{Wed 23 May 2007}   More on fine energies and fine thoughts in poetry

More on fine energies and fine thoughts in poetry

About my essay on The Temple by George Herbert

During my ongoing review of ancient scribblings by myself, I came across another essay that I very much enjoyed writing. Its subject matter, George Herbert’s 17th century anthology The Temple, is a wonderful example of “fine energies” being examined and released by “fine reasoning”, albeit inside a worldview that is entirely circumscribed by a belief in received interpretation of Christian scripture.

Rereading it, I feel myself again seduced by the beautiful internal consistency of Herbert’s argument, won over by his sincerity, awed by his skill and respectful of his courage and his humility in facing his God.

The power of a tiny poem

It seems amazing that I wrote a 3000-word essay on a poem of just eight simple lines! Well, it was on The Temple as a whole, but as Dr. Ron Hall’s original question indicates, the themes of this great work are succinctly encapsulated in the tiny Bitter-sweet. A good poem can powerfully stimulate and feed meditation on huge life-changing subjects.

Thus it should be no surprise, if one views the Bible as a poetic work (as argued in my previous posts Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts and Poetry and creativity in the press and in the Bible), that it has had the power to mould and move individuals and nations both to heights of achievement and, sadly, to depths of repression, as they reach for the perfection at which it hints.

I think that, as in the best poems, some of its power comes from its universality. Although I do not believe the Bible to be an accurate historical or empirical record of, nor a blueprint for, human development, I do believe that, along with many other writings of similar poetic power, it contains universal truths which attract those who experience their lives as a meaning-making journey, whether their medium be primarily that of the emotions or that of the intellect.

My encounter with Bitter-sweet and The Temple

Taking the poem Bitter-sweet as your point of departure, discuss the methods used in, and the effects achieved by, Herbert’s blending of “complaint” and “praise” in The Temple. (Dr R. Hall)


Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

George Herbert

After an oppressively didactic introduction in The Church-porch, Herbert opens the heart of his work with a series on the Passion of Christ. Despite the Judaeo-Catholic legalism of the preceding section, it is clearly these poems, with their Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace, that are intended to set the context for the major part of The Templei. The remainder of The Church is a meditation on the nature of the relationship with God exemplified in, and made possible by, Christ’s Passion. When Herbert imitates his God, as suggested in Bitter-sweet, he clearly has in mind the Christ who could complain to his Father, “…take away this cup”, yet in the next breath say, “…not my will, but thine be done”ii.

These themes run parallel throughout this meditation, even where a title such as Affliction or Praise seems to suggest a unitary focus. This is consonant with the innately paradoxical nature of the Christian gospel, where death is the path to life. The blending of complaint and praise is one expression of several related paradoxes, like the meeting of natural and supernatural, or of the human and the divine. The former, in its fallen state, gives rise to complaint, but occasions the intervention of the latter, which is cause for praise. This essay examines first the establishment of these themes in the Passion poems. Then, after a brief look at certain others the titles of which suggest specific relevance to this topic (but which represent the general tenor of his approach), it analyses how structure and rhetoric in Bitter-sweet express the blending of complaint and praise.

The first line of the first poem in the sequence, “A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant reares”, already introduces this paradox. Whereas the builder usually aims at a construction that is, if not beautiful, then at least functional, his action here seems futile from the start. The poet’siii complaint is implicitly against God, for if the altar is “broken” and “cemented with teares”, its “parts are as (God’s) hand did frame”. It is characteristic of Herbert that he resolves the paradox in the same poem. While the brokenness referred to is a consequence of the servant’s own sinfulness (he owns responsibility with “my hard heart”), the idea that even this lies outside of God’s sovereignty is not considered. The inference is that, because God has directed the building, this is exactly the type of altar that he finds most desirable. There is clear precedent for this in passages like Psalm 51:16-17:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it; thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Herbert’s view is firmly established when the substitutionary power of the death of Christ is invoked as the means of sanctifying the altar. Ironically, the act of praise is perfected by the one who is praised and both complaint and praise point to God in whose transcendent wisdom and through whose agency they are reconciled to each other. In fact, in The Altar they are more than reconciled; they are indispensable to each other.

