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I Pray in Poems
Meditations on Poetry and Faith
By Dave Worster
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Dave Worster
All rights reserved.
Advent Meditation 1
"The Collar" by George Herbert (1633)
I struck the board, and cried, No more.
I will abroad.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store. line 5
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit? line 9
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted? line 15
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage, line 21
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away; take heed: line 27
I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load. line 32
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied, My Lord.
board: a table
in suit: waiting
bays: a crown of laurel leaves
wink: close your eyes
death's-head: a skull; a reminder of death
Before you read any further, I encourage you to read the poem several more times and work through the four steps outlined on page 12, or you can use the discussion questions about the poem on page 121.
Introduction to George: George Herbert definitely had a way with words. In addition to being a gifted poet, he is known for a wide variety of proverbs and pithy sayings such as: "living well is the best revenge," "good words are worth much and cost little," and "his bark is worse than his bite." Born into a wealthy family in 1593 ( John Donne dedicated his Holy Sonnets to his mother, Magdalen Newport Herbert, because of her patronage), the well-educated Herbert dabbled briefly with a political career, but fortunately for us it was not to be. Following his own heart, Herbert married in 1629 and took Holy Orders for the priesthood the following year. Considering his wealth and connections, students are often surprised to learn that Herbert happily settled down and served a small, quiet parish exceedingly well as rector for three years. Sadly, he died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1633 at the age of 40. All of his poetry appears in a single volume called The Temple, published in 1633.
The title: Knowing Herbert's profession, an almost irresistible image of the speaking persona forms in the reader's mind as we register the title of the poem. Does the speaker wear a priest's collar? Most of us can imagine only with some difficulty a cleric articulating the extreme frustration we hear expressed in this work. And yet, most readers find "startling" and "powerful" two perfectly appropriate adjectives for much of Herbert's poetry, and "The Collar" presents a great example of Herbert's use of structure within which to explore authentic, chaotic human emotion. We hear an immediacy, an urgency in the voice that compels us to read on. We can relate to frustrated desires, and if an ordained priest can find herself chafing within the perceived limitations of faith's collar, then how much more understandable is it for mere layfolk like you or me? (Of course I realize Herbert was a priest, and thus we will be very sorely tempted to assume the speaker of this poem represents the poet himself. We should avoid this temptation, so I persevere in my decision to imagine the persona as the gender opposite that of the poet.) By metaphorical extension, we can understand this priest's collar to represent any kind of constraint, and in the second half of the poem we will see clear references to the cage, ropes, and cables the persona currently feels confine her. Finally, Herbert's audience would have heard in the title a pun on a word virtually unknown to us today, "choler," which means "anger" or "ill temper."
Crazy structure: After the title, the apparent lack of structure may be the next thing most readers notice. I mean, lean back in your chair and look at this thing! It's a mess! The left margin is not justified, and to say that line lengths vary would understate the case. We see no regular rhyme pattern, no stanzas. Nothing seems ordered or balanced. This apparent lack represents Herbert's deliberate choice, of course, and one of the things I most admire about the poem is the tension between the actual order apparent in the poem upon closer inspection and the emotional chaos contained therein. For example, since you are still leaning back in your chair, look at the poem again. Do you see the center line? The first words of all the shortest lines stack up at the same place, creating a visual sense of a plumb line dropping straight down through the heart of the poem. Can you see how that line becomes more visually pronounced as we get closer to the bottom of the page? To me, this suggests that, for all of the persona's wild and angry words, for all her fierce protestations that she will be free, she, like the poem, has a center. That center will hold, and she will return to it by the poem's conclusion. In fact, I would argue that the more the speaker seems determined to leave, the more resolutely the poem's structure reassures us that she will do no such thing.
