White Hair and Weights: Reading George Herbert’s The Forerunners

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My weights, and the odds and ends department of the Davis library plus a picture of Stuart Pearce

Today I woke up with the day’s work (leading a Sparks series day of reading at the Cunard Building, Liverpool) and last weeks reading of ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’…in my mind, I decided to read a poem by George Herbert, just to get myself warmed up for the day.

‘I haven’t thought like this since I was at school,’ said a man in the Shared Reading  group I ran last week, in Blackfriars Centre, Southwark, a demonstration group for people undertaking the Ashoka Changemaker journey, where some members of our London groups and some London Reader Leaders had come together to help me demonstrate the model to a group of people who would have no idea what Shared Reading could be. The speaker was a businessperson, and probably (I’m making an assumption) very well-educated.

Two things flitted through my mind as he spoke (i) he thinks this is like studying English Lit. at school and (ii) how could you go through an education and working life without ever thinking like this again?

For me the two questions are related. Of course, for most people English Lit. is a pointless academic discipline that you forget about once you drop it at GCSE.  Something like .5% of the population study English at University. Why would anyone think in  this kind of way? So far, so fair enough.

I woke up  this morning remembering how at school and university I used to have the idea that ‘the poet’ was a bit of  a trickster. (We never seemed to think of them as a person with a name, and if we used a name it was  always the surname, Herbert, not George Herbert. Does this matter? It needn’t, necessarily, but in context, I think it  did.) ‘The poet’ had somehow constructed the poem like a crossword puzzle or a mechanical magic box that could be opened only once you had the knack – as if ‘ the poet’ had essentially put together, for no reason anyone would discern, at arm’s length, some sort of  bomb-puzzle he didn’t want to you to ‘get’.  It was hard,  ‘not getting it’, but, on the other hand, once you did ‘get’ it, you were in the powerful  position of judging whether or  ‘the poet’ was ‘effective’.

What a weird set-up!

Poems are – mostly – real. People write them out of some sort of necessity, and they want you to read them because you have a matching necessity.  Poems – mostly-  have great information in then and about 98.8% of the population are missing out on this food for thought. This isn’t, as some people believe a matter of lifestyle choice.  People don’t reject the reading of great literature because they’ve made a decision. They mostly reject it because they were badly scorched at school and don’t want to go back there – just like me, shivering miserably on the edge of the hockey pitch feeling humiliated – I’ve not made a decision to avoid playing sports, I’m traumatised! And I can be helped.  We need to teach them very differently. See my post about getting into exercise aged 60, My Leaning.

But to today’s poem – I’ll spend most of the day reading George Herbert and Jeanette Winterson. When I ran this session in London a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t get round ‘The Forerunners’. Everyone who, like me, is gathering white hairs, will know the reality that caused George to put pen to paper.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there:
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
    He will be pleasèd with that ditty:
And if I please him, I write fine and witty.
Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? When ye before
Of stews and brothels only knew the doors,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
    Brought you to church well dressed and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?
Hath some fond lover ’ticed thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the church and love a sty?
         Fie, thou wilt soil thy broidered coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.
Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
With canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:
Let folly speak in her own native tongue.
True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame
    But borrowed thence to light us thither.
Beauty and beauteous words should go together.
Yet if you go, I pass not; take your way:
For Thou art still my God is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say.
Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;
    Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,
So all within be livelier than before.

This is hard to ‘get’ (as I used to complain in college days). This is like a dead-lift with too much weight.  Don’t look possible. Might be dangerous. Ow my poor ligaments! How do you get to  the place where you can do a hundred weighted squats? Practice!  Little gains.  Let’s just read the first verse.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.

You look in the mirror and there, for the first time, you really believe they are,  ‘the harbingers’, the forerunners. What are harbingers?  The ones who go on ahead to get stuff ready. But George Herbert – like me – quickly looks from the white hairs to the future: argh, all the great and terrible ‘d’s’…decrepitude, dementia, type 2 diabetes, death. Yes, all that flits through your mind as you look in the morning mirror. Great the word he perhaps coins here, ‘dispark’ is about the fear of losing your essential self. I look the word up – it means to throw open a private park and make it public, but I’m reading this as ‘take away the spark’, because the of  ‘sparkling’ in the next line. Will he turn into mere physical matter, just body, clay: ‘ must dullness turn me to a clod?’ Even then, trustingly, George believes, he will still have God and God will not change.

I recognise the white hairs, the worry about decrepitude, but I don’t have ‘God’. What can I understand – for myself –  by ‘Thou art still my God’ ? Is there anything that will remain, anything I can trust?

