Seriously? A whole blog devoted to a poem?
In addition to being an editor at Harrington Interactive Media, I’m also an adjunct English professor at Welch College. I see the same initial reactions whenever I begin discussing the Romantics or T.S. Eliot. But after I break down the poems, light bulbs often go off, and the students begin appreciating the poetry. Well, most of them at least. Let’s unpack this poem to help us gain a greater appreciation for the gift of prayer. I will share four major metaphor types found in the poem: divine, tangible, sweet, and sublime. Then I will conclude with the final metaphor of the poem. But who was George Herbert? And why did his poetry become so famous?
George Herbert, a ‘Glorious Saint’George Herbert was born in Wales, in 1593, to an affluent family. Herbert later attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received an education in classical languages, rhetoric, and music. Upon graduation, he garnered the attention of King James I, who wanted Herbert to serve in Parliament. Herbert worked in Parliament from 1624–1625, but after the death of King James I, Herbert gave up his political career and for the rest of his life served as a parson in a small, rural parish in Lower Bemerton, Salisbury. While there, Herbert meticulously cared for the sick in his church and provided food and clothing to the less fortunate. After three years of ministry, Herbert died of tuberculosis in 1633 at the age of 39. Herbert was the epitome of the English country parson who humbly shepherded his flock. He was highly educated and could have made a name for himself in Parliament, but he gave it all up to serve his Lord in this way. Herbert’s humility spurred Henry Vaughn, another 17th-century poet, to call Herbert “a most glorious saint and seer.” Herbert was a brilliant yet pious man who left his mark upon the world as a minister. In addition, he left his mark as a writer of exemplary religious poetry that continues to captivate Christians almost four hundred years later.
George Herbert’s Place in the English CanonLiterary scholars associate Herbert with the metaphysical poets of the 17th century. Other notable poets in this school include John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Their poetry is celebrated for using conceits, which are elaborate metaphors of everyday objects. A famous example of a conceit is in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” where Donne compares himself and his wife to a compass (the kind you used only once in your life in geometry class) as he prepares for an extended trip away from her. No matter how far they might be from each other, they will still be connected just as a compass stretches out yet remains one. Herbert’s “Prayer” comes from a collection of poems, The Temple, which was published in 1633. Herbert possibly composed the poem toward the end of his life, but we don’t know for sure. This poem doesn’t rhyme in the way we sometimes expect in poetry. It’s a sonnet, which means it has fourteen lines and is in iambic pentameter. That is, each line has five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, thus, comprising ten syllables in each line.
Below is the poem in its entirety. I recommend reading the poem audibly—poetry should be read aloud!
Notice how no verbs are present in the poem yet so much action still takes place:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s 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’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.Let’s now dive in to Hebert’s poem on the gift of prayer. I’ll explain the metaphors and then apply them to our daily prayer lives.
Divine Metaphors of PrayerHerbert begins with divine descriptions of prayer.
1. “The church’s banquet”This signifies the congregational aspect of prayer. Christians pray together as one body as they partake in Communion to remember the body and blood of Christ being broken and spilled on the cross. Yet even this sobering gathering is not the only implied meaning. Don’t forget a banquet is a joyful time of fellowship—such is the same for believers when they meet together to pray.
2. “Angel’s age”With this, Herbert says prayer is a foretaste of eternity. Jim Scott Orrick writes, “Angels are not bound by mortality, and prayer is not limited to the lifespan of humans.”1 Since angels are eternal, their “age” is eternal. Thus, Herbert writes, our prayers are eternal.
3. “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”This metaphor requires a look at the Genesis account of creation: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). God’s breath animated the clay figure he had put together. And Herbert says prayer is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth,” which means God’s breath returns to the Creator through our prayers. Our souls, that is, the breath of life, reach back to God. This segues well to Herbert’s next comparison.
