At a time when renegotiation is a subject very much on our minds, it is worth reflecting on the circumstances that lead people (or nations) to seek to alter existing arrangements. Invariably the root cause is dissatisfaction with the way things are, and a desire to change the situation for the better.
Herbert places this poem in the context of the desire for a new beginning. Its allegorical setting is a situation that would have been familiar to many in his time – a land lease that is proving too burdensome for a tenant, who is determined to petition his landlord to give him a more generous deal. The title (which means 'buying back') is of course a pun - the poem is actually about nothing less than the salvation of man by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
It is one of his earlier poems, and was originally entitled ‘The Passion’, which perhaps makes it clearer that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of this work (although this becomes evident only in its final line). No doubt this accounts for its placement in the early part of ‘The Temple’, which deals with Christ's passion, culminating in ‘Easter’.
In setting the scene, Herbert's narrator stresses that his relationship with the landlord is one of long standing - in point of fact, it has existed since the Creation. But things have not worked out well for him ('Not thriving'), nor indeed for mankind, and something must be done. So we are told that he takes the initiative to find his Lord and ask for the relief his burden, through renegotiation of his contract.
So far, so mundane. But now we learn of the spiritual dimension of his search - he goes first to the Kingdom of Heaven, presumably through the medium of prayer. And it becomes clear that, far from the initiative being his, matters are already well in hand. Many critics have drawn attention here to the parable of The Wicked Tenants, in which a vineyard owner's son is sent to resolve problems with the tenant husbandmen. And as we know, that does not end well.
It is tempting to read the next three lines of the poem as biographical. Prior to ordination, Herbert had been hoping that he would be able to combine his Christian education and inclination with a secular calling, perhaps as a Secretary of State, and he had frequented the corridors of power to further his ambition. But his forays into the court, and the worlds of politics and commerce had proved to be far from satisfying spiritually. So his search, like that of his narrator, had been fruitless.
And so to the realisation that, for the granting of his 'suit', Herbert has led the narrator (and the reader) inevitably to Calvary, with its mocking crowds, its Roman soldiers and the criminals being crucified alongside The Redeemer, who by his sacrifice 'taketh away the sin of the world' (John 1:29). The culmination is shocking in its immediacy ('straight') and its starkness. The last lines of Herbert's verses are often surprising, but this one is explosive in its impact.
In its layout and rhyming scheme, this appears to be a conventional sonnet, but it fact it is unusual in having two quatrains followed by two tercets, offering us yet anothet example of Herbert's amazing skill and versatility as a poet.
'Redemption' is a powerful and significant poem that repays careful study and analysis. It is generally recognised as one of George Herbert's finest, catching as it does at the very foundation of Christian belief.
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