After so clear a resolution in the first, subsequent poems can offer only a range of metaphors and statements in diverse forms, rather than progressive development of a theme to a conclusion. However, their experimental energy and variety celebrate the far-reaching implications of the sacrificial gospel for the poet’s life.

The following poem, The Sacrifice, strongly reaffirms the context in which the whole collection should be read by putting its statement into the mouth of Christ himself. Stanza after stanza has Christ complaining of his injuries and yet at the same time celebrating their effect, as in line 27 where his blood is seen as “Curing all wounds, but mine; all, but my fears”. He cries out against the irony of men using “that power against me, which I gave” (line 10), yet the situation which occasions his complaint is caused by his own love. This is the Christ who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2), thus legitimizing pain as a means to a greater good without denying its painfulness. The agonizing climax of the poem is found in lines 212-215 (stanza 54):

But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,
The sonne, in whom thou dost delight to be?
My God, my God
Never was grief like mine.

The anguished cry which is broken off in mid-sentence, as though the speaker is so overcome by physical pain, weakness or mental suffering that he is unable to continue, nevertheless reverberates through the reader’s mind. “…why hast thou forsaken me?” echoes more urgently through the void created by its omission from the physical page against the expectations of rhyme and metre, than it would if spoken. The identities of the speaker and his hearer, and the context of his cry of abandonment, make this the most poignant paradox of the Christian story. At this point, the reader’s full sympathy must attach to the sudden, unequivocal assertion, “Never was grief like mine” which answers with awful finality the question Christ has asked with increasing rhetorical force fifty-three times in the preceding lines. While the last line of the poem cannot recover the same climactic power, it recalls this impact by sealing the poem with the direct formulation rather than the rhetorical question. Its significance is also increased by Christ’s injunction to “let others say,…/ Never was grief like mine”iv. Not only is the experience of Christ held up as a model for “others”, including the poet (see “Since thou dost…/ Sure I will…” in Bitter-sweet), but it is also a standard against which his own pain and grief pales by comparison. No matter what disaffection of his own he may express later in the sequence, it will always be in the context of a deliverance and resolution achieved through more agony than he could ever lay claim to. The poet’s representation of the complaint of Christ becomes by implication a paean of praise for this deliverance.

Following immediately as it does, the address “O King of Grief” in the first line of The Thanksgiving must inevitably be read with triple implication. Christ is not only a grieving king, not only the chief exponent of grief, but also the one who conquers grief. With a gentle humour which suggests both his affection for Christ and his simultaneous awareness of his own weakness, the poet complains, “…how shall I grieve for thee,/ Who in all grief preventest me?”. Failing here, he asks Christ instead, “Shall I …/ side with thy triumphant glorie?” The rhetorical questions which follow (lines 13-14) demonstrate emphatically his sense of unworthiness for this course and he asks in desperation, “But how then shall I imitate thee…?”. This theme of the imitation of a simultaneously grieving and joyful God runs directly or implicitly through many of the subsequent poems. (Bitter-sweet plays on at least three ideas in its formula “Since thou dost…/ sure I will”, namely, man’s design as the image of God, Christ’s command to “Be perfect…as your Father…in heaven is perfect” and Paul’s many exhortations to imitation of Christv.) The irony is that the poet cannot match Christ’s passion with an appropriate response, and yet in his very inarticulateness offers the greatest recognition and appreciation that he can. The reader appreciates an even deeper irony in the poet’s exquisitely skilful expression of his inability to perform adequately.

These principles, then, are established in the poems of the Passion: that the occasion giving rise to complaint is the same that gives rise to praise; that Christ himself incarnates this paradox and is thus the essential agent of reconciliation between the two extremes; that, as Easter affirms in lines 1, 9 and 11 (“Rise heart; thy Lord is risen…”, “The crosse taught all wood..”, “His stretched sinews taught all strings…”), Christ is the ultimate example of this principle in action and should be imitated; and lastly, that it is the wise love of a trustworthy God that has resolved the paradox, enabling “the fall (to) further the flight” in man (Easter Wings, line 10).

