your self wise sages realise when they know enough !!!

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