Selected Poem - 'The Flower'

Visitors to the little George Herbert church in Bemerton, St. Andrew’s, are immediately struck by the beautiful altar frontal. Designed by the late Jane Lemon, it is a richly coloured illustration of this inspiring poem.

'The Flower'

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an houre;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.
O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offring at heav’n, growing and groning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-showre,
My sinnes and I joining together;

But while I grow to a straight line;
Still upwards bent, as if heav’n were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

Commentary

At the time of writing this brief commentary, the stark winter outlines of trees in Bemerton are softening and the greening of spring has begun. Herbert would have seen some of those same trees in his own garden, and this is a poem of gardens and flowers, of seasons and weather, and how the renewing of creation finds its parallel in the renewing of the inner spirit.

Herbert sees God as Lord of power and Lord of love, constantly renewing the created world and the world of the human spirit. 'The Flower' is a poem of wonder and of joy. Yet it touches darkness and depression, and speaks intimately and hopefully to our own generation as it has to people over the centuries. Coleridge, writing in the early 19th century, described this poem as “especially affecting”.

During the winter, the flowers that have blossomed (blown) disappear to find nourishment from their underground roots. But the renewing of life underground cannot be seen – it is dead to the world, and Herbert is caught up in a sense of wonder at the renewing power of God in the human spirit. The arrival of spring after the cold of winter brings a pleasurable freshness, as the hardship of winter is forgotten. What is apparently dead, is quickened into life, and the passing-bell which is normally tolled to mark a death, becomes a celebratory chime.

The mood changes in the fourth and fifth verse. Here is a man of prayer, longing for the security of Paradise (Fast in Thy Paradise), but prey to the sin of spiritual pride and to the darkness of depression. The face of God for him only carries a frown, anger and opposition, more bitter and potent than any frosts of winter.

 

The sixth verse brings the recovery of the powers of creativity, a full restoration, and sense of wonder and incredulity that I am he On whom thy tempests fell all night.

The poem's last verse shows where true happiness for human beings is to be found: not in trying to be what we are not, or full of self satisfaction, but rather in a truthful self recognition and a clear-eyed sense of human mortality. Otherwise, the path leads to people likely to Forfeit their Paradise rather than being Fast in God’s Paradise.

Some time ago visitors to St. Andrew’s Church included a group of Norwegian pastors. This poem was read, and had a profound effect. One of the pastors strode up and down the aisle, repeating over and over again the phrase And now in age I bud again. 'The Flower', one of the loveliest poems in the English language, pictures things seen and unseen, the material and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly, and does so with a freshness and lyrical beauty which restores the soul and refreshes the spirit.

From that high point, the poem goes on to appeal to the emotions and to all the senses with visions of heavenly bliss. The composer Alec Roth set verses of this poem as a hymn tune, and Sandi Ferguson painted a card (available from our Gift Shop) with flowers which Herbert would have known in the 17th century and incorporated the hymn tune. Subsequently, Alec has reworked the hymn tune into a more elaborate version as a short anthem for an unaccompanied choir which has been published by Peters Edition Ltd.

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