Herbert brilliantly communicates this reassurance not only through the center line but also through the poem's elusive rhyme pattern. ("Rhyme pattern? What rhyme pattern?") Read "The Collar" again and note that the poet carefully pairs every single line in the poem with at least one rhyming line further on. Sometimes we have to wait for this couplet completion, but it always, always comes. Once again, apparent lack dissipates upon closer inspection. For instance, take the word "pine" at the end of line 3; it rhymes with "wine," but we have to wait seven lines before we hear it. The word "me" at the end of line 13 rhymes with "thee," but it takes a full ten lines to get there. For both these cases (and many others), until we do get there, the poem holds us in a kind of suspension: When will we hear the rhyme? When will this separated couplet be complete? This suspension/resolution pattern perfectly captures the overall tension of the poem. The speaker declares that she's had enough, and she swears she's leaving ... yet she does not depart. We work our way through the poem to find out what will happen, to resolve our suspense. The rhymes come thicker and faster as we draw closer to the end, and by the time we get to the final four lines, well, something that looks a lot like a stanza appears, a regular abab rhyme pattern has been restored, and form has emerged from the chaos. Just beautiful.
Here's something we can all agree on: This persona is frustrated in the extreme. From the very first line, she strikes the board1 and cries "No more!" Most of the remainder of the poem, right up to line 32, represents one long, ranting monologue. I find it a bit difficult to get a handle on the precise nature of the grievance, but clearly the persona thinks she has worked very hard and has precious little to show for it. Not for her any Ecclesiastical "the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong" nonsense. She communicates her frustration that she has "wasted" a year with nothing in return, no harvest to reap, no bay (laurel) leaves in recognition for her accomplishments, no flowers, no garlands gay, nothing. And it's not as if she hasn't been asking: she declares herself "still in suit," still waiting for the reward she has requested or that she obviously believes she deserves. As the poem opens, sick of cooling her heels, she angrily declares that she's finished waiting and about to walk out. "I will abroad," she cries, longing for the freedom and the "store" (abundance or cornucopia) to which she feels entitled.
Before she leaves, though, she has much to say in at least two different modes. The first sixteen lines of "The Collar" I call the interrogative section (check out all the question marks), and the next sixteen lines I call the declarative section. Filled with strong active verbs like "recover," "leave," and "forsake," in this second section the speaker emphasizes her resolution to depart. Not coincidentally, most readers find this section far less comprehensible than the first one. For instance, note the pronoun confusion: the speaker shifts from a consistent first person singular in the interrogative section to a mixture of first person ("I will abroad"), second person (many uses of thy and thou), and even third person ("He that forbears") in the declarative section. I think the mishmash of pronouns indicates a profound internal conflict. Part of her wants to leave, but part wants to stay, too, surely. Otherwise, why does it take so much verbal expenditure to convince herself to go? In fact, it seems as if the closer the speaker gets to actual departure, the more psychologically fractured she becomes.
The persona herself acknowledges this lack of cohesion: "But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word. ..." (lines 33–34). She's out of control, and she knows it. What pulls her back from the brink? The voice of the Lord answering this prayer. Herein lies the central irony of the poem: one single word silences and counteracts all the prior Hamlet-esque outpouring of words, words, words. With that utterance, the speaker remembers that, as a child of God, she is loved. Especially given the season, she (and we) might also recall and anticipate the Word made flesh, God's begotten child, the Word to answer all our words.
Two final observations: My favorite moment in the poem? Lines 7–9. At this early point, the persona still rants about her forlorn state: "Have I no harvest but a thorn / To let me blood, and not restore / What I have lost with cordial fruit?" She means this question as a complaint, but consider this: As soon as I read "thorn" and "blood," I think "crucifixion." In that context, when I read "restore," I think "resurrection," and when I see "cordial fruit," I remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (15:20). Do you see this? Even as the persona gripes about her apparent lack, she subconsciously articulates this greatest of gifts: "have I no harvest but the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, through whom what I have lost has been restored?" No, you have no harvest but this. But what further harvest do you need?
Finally, say the title of the poem one last time: "The Collar." Now, read the last two lines out loud. Do you hear the echo? How does it change the orientation of the poem if we think of its title as "The Caller"? Like the character of God in The Castle of Perseverance, the Caller has been present in the poem from its beginning, waiting patiently for his chance to speak, for his chance to break through and to bring love to a broken life. And here we find ourselves right back to that experience of eternity within our numbered days. Here we find the abiding presence we wait and hope for this season, even, or especially, in the bleakest hours.
