Continuing from yesterday….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 continuing reading ‘The Elixir’ by George Herbert,
I started 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.
Yesterday Loubyjo commented, ‘True wisdom is a loss of misconceptions rather than an accumulation of knowledge do not hoard facts and call your self wise sages realise when they know enough !!’
Think you were thinking Lou, give yourself a break ,Jane and don’t over think. But I want to think, or rest, or meditate, on a word. Realise that might make reading what I’m writing slow or dull, and I do feel some compulsion to try to move it along for the sake of readers, but really, I’m writing for myself, to deepen my own reading practice. Sometimes staying still in one word allows me to do exactly what you suggest, Lou, and ‘lose misconceptions’. They are always with me when I start reading, and the slow thinking helps me lose them.
I agree that knowledge is not wisdom, facts are not wisdom (see the post about footnotes). But understanding the words, understanding what they mean to me, doesn’t seem like ‘knowledge’ to me. All of which is to say – thanks for comment – no worries, and no need to say ‘sorry’ at all, always glad to hear from you – the frustration was more to do with running out of time yesterday.
But I add your thought into the mix: the discipline to do my hour’s practice and accept without frustration when time us up!
Back to the poem: for readers only joining today, here it is, ‘The Elixir’:
Teach me, my God and King,In all things Thee to see,And what I do in anythingTo 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 clauseMakes drudgery divine:Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,Makes that and th’ action fine.This is the famous stoneThat turneth all to gold;For that which God doth touch and ownCannot for less be told.
I had got, in my snail -like way, to the word ‘prepossest’ in line 7 and was about to think through the change of pronouns connected to that word. I think that ‘Thee’ and ‘his’ refer to the same person (God) but am not sure.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
There are three people in those four lines : George Herbert (understood though not named) , the beast and God. Only God could have the perfection, which is why I think ‘his’ refers to God. but if so there is an odd switch from Herbert talking directly to God (Thee) to talking about him (his perfection).
- it’s a mistake, printing error etc and should read ‘Your perfection’
- there’s something I don’t understand
- his perfection refers to the beast.
I work through these possibilities and arrive back at the second explanation. Is it s switch from talking directly to God – to the ideal – to being outside and seeing God/the ideal as something to achieve?
Bear with me – say I watch Dave our Chef at Calderstones cooking rice and I am with him, and talking to him, I’d be saying ‘Thee’ and ‘Chef’… but when I get home by myself and remember him and the way he does it, and then he is not ‘Thee’ and ‘Chef’ but ‘Him’ and ‘his’… ach, that doesn’t really work because if ‘his’ was referring to ‘God’, it would have a capital.
I’m going to ask my teacher, Brian Nellist, about this. I’m stumped. Start again.
To be ‘prepossest’ is to have ownership in advance – particularly of a thought. Think Herbert is saying he aims to give the future shape of his action over to God in advance, to dedicate it, to let God be part of it.
In my own experience that might be thinking ahead about the best way to do something: not going with my immediate emotion in a situation (angry because…) but encouraging the ideal to take possession of my actions before they happen (how do I want, ideally, to behave). Thinking it through, setting my intention, having a strong picture of the ideal.
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.
You can see the thing directly in front of you or you can see beyond it and see more. I am angry with a cafe which has produced a very poor cake for Brian Nellists’ birthday day. The cafe people are stupid and their customer service is bad. That’s the surface of the glass. I can have a row there and then, or I can take Brian off and continue our happy birthday mood, making a joke of the cake and his poor worn out teeth. That continuation of happy mood was the ‘heav’n’.
To finish today by arriving at my favourite lines – many people’s favourites, I’m sure:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the case whenever an ideal is in play.
I remember 1974 using the cyclostyler, a more frustrating machine there never was, to reproduce women’s liberation leaflets in the front room of Liverpool Women’s Centre. That was a horrible job, messy, frustrating, hot and hours long. But for the cause! We were amazons, making those fliers!
Thinking of The Reader’s life at Calderstones, where there will be much sweeping of rooms to be done, and we need to develop a shared spirit about the ways in which we all work.
Thinking more generally about trying to be good, and the foresight needed, the fore-thinking. If you follow the instructions of Bodycoach Joe Wicks, you’ll know it is important to ‘prep like a boss’. To think ahead about what you are going to eat, and get it ready, so that when 11.00 am hunger strikes, you’ve got some carrot sticks and don’t need to go and buy a doughnut.
Herbert’s poem gives me the chance to imagine putting that amount of care into all the actions of my life, helps me realise it’s what you do everyday, not on the grand occasion, that counts. Everything is an opportunity for practising the ideal.
This is the famous stoneThat turneth all to gold;For that which God doth touch and ownCannot for less be told.