I’m short on time today and can’t think about this any more.  But want to make a plea that  we should all make time for thinking about our lives and that poetry and other great writing is a good way to do it. It is not an elitist occupation.

Weights are a great form of exercise for the over 60s – muscle mass, my dears. You wouldn’t say that was elitist, you’d call it public health. Do I want to be Hulk Hogan? Nope. But I want to be able to walk, to bend down, to sit on the grass with my grandchildren. And we all want to keep our spark.

 

Gerorge Herbert: prepping like Joe Wicks, sweeping the floor for good.

calds 30 May
A long view in the Old English Garden at Calderstones 30 May

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 !!’

I agree!

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 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.

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).

Various thoughts:

  • 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.

This could work in any situation:
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 stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.

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’
mean?
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.

Being put to the fire and talking about it: reading George Herbert

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Albertine Roses enjoying the rain, May 30 

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. For more on this read yesterday’s post.

I’d started reading The Windows, a George Herbert poem I’m not very familiar with, and am carrying on with that reading today. Sorry to say, yesterday I only got as far as line two.

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.

I’d been thinking about ‘brittle crazy glass’ and most my energy had been directed at ‘brittle’ and ‘crazy’ but now we come to ‘glass’.  The glass is brittle and crazy and that is its nature, but there is another part of its nature – light gets through – that is equally important. And it is for this that this that people are chosen to preach, are put in this position, ‘This glorious and transcendent place/To be a window’.  Even though  brittle and crazy is still the first thing.

This is the translation I’m making – because I am myself one of those people I wrote about yesterday who might be  struggling to believe in church or preacher. Yet I know from past direct experience, that if I can tune in to George Herbert, he has something to say to me that will be helpful to me. I have to get past my stuck thought, and into a freer, more open-minded place.

As a Shared Reading leader I first have to do this for myself – physician heal thyself! – then I have to be able to do it for any group members who might be struggling in the same way.  The way to do it is by offering imaginative translation that get you from one place to another.

I want to return to my analogy of yesterday about being asked to speak in public  about something.  I wrote about people who are members of Shared Reading groups who sometimes speak about their experiences in Shared Reading at conferences, or to funders or other supporters on behalf of the organisation. Most people – including myself – find that experience worrisome or even frightening, in advance. Let me just talk about myself  –  say I got a call from Cabinet office and someone said, they want to hear about Shared Reading, you’ve got eight mins to tell them.  I’d be excited at the opportunity and terrified of making a mess of it. I’d be thinking of the ways in which I am brittle and crazy (when speaking in public I am so nervous that I cannot look at my notes, therefore I  don’t use notes, therefore I have to remember what I am trying to say…) and I would have to force myself also to remember I am also a glass, that through whatever I manage to say, the human value of Shared Reading, may come through. The opportunity to speak is as Denise Levertov writes in ‘Variation on a theme by Rilke’ , ‘honour and a task’. Or as Herbert puts it here, it is ‘glorious and transcendent’.  Doing it, as I have learned over time, also changes you.  Some onf the internal weaknesses are burned out.

Thinking like this helps me stop feeling that a preacher is a foreign idea to me, and something I don’t want to understand.  I go on, to the second stanza.

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.

The word I must look up is anneal – to heat in order to remove internal stresses. And from the etymological dictionary, to put to the fire, but also with echoes of burning, fire and firebrand. Isn’t etymology wonderful?

Herbert is talking about the actual physical process of making glass – that’s his analogy – and I’m assuming this is stained glass, because of the ‘story’ being contained in it. Yes, I see later in stanza three, Herbert speaks of ‘colours’. But then he let’s the analogy go as he goes back to the  task of preachers, which is to hold that story, that light. The key thought is in the annealing – which is the process of being baked, burned, fired.  Without such a process the light coming through looks ‘waterish, bleak, and thin’.

This is to do with the pain that goes into real experience. A civil servant, a grants manager, a professional, may be able to coolly summarise Shared Reading in the language and tone normally used in Cabinet office. But a group member who has a story to tell about their experience – however nervous, unprofessional, or initially low-voiced – will speak with fire. Let’s read on;

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.

Here’s a powerful chemical mixture: ‘Doctrine and life, colors and light’. ‘Doctrine’ is one of those words that need a translation before the anti-religon person in our group kicks off on one.  Simply – a doctrine is a body of teachings.

Any sort of body of teachings without life added is dull.  I had to go on a speed awareness course. Two men were trying to teach thirty grumpy and self-righteous miscreants like myself why is was important to obey the law on speed when driving. What we were most grumpy about, to a man and woman, was the waste of our time on this silly course. But the two men running the course were very funny and  good at imparting the information and they liked driving, loved cars. They made it live, and that made it bearable. Our grumpiness dissipated. Doctrine – obey the speed limit – and life, when they combine… Good teachers at school were always like that, weren’t they? Something in them shone through, love of their subject or of us, energy in voice, in gesture, liveliness.