In Galatians, chapter 6, Paul extends the seasonal metaphor we have seen in Ecclesiastes to make a spiritual point: "whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. ... he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart" (7–9). In due time, the faithful will reap eternal life, but the persona of "The Collar," weary of well-doing, desires her reward now, on her schedule, and in accordance with the selfish desires of her own material existence. Like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, she wearies of her toil, tired of restrictions, tired of self-sacrifice, and tired of forbearance. Impatient, she makes certain demands of God, and God has not answered those prayers. In her rage, she has forgotten God's promise. I warrant every single Christian, living or dead, has felt this way at one time or another. We have all cried out to God, with the psalmist: "Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly" (102:2, NIV). I know I have. I have been this priest, striking the altar, screaming: "Seriously?! After all that I have done for you, this is what I get in return?" In the hard-breathing silence that follows, I think I hear one calling. So God reminds us that in due season we shall reap the reward for our service, but it will come in his time: "You are my child, I am with you, and I want only what is best for you, so do not lose heart." Wait. Listen. Have patience. Persevere.
Advent Meditation 2
by William Shakespeare (1609)
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate, line 4
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least; line 8
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; line 12
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
bootless: futile; something done in vain
haply: fortunately, with connotations of "happily"
Before you read any further, I encourage you to read the poem several more times and work through the four steps outlined on page 12, or you can use the discussion questions about the poem on page 122.
Sonnet structure: As we begin by just looking at the poem, I think we can all agree on one thing: Shakespeare's "Sonnet 29" is a sonnet. (If you are unfamiliar with the form and haven't read the glossary entry for sonnet yet, by the way, you may want to do so now.) The vast majority of sonnets written in the western tradition focus on a single subject in its myriad manifestations: love. Often, though by no means always, the persona speaks to or about the person he or she loves (called "the beloved" or the "love object"), and the sonnet portrays or reveals something about that relationship. In a nutshell, "Sonnet 29" shows us the transformative power of love. Early in the poem, the persona dwells upon that which she thinks she lacks in her life, but then she remembers that she is in love (and is loved in return), and this recollection restores her sense of well-being. The structure of the sonnet participates in its meaning. The word "When" introduces the first eight lines (two quatrains) of the poem. These lines describe the persona's distressed frame of mind at the poem's outset. The word "Yet" signals the start of the transformation (the "turn" of the sonnet, also sometimes called the "volta") at line 9; the persona suddenly thinks of her loved one, and her mindset dramatically shifts. Finally, the word "For" at the beginning of line 13 initiates a brief reflection upon how remembrance of her beloved reminds her of the riches she already possesses.
Excerpted from I Pray in Poems by Dave Worster. Copyright © 2015 Dave Worster. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: Saints and poets,
Expressions of Eternity: Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare,
Reading Poetry: "Advent" by Rae Armantrout,
THE SEASON OF ADVENT AND THE CASTLE OF PERSEVERANCE,
Advent Meditation 1: "The Collar" by George Herbert,
Advent Meditation 2: "Sonnet 29" by William Shakespeare,
The Rose Candle: "Love Poem" by John Frederick Nims,
Advent Meditation 4: "Making the House Ready for the Lord" by Mary Oliver,
Christmas Eve: "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy,
Christmas: "Bezhetsk" by Anna Akhmatova,
Epiphany Meditation 1: "Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot,
Epiphany Meditation 2: "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" by Mary Oliver,
Ash Wednesday: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley,
Lent Meditation 1: "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop,
Lent Meditation 2: "Holy Sonnet 14" by John Donne,
Lent Meditation 3: "A prayer that will be answered" by Anna Kamienska,
Palm Sunday: "The Donkey" by G. K. Chesterton,
Maundy Thursday: "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden,
Good Friday: "The Scattered Congregation" by Tomas Transtromer,
Easter: "Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond" by Mary Oliver,
Easter Week: "These spiritual windowshoppers" by Rumi,
"I would love to kiss you" by Rumi,
A Glossary of Poetic Terms,