4. “The soul in paraphrase”What is a paraphrase? It’s what I hope my students do on their research papers when they explain an author’s thoughts (with the proper citations, of course). So our prayers explain to God the conditions of our souls. We see this in the book of Psalms, which contain countless examples of poets explaining the conditions of their souls. Psalm 88 encapsulates the anguish and despair of the sons of Korah. Conversely, Psalm 136 euphorically celebrates God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. In like manner, our prayers attempt to tell God what our souls experience, both during the most joyful moments as well as the darkest.
5. “Heart of pilgrimage”This is Herbert’s final divine portrayal. The Canterbury Tales, a classic work of medieval English literature, recounts the travels of 30 pilgrims as a metaphor of the Christian journey. Herbert alludes to such a pilgrimage: after conversion, we are on a journey of sanctification until we reach “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Yet how often do wander from God while we’re on this spiritual pilgrimage? The lyrics of the classic hymn come to mind: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love / Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it / Seal it for Thy courts above.” Thus, prayers reflect the lifelong pilgrimage of our hearts.
Tangible Metaphors of PrayerHerbert now shifts to tangible metaphors. I love Herbert’s first one:
1. “Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”A “plummet” was a nautical tool used by sailors to determine the depth of a sea. But Herbert inverts the image: rather than mankind using a weighted line to reach the bottom of an ocean, prayer is a tool whereby mankind reaches heaven. In other words, our prayers have a direct line from earth to God’s throne in heaven. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes explains, “Herbert visualises prayer bridging the gap between God and humanity,” which is exactly what the Christian plummet does. The next image is another fun one.
2. “Engine against th’ Almighty”“Engine” captures the sometimes violent, angry prayers we send God’s way. Herbert was likely referring to two weapons of warfare here: first is the battering ram soldiers used to break down a castle’s doors. The next is a catapult throwing stones at a castle’s walls. This image shows how our prayers can sometimes violently lay siege to God’s throne. We’ve all had these moments of frustration and anger and have taken them out on God. But he’s big enough to handle it, and God embraces our barbs. I think of how Jacob wrestled with God all night demanding the Lord’s blessing (Genesis 32:22–32). He wants us to stubbornly bring our requests to him. Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow proves this (Luke 18:1–8). But then Herbert offers the counter:
3. “Sinner’s tower”When we need to retreat from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”2 we can run to him for refuge. David found the same refuge in God: “For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe” (Psalm 61:3). God should be our first choice for safety.
4. “Reversèd thunder”Think about the last time you were in a severe thunderstorm, and a crack of thunder sounded like a gunshot, causing you to sit upright. Thunder is God’s way of illustrating his power, which was on full display at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16). Also in Job 37:2–5, Elihu said,
Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice, to the rumbling that comes from his mouth. He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth. After that comes the sound of his roar; he thunders with his majestic voice. When his voice resounds, he holds nothing back. God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding.Herbert might have also had the mythological Zeus in mind, who cast lightning bolts down to earth. With our prayers, “reversèd thunder,” we send our own thunder and lightning bolts back to heaven to get God’s attention.
5. “Christ-side-piercing spear”As you’ve noticed these last three metaphors have been violent, and we now arrive at the supreme act of violence: “Christ-side-piercing spear.” Where did the spear penetrate Christ’s body on the cross? Near his heart. So our prayers take us to the heart of Christ, and he feels the pain of our laments as we, like the Roman soldier, pierce the side of Christ with our prayer-headed spears.
6. “The six-days’ world transposing in an hour, a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear”We return again to Genesis with this one, with the six days of creation. To “transpose” a piece of music is to change it into a different key. This transposing results in “a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.” In other words, one hour of faithful prayer can change the world as much as God did creating it in six days. This world-altering power results in reverent awe in the rest of the created order.
Sweet Metaphors for PrayerThe tone of the poem now changes from violent metaphors to lighter, sweeter ones.
1. “Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.”Prayer brings “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.” It produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The lyrics of another hymn come to mind: “Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer! / The joys I feel, the bliss I share.” Finding such sweetness in prayer elevates our souls.
