Selected Poem - 'The Pilgrimage'

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.

'The Pilgrimage'

I travell'd on, seeing the hill, where lay
My expectation.
A long it was and weary way.
The gloomy cave of Desperation
I left on th' one, and on the other side
The rock of Pride.

And so I came to fancy's meadow strow'd
With many a flower:
Fain would I here have made abode,
But I was quicken'd by my hour.
So to care's copse I came, and there got through
With much ado.

That led me to the wild of Passion, which
Some call the wold;
A wasted place, but sometimes rich.
Here I was robb'd of all my gold,
Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti'd
Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,
Where lay my hope,
Where lay my heart; and climbing still,
When I had gain'd the brow and top,
A lake of brackish waters on the ground
Was all I found.

With that abash'd and struck with many a sting
Of swarming fears,
I fell, and cry'd, Alas my King!
Can both the way and end be tears?
Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv'd
I was deceiv'd:

My hill was further: so I flung away,
Yet heard a crie
Just as I went, None goes that way
And lives: If that be all, said I,
After so foul a journey death is fair,
And but a chair.

Commentary

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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