Coming so soon after these celebratory poems, Affliction (I) seems a surprisingly bitter complaint against sadness, grief, and sickness. The poet accuses God of deliberately undercutting or preventing joy and fulfilment. In the final stanza his sarcastic adaptation of Job 13:15: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”, which he renders “Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek”, is followed by a rebellious outburst, “Well, I will change the service, and go seek/ Some other master out”. The equally sudden capitulation in the last two lines exemplifies a typically Herbertian reversal, where he manages in heartfelt humility to reaffirm his dependency on God. One almost sees him striking himself on the brow as he recalls his earlier affirmations and requests the ultimate punishment for forgetting them:

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Herbert never loses dignity in his submission to God, because of the manifest appropriateness of that response and the complete sincerity with which he offers it. It is not a grudging giving in to some higher power, an enforced subjection, but always a recognition of and trust in the ultimate wisdom of a loving God. His response is the only correct one, given the God that he serves. In Sighs and Grones he describes him thus:

For thou hast life and death at thy command;
Thou art both Judge and Saviour, feast and rod,
Cordiall and Corrosive: put not thy hand
Into the bitter box; but O my God,
My God, relieve me!

The forlorn cry of Christ on the cross again echoed here is transformed into an affirmation of faith as the all-embracing catalogue of God’s offices makes it impossible that the speaker would turn to anyone else. Once again, his resolution lies not in a denial of the reality of suffering, but in a recognition that deliverance lies within the power of the “King of Grief” alone.

This realization informs even such happily titled poems as Praise (I) and Prayer (I). While the promisingly positive titles do deliver largely positive content, they still derive their sweetness from the deliverance they imply. It is not naivety, but rather informed gratitude, which recognizes in the first, that “man is all weaknesse” (line 9) and in the second, that prayer is “reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear” (line 6).

Although almost all the poems in The Church explore these themes largely through metaphor and personification, Bitter-sweet is no less poetic for being a concise, direct statement. Here, apart from the gustatory metaphor, Herbert uses no other images. However, the paradox directly expressed in simple diction is underscored by a complex set of rhetorical tensions. Aside from their individual power, the combined intensity, variety and number of these devices contrast with the simplicity of the statement and the shortness of the poem both to create further tension, and to resolve it, as demonstrated below.

The double-barrelled title, “Bitter-sweet”, succinctly establishes both preoccupations, complaint and praise, as the objects of contemplation in this poem. Despite its disarming simplicity, the significance of this construction should not be underestimated. Like the Christ who “made himself of no reputation”vi, the tiny hyphen which links the two adjectives is the agent of synthesis inside the paradox, and in its very humility is an icon of the all-justifying blending of these elements in the purposes of a loving God.

A further, double oxymoron is created in the first line where the juxtaposition of “deare” and “angrie” emphasizes an implied opposition between “my” and “Lord”. The obvious contradiction of the two adjectives presents the paradox in a straightforward manner. However, the physical distance they create between the possessive pronoun “my” and the noun “Lord” which would usually be immediately linked, as well as the qualifying value they lend to each respectively, force the latter into opposition. Two claims for possession are implied: “my”, coupled with the patronizing “dear”, represents dominance over, or at least privileged intimacy with, the beloved; “Lord”, qualified by “angrie”, suggests the fearsome power of sovereignty. This surprising contrast accounts for the initial ambivalence of a first reading of stanza 1, when a certain petulance or even vengefulness seems to accompany “Since thou dost… /Sure I will…”. It is only the tone of yieldedness and resolution in the last stanza which compels a rereading of the first as gently self-mocking rather than accusatory against God.

The main paradox progresses by means of lesser ones created by the syntax and subsequently resolved by it. For example, as the “Lord” has been addressed as “my dear”, even though he is “angrie”, the reader is unsure until line 4 whether lines 2 and 3 constitute a request for performance from God. “Since…yet” could render line 2: “Because you are loving, strike me (I can trust that the blow will be in my best interests)”, and line 3: “Because you are the one who casts down, help me (your power to cast down is evidence of your power to raise up)”. Or, “yet” could operate more like a simple conjunction making line 2: “You both love and strike” and line 3: “You both cast down and provide help”.

