This first of two George Herbert poems entitled 'Prayer' is widely loved, and the last two words were quoted by Seamus Heaney when he visited St Andrew’s Church some years ago. In fourteen intensely felt lines, run as a single sentence with no main verb, the poet compressed a lifetime’s experience of man’s communication with God.
The opening is almost stately, giving full weight to the liturgical significance of prayer as a collective act of worship and one which is not bounded by human life but by “Angel’s age”, i.e., eternal. The next passage reminds the reader of the intimacy between man and God as creator and the dynamism of a relationship involving the deepest emotional and spiritual feelings.
Prayer, for Herbert, is all-encompassing, “sounding heav’n and earth”. It is no meek or token act of obeisance: it is a real personal communication, which expresses anger as well as love and reverence. He often starts, as here, with recriminations - “Engine against th' Almightie” but then goes on to celebrate redemption through the crucifixion (“Christ-side-piercing spear “). This course is followed in his poem 'Bitter-sweet' – “I will complain, yet praise; I will bewail, approve”.
In 'Affliction (I)', Herbert moves from “Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking” to “Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek”. There are many other examples.
In 'Prayer (I)', the transformative effect of the resurrection is dramatically emphasised by the reference to “the six-daies world transposing in an hour” – Christ dead and then miraculously alive again, changing everything. The musical Herbert sees this in terms of a tune which reaches and strikes awe into all creation.
From that high point, the poem goes on to appeal to the emotions and to all the senses with visions of heavenly bliss – touch (softness), taste (manna), sight (bird of Paradise), hearing (church bells) and smell (spices). This wonderful evocation comes to a perfect conclusion with the quiet acceptance of the ineffable: “something understood”.
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