2. “Exalted manna”Back to the Old Testament for Herbert’s use of “exalted manna.” During the wilderness wandering, God fed his people with manna from heaven (Exodus 16). In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us “our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Herbert says we offer the manna back to God through prayer. We rejoice in God’s provision, and God rejoices in our prayers of thanksgiving.
3. “Gladness of the best”And “gladness of the best” continues the thanksgiving we experience as a result of his blessings. Paul exhorts us to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18). But how often is thanksgiving lacking in our hearts? I know I’m not often celebrated for my endless optimism. If we’re having one of those days where nothing seems to be going right, one of the best cures is taking a few minutes to thank God for his blessings. This reorients our focus from our current situations to his steadfast blessings that we often take for granted.
4. “Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed”As I mentioned earlier, Herbert shows how prayer bridges the gap between God and man, which reaches its zenith with “heaven in ordinary, man well dressed.” This is God’s condescending to us: meeting us halfway down the “Christian plummet.” In the incarnation, Jesus came to earth and put on the “ordinary,” everyday clothes of humanity. But through prayer, mankind elevates itself with the finest attire. In Ephesians 4:22–24, Paul exhorts us to “put off” our old selves and “put on” our new selves, much like we would change our clothing. Therefore, we put on new suits as we commune with God.
Sublime Metaphors for Prayer
1. “The milky way”Herbert now leaves behind the earthly metaphors and switches to the sublime. He compares prayer to “the milky way.” This connotes the cosmos and the heavens and all that is above us. Yet prayer finds its way to God regardless of our finitude.
2. “The bird of Paradise”This is another fun metaphor that hearkens back to mythology. These birds didn’t have feet and eternally remained in flight. Likewise, our prayers are never stationary; they are forever in flight to God. I also think back to Genesis once again and the original Paradise—and the original communion with God—that was lost. This leads to another celestial picture:
3. “Church bells beyond the stars heard”Traditionally, the bells of a church sound to let townspeople know services have started. But when we pray, the church bells of heaven ring loudly, alerting God and the heavenly host of our needs. This also signifies that our prayers are not discordant clanging to God; rather, he hears them in musical accord.
4. “Soul’s blood”New band name—I call it! William Harvey published his scientific findings on blood circulation in 1628, so Herbert possibly knew of the body’s reliance of blood for survival. In other words, just as the human body depends on blood, the soul depends on prayer. It keeps the Christian’s heart pumping.
5. “The land of spices”Herbert’s penultimate metaphor is “the land of spices,” which conjures up images of exotic, mysterious places. Like what I imagined of the Bahamas before I visited. In 1 Kings 10:10, the queen of Sheba brought with her a great quantity of flavorful and fragrant spices, which impressed everyone in King Solomon’s court. Prayer signifies this same blessing that comes from afar. Also, the Bible alludes to our prayers being a sweet scent to God. The altar of incense symbolized the people’s prayers rising to God (Exodus 30:1–4), and Revelation 5:8 says: “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” May our prayers daily continue to be sweet-smelling to God.
Final Metaphor for PrayerAnd now we get to the final metaphor. Herbert concocted a host of elaborate images up to this point. Surely, he would go out with a bang.
What is prayer ultimately to Herbert?
Simply “something understood.” And, though unexpected, is this not the greatest possible conclusion? Yes, prayer is everything that came before it. It’s Communion as the body of Christ. It’s our soul’s longing to express itself. It’s violent at times. It’s powerful enough to move mountains. It epitomizes the incarnation. It’s exotic and aromatic. But in the end, prayer is merely God’s understanding of what we’re saying to him. What a great comfort to know our heavenly Father understands everything we tell him. As John writes: “And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:15). May we never relinquish this comfort of knowing God hears us. So the next time you’re in a Bible study, and someone asks for a definition of prayer, you can think back to Herbert’s catalog and say, “There was this humble preacher from the 17th century who wrote a cool poem describing prayer.” You can show off with phrases like “the Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth,” “Engine against th’ Almighty,” or, “Reversèd thunder.” Or you can just say, “Something understood.”
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