                          but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring

Words alone, what Macbeth calls ‘mouth-honour’, is never good. The word ‘flaring’ is a great choice here, implicitly compared to ‘anneal’. Flaring is temporary, is over and done, however momentarily bright. ‘Anneal’ is agony and it transforms you. Flaring gets to the ear, but the voice of ‘anneal’ gets in to the heart, to ‘conscience‘.  I love it  that a thought which starts in self-doubt, in an estimation of our flaws, ‘brittle, crazy’, ends by reaching, through those very attributes, to the inmost part of another human.

Perhaps a little Jeanette Winterson tomorrow?

 

Being Brittle Crazy Glass: translating two lines of George Herbert

glass
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.

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.

Me With My Heels Dug In

pansies.JPG
‘The pansy at my feet doth the same tale repeat…’

I’ve been reading George Herbert’s poem, ‘Affliction III’, and I’ve been reading it very slowly. No apology for that – why need we rush? One line of meditative meaning is as good as twenty skim-overs. Here’s the poem again. Read it aloud to get back in:

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.

I’m going to pick up at line 7 and go on a little way from there:

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.

Herbert is in a grim state of (what we would now call) depression. It’s not hyperbole in line six, when he says he thinks the ‘sigh’ might have broken his heart. It’s good that although it feels killingly bad to him at the moment, the sighed words ‘Oh God’ have changed what might otherwise have been the tenor of his mind. In the opening lines he’s concentrating on what good he can sense in his situation, not the utter misery he feels.  I’m trying now to understand these lines:

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?

I feel stuck, as if I can’t understand this, so I  try a paraphrase to get my head round as much of it as I can.

‘But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape’ = God your spirit gave me both spirit and form. (Therefore) ‘Thou know’st my tallies’ = you know what I’m made up of, or owe you, or you know what is the relationship between us. Perhaps also something about cost?  A tally is the stick notched to mark what’s owed. So perhaps I can read that line as – ‘you know what I owe you’.

The owing here seems connected to the very creation, and shape and being of the man; God knows what’s owed because ‘Thy breath gave me both life and shape’. This is one of those places where a contemporary non-believer like me gets stuck.  I don’t like the idea of owing anybody anything. I didn’t ask to be born!  If something (apart from biological parents)  birthed me – not just my body, my form, but also my life, my spirit – what would that be? What’s the translation here  for a non-believer? I’ll try letting x mark the spot as a holding ground for now.

But since X gave me both life and shape,
X know’st my tallies ;

I owe something by being here – whether I asked to be born or not. For a moment I’m going to assume there is (to use the AA phrase) a power greater than myself at work in the universe; that somehow ‘I’ come out of that, am created by it, and owe it. And when I think of all the possible non-existence (most of the universe is nothing! there’s  vastly more nothing than anything else…) then it does some an extraordinary – could I say – miracle – that I, or yesterday’s blackbird, or even couchgrasss have come to be at all.

Need to reread the whole poem now, to get back into its mind, as I’ve been going off on one in my attempt to understand. I reread it and concentrate again on the next bit of this thought:

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?

I start at the end here – wonder what he means by ‘behind’. Think it has a specific kind of meaning, which I’ve read before in other poems by George Herbert, though I can’t quite remember it. Does it mean – what is left?  To paraphrase – you created me, you know what I owe, and when so much breath is assigned to a sigh, whats going to be left?

The paraphrase makes me concentrate on ‘assigned’ and on the difference between ‘breath’ and ‘sigh’. The word ‘assign somehow connects to ‘tallies’. It’s an old, legal word. I look it up. The ‘sigh’ is an expression of sadness, misery, even despair but it is full of ‘breath’  – life. If we put the gift we’ve been given (thing owed, the thing signified by the tally) into ‘a sigh’,  what is going to happen? Not quite sure about this as I read and think – maybe I haven’t understood it well. But I do think I’ve made some headway. I leave this bit for now and move on in case what is coming next will cast a light back for me.

The next bit does seem to develop that thought. Let’s read it all through to that point:

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.

I’m not sure of the function and tenor of ‘Or if’  I don’t think line ten on is an alternative to what came before. Perhaps more a development of the logic. These sighs cost actual life. This wind blows me towards death (‘my bliss’) Herbert is a Christian and believes in life with God after death.

But I don’t.  I’m not coming with you in this thought, George.

Time is up for today.  And me with my heels dug in.