The syntactic connection of the enigmatic line 4, “Sure I will do the like”, with “Since thou dost” in line 2, resolves the above sub-paradox by eliminating the first option. However, it leaves the reader wondering whether the speaker can possibly be arrogating to himself the rights of omnipotence. The determination to love as God loves, or to offer help as he does, raises no eyebrows, but in the same breath to claim to “strike” or “cast down” as he does oversteps the bounds of Christian doctrine (“Vengeance is mine, …saith the Lord”, Romans 12:19). Thus the finality of the last statement of stanza 1 seems to guarantee the poet’s burning at the stake, and one reads on with some anxiety to find out what he means. In stanza 2 the reader is relieved to discover that “like” means not “exactly as”, but rather “in similar fashion”.

The integrity of the poem as a whole is preserved by this device of paradox and resolution. Stanza 2 is absolutely essential to an understanding of stanza 1, and yet once its explanation is accepted, it seems evident that Herbert’s entire thesis and conclusion are contained in the first four lines.

This linking of the second stanza to the first is cemented by the sonorous repetition of the “I will” of line 4 in three of the four lines of stanza 2. This anaphora further emphasizes the power of the “thou” against which the “I” is contrasted. Even though “Since thou” appears only once, it is in the position of dominance at the top of the poem, introducing the poet’s rationale for his actions, and remains implicitly the point of reference against which each “I will” is opposed.

Whether “opposition” is in fact the nature of the relationship between God and the speaker, or between God’s (and the speaker’s) positive and negative acts, is questioned throughout by the structure of the poem. Although the many parallelisms of thought, syntax and poetic structure are the vehicle of opposition, their very symmetry, coupled with the strict hexasyllabic, three-stress lines, regular abab rhyme scheme and simple (largely monosyllabic) diction, produce an overall sense of a solid, internally consistent entity. The strong alliterative and assonantal links both within and across lines, which are often assisted by the metrical stress, (Stanza 1: “Lord…Love”, “Since…strike”, “thou…down”, “I…like”; Stanza 2: “complain…praise…bewail…approve”, “sowre-sweet”, “lament…love”) further unify the piece. Like the hyphen in the title, these features link the extremes of action, emotion and person creatively to evoke more than resignation. They signify an active engagement with the duality of experience which generates a new, positive resolution. This is especially the effect of the final statement, where the lingering taste is sweetness, not bitterness, love, not lament. In fact, “praise”, “approve”, “sweet days”, and “love”, all have the place of emphasis at the end of the line which is strengthened by the finality of the masculine rhyme. Only in lines 1 and 2 do the negative qualities follow the positive. In the first it is succeeded by the name of God himself, and that name in particular which indicates the rights of God, however “angrie”, to the personal loyalty and submission of the user. This line recalls the simultaneous alienation and acknowledgement of Saul’s famous question, “Who art thou, Lord?” in Acts 9:5.

Apart from the example of Christ, Herbert does occasionally offer a rationale for the embracing of negative experiences, advancing their redemptive potential through such statements as “Fractures well cur’d make us more strong” (Repentance) and “There is but joy and grief;/ If either will convert us, we are thine” (Affliction (V)). Their overall effect is to explain the poet’s submission to God’s will and so justify the ways of God to men. The endings of his poems, with their short, pithy reversals, also always give the bias to God. Yet this is without offense because his poetry presents a fully human person who freely acknowledges grief and pain, but in whom hope triumphs because of his firm faith in the love of God. For him, the Cross makes it possible to view pain as painful, and at the same time to celebrate God’s power and intent to transform pain into joy. Herbert’s personal vision, seemingly a consequence of both his temperament and his religious conviction, enables a blending of complaint and praise. Evensong (lines 25-29) eloquently expresses his feeling:

I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night: that is the gale, this th’harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that the garden, this the grove.

My God, thou art all love.


  • Patrides,C.A, ed. The English Poems of George Herbert, London; J.M. Dent & Sons, 1981
  • Zondervan Bible Publishers The Layman’s Parallel Bible: King James Version , Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan, 1980


  1. It may be argued that The Church-porch contributes to the theme of grace by establishing the need for salvation. This would imitate the scriptural presentation of the gospel, where the Law is the first teacher, bringing awareness of sin (Romans 7:5-13).
  2. Mark 14:36
  3. For the purposes of this essay it is assumed that the poet and the speaker are one and the same.
  4. Emphasis mine.
  5. See Genesis 1:26-27; Matthew 5:48; Philippians 2:5.
  6. Philippians 2:7


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