A glance can be life changing! It lasts for a moment, a fragment of time. Yet it can carry recognition or rebuke, revelation or awakening which can turn a person’s life around. George Herbert’s poem 'The Glance' might not be one of his best known, but it thoroughly deserves a closer look.
Firstly, some introduction. The three verse poem has a simple framework of time. The first verse looks back to the first flush of youthful life and faith, and the last verse looks forward to the final fulfilment of faith. Both are brought together in the middle verse, where the influence of both on present experience is explored.
As so often in Herbert’s poetry, 'The Glance' draws from the Bible. The story of Nathaniel recorded in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel relies heavily on the significance of seeing – Jesus sees Nathaniel, and Nathaniel in turn sees Jesus. But the seeing goes beyond physical recognition, and becomes a life changing moment for Nathaniel, for the glance of the love of God reaches right into the heart..
We find familiar themes of the poet in the first verse, and familiar words and phrases. His poem Affliction 1 also starts with a retrospective look “When first..” God’s eye is “sweet and gracious” – the word sweet, so often used by Herbert, carrying understandings of the delights of the senses, all to be found in the loving presence of God. This love is grace – for the recipient is “weltering” (wallowing) in sin, and does not deserve the overwhelming love of God, which he experiences as a "sug’red strange delight". The last line of the verse makes the bold claim that God offers the hospitality of his own heart to this youth for he “takes it in”.
So all is delightful, idyllic. But with increasing years come increasing trials, which threaten to undermine and destroy youthful bliss. Herbert wrote five poems with the title 'Affliction' and frequently shows through his poetry the darkness that threatens to overcome joy and faith. Notable here is the phrase “swing and sway”, revealing the power of activity and the scope of storm upon the soul. Yet the power is limited and checked – the first experience of grace “got the day” – the original experience is too deep to be forgotten.
There may have been a sealing up of the memories after the first glance, but in the future God’s “full-eyed love” will be seen and experienced. The third and final verse looks to the fulfilment of time when a blaze of light from a thousand suns shines in the heavenly realm. But before such glory the poet, in a luminous phrase, writes of a God who “looks us out of pain”. Here we have the look, the glance that heals, that brings comfort. We can find it in the sympathetic glance of one adult to another or of a parent to a child. The look brings comfort. For John Drury, commenting on this poem in his book'Music at Midnight', this homely image speaks more powerfully than the light of the thousand suns.
This short commentary is being written at Epiphany time. The colourful cards and bright decorations of Christmas have gone, and we miss them and feel somewhat bereft. A "mirth" has been "seal'd up". But we have only a couple of months to go before the glory of Easter Day.
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