This light is muffled, muted, murky, dense,
Thick with a threat of thunder unreleased.
The clouds are darkening, the air grows tense,
The coming storm is lowering in the east
Something within me trembles too, and pales,
Though no one sees the brooding darkness there,
Or feels the tension building between poles
Of faith and doubt, of vision and despair.
Everything deepens, gathers to a head:
Anguish and anger at my absent God
Until the charge of all that’s left unsaid
Leaps out at last to find its lightening rod.
But even as the skies are rent and riven
I find that lightening rod is earthed in heaven.
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
You can read the entire interview at ‘Cultivating’.
Lancia E.Smith: Malcolm, you have spent considerable time and attention with the poetry of George Herbert. He shares the chapter “A Second Glance” with John Donne in your book Faith, Hope, and Poetry. His work and presence make frequent appearances on your website and in other poetry collections that you have authored, and you have even written a sonnet for him. In our original interview in 2012 you mentioned that Herbert was one of the influences that shaped your becoming Anglican and finding a place within the Church. With all the company you keep among remarkable poets (Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Heaney), what is it that you find uniquely compelling about George Herbert? Why does he linger as a particular influence in your life?
Malcolm Guite: There are so many ways of answering this, because Herbert is an attractive figure in so many different ways, both as a person and as a poet. I think the first feature for me, in both the man and the poet, is a kind of inclusive balance and honesty. He writes about both the struggles and the consolations of faith, about both sorrow and joy, and to my mind, the consolation, the joy, and the final affirmation of love which animates his poetry rings all the more true and is all the more persuasive because he is honest about the sorrow and struggle. As he says in his little poem ‘Bitter-Sweet’:
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love
But there is also his personal example: the way he brings all he is and has to the twin vocations of being a poet and a priest. As a young man in Cambridge he was known to be dapper, perhaps a little indulgent, with a fine taste in clothes, in food, and wine, a sense of elegance and style. In one sense he sacrificed all that and laid it at the feet of Christ when he forsook worldly life for his priestly vocation, but in another sense, there is a resurrection of those gifts and sensibilities but this time in the service of Christ and his Church, not King James and his court. So prayer itself becomes for Herbert, a banquet, the name, and sovereignty of Jesus becomes itself a rich and sensual thing, as in the opening stanza of his poem ‘The Odour’:
‘How sweetly doth My Master sound! My Master!
As Amber-Grease leaves a rich scent
Unto the taster:
So do these words a sweet content,
An oriental fragrancy, My Master.’
To be a poet you must have a certain sensuousness, a certain sensibility to the almost aching beauties of sight and sound. As a priest, you must know how to transcend these things, not stop at them, or allow them to become possessions or addictions, but rather pass through them towards their all-beautiful source in God.
Herbert shows me how to do that, and that is why one of his most famous verses, in ‘The Elixir’ has become a watchword, a kind of personal mantra for me:
A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the Heavens espy
It is that quality of ‘throughness’, of translucence, that makes Herbert so important for me.
LES: Herbert said of prayer that it is “the soul in paraphrase”. The 27 word-images that Herbert uses in his poem “Prayer” might be seen as a kind of alphabet through which we can both be in connection with our Maker, but also create a poetic knowing of our own inner being. How do you suggest that we practice using poetry and word-images to deepen our prayer life? Are there pitfalls along the way you might warn us to avoid?
MG: Yes, in fact, one might see Prayer as having 26 distinct images, the same number as the letters in the alphabet, and then in the final, 27thphrase, a little coda, to say that through these images we might, at last, attain to the modest goal of ‘something understood’. So in that sense, Herbert may have been deliberately offering the first 26 image-phrases as a kind of alphabet of prayer. I think we come to know the truth as much through images as through words and in my poetry sequence, I have taken each of the images in Herbert’s visual alphabet and tried to sense a little of what they might be spelling out for us now. The sequence is the fruit of many years of leading retreats based on Herbert’s poem and exploring with the retreatants how each of these word-images might help us discern both the state of our own souls and also give us new ways to approach God in prayer. One way of practicing this in prayer is to take Herbert’s images one at a time and pray with, and through them; another is to follow his example and make our own cascading list of images and see where they take us. I have done that in my poem responding to his image ‘The Soul in Paraphrase’, in this new sequence.