Selected Poem - 'Paradise'

This is not really a 'shape poem' like the better-known 'Easter Wings' and 'The Altar'. But it is definitely a visual poem, in that it has to been seen on the page to be properly appreciated. It appears only in the Bodleian manuscript and so is probably one of Herbert's later poems; it could well have been written at Bemerton.

'Paradise'

I Blesse thee, Lord, because I GROW
Among thy trees, which in a ROW
To thee both fruit  and order OW.

What open force, or hidden CHARM
Can blast my fruit, or bring  me HARM,
While the inclosure is thine ARM?

Inclose me still  for fear I START.
Be  to me rather sharp and TART,
Then  let me want thy  hand & ART.

When thou dost greater judgments SPARE,
And with thy knife but prune and PARE,
Ev’n fruitfull trees more fruitfull ARE.

Such sharpnes shows the sweetest FREND:
Such cuttings rather heal then REND:
And such beginnings touch their END.

Commentary

The unique feature of this poem is that, in successive lines of each three-line stanza, the first letter of the last word is removed, or pruned. And since the whole poem centres around fruit trees, it demonstrates as well as explains the concept of short term pain for long term gain, setting it in the context of improving fruit productivity by regular pruning.

It is no surprise that George Herbert drew upon his knowledge of arboriculture in this and other poems. During his tender years he lived in the family home in Chelsea, where his step-father Sir John Danvers had laid out a splendid Italian garden; no doubt young George picked up from the gardeners how best to encourage stong, healthy growth in plants and trees by judicious pruning. He would have learned that you had cut growth quite severely to get the best results.

In later years, he would have had no difficulty in drawing a parallel with how the ups and downs of life forge resilience and understanding, not only because of his own experiences but also based on his knowledge of the scriptures - for example, in St. John's gospel: 'every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.' It is this conceit that he employs both here and in his poem 'Time'. He also uses the same metaphor in 'The Country Parson' in relation to his dependents, writing that the parson should '...prune them, and take as much joy in a straight-growing childe, or servant, as a Gardiner doth in a choice tree'.

 

And of course for Herbert the gardener is God, and he is just one of the 'trees' enclosed in God's garden. While his faith precludes any malelovelent influence ('hidden CHARM') getting to him, he recognises fully the need for God to 'prune and PARE' if he is to serve Him to best effect. Over the years he has experienced poor health and many setbacks, but he believes that this is God's way of making him a better and more productive person.

In writing this graphic poem, Herbert undoubtedly had an apple orchard in mind, with its straight lines and intervening spaces for tending and fruit gathering, and so he presents the reader with an image cleverly representing a walled plantation with rows of trees. The fact that they are in an 'inclosure' is interesting, not only beacuse walled gardens were very much in vogue in Herbert's time but also perhaps because, in Bemerton, his rural parishioners might not have known much about walled gardens, but would have been fully aware of the increasing tendency to inclose (enclose) common land at the beginning of the 17th century.

So 'Paradise' is Herbert's ingenious way of encapsulating his philosophical belief that man's development is fashioned by a benevolent God through life's trials and tribulations. It is surely no coincidence that his metaphor concerns fruit trees, which are grown for what they produce rather than how they look. Perhaps this line of reasoning contributed to his decision in his thirties to change his way of life and seek ordination. And in terms of being 'more fruitfull', the outcome was 'The Temple' - one of the finest examples of devotional poetry in the English language.

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