Arthur Woodnoth (1590?–1650?), a goldsmith and banker, was Nicholas Ferrar's cousin and a friend of George Herbert. He managed the financial affairs of Sir John Danvers, Herbert's stepfather. The sign over his goldsmith’s business in the City of London was a bunch of grapes.
Arthur Woodnoth became a close friend of the Herberts, staying with them in the Rectory at Bemerton. He was very helpful to George Herbert in the fundraising and management of the accounts for the restoration of Leighton Bromswold church. He was with George Herbert on the day he died, and was appointed by him as Executor of his will.
Woodnoth was a worrier, always worrying about his conduct of his business and whether he should give it up in order to be ordained. He had agonised conversations with Herbert and always wanted more of his attention and his time. This poem was part of Herbert’s response to this evident pastoral need.
The poem starts by addressing the question: Where has the joy gone that I used to have in following Christ? Joy is pictured as a farm animal that 'some bad man' has let out and so has escaped. It is poem addressed to someone who feels he has made no progress and is back to where he was seven years ago.
This sense of joylessness and setback is addressed by comparing this experience with the experience of the people of Israel in their journey from Egypt and the Red Sea to the promised land of Canaan. It is a story that would have been familiar to both Herbert and Woodnoth, steeped as they were in the Bible. The idea of making this comparison between the biblical story and present experience would not have been new to them.
In the account in the books of Exodus and Numbers in the Old Testament the people of Israel come to the borders of Canaan, the promised land. Spies are sent ahead to survey the land, and they come back with a huge bunch of grapes, evidence of the land’s fertility. But they also bring back reports of huge giants. The people refuse to go forward. Their refusal meant that they were thrown back to where they came from. Their 'storie' pictures our experience, describes us, 'pennes and sets us down',
The third stanza has many allusions to the biblical account. The people of Israel were protected by a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud (Numbers 14.14); we too have our guardians. They faced the sands of the desert and a plague of snakes (Numbers 21.4-9); we have our parallel experiences. We too are discontented and 'murmur' as they did.
Then Herbert addresses the key question: what has happened to the cluster of grapes, the delicious fruit that God intends us to enjoy? His answer is that we find it in our relationship with Christ in the service of Holy Communion. Grapes are pressed into wine. Noah is blessed for doing that. But much more blessed is Christ, whom we adore because He was 'pressed for my sake', crushed in his death for us on the cross. He makes us that 'sweet wine' by which we commemorate and celebrate his death in Holy Communion.
The poem does not give Arthur Woodnoth a neat answer for his problems. There isn’t one. But it gave him – and gives us - a broader perspective in which to see his situation.
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