George Herbert did not have a comfortable relationship with God. The images in his poetry often remind us of the First World War poets in their bleak view of life. But whereas in the verse of Owen and Sassoon the landscape has been blasted by enemy artillery, in Herbert’s the fire is friendly: the perpetual Passchendaele through which he trudges has been made by God.
Take this poem: image after image of desolation – “a long it was and weary way”, “gloomy cave of Desperation”, “a wasted place”, “a lake of brackish waters on the ground was all I found”, “struck with many a sting of swarming fears”, “after so foul a journey death is fair”… Not a great distance, you might think, from the fields of Flanders. Not an attractive advertisement for a benevolent Lord.
Herbert uses these images as metaphors for a spiritual struggle, and his final couplet is intended to show that the struggle will avail. Life is horrible, he says, but death redeems it. Having fought through disillusion and despair the pilgrim reaches his final destination, his ultimate hill (Mount Sion?)... and finds? “Death is fair, and but a chair” – a means to convey the pilgrim to a better place. At least, Herbert believes it will be better. It has to be, to justify all the pain he has had to endure, not only in this poem but in many others. It has to be.
But that belief can only be asserted, not demonstrated. And sometimes, though not in this poem, even Herbert loses faith in the truth of that assertion and has to implore his God for help in restoring that faith.
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