09 February 2012

Reading George Herbert’s ‘Easter’

Trinity Lane, Cambridge, in the snow this week, with the walls of Trinity College on the right ... George Herbert was a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge until he entered parish ministry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

In our discussion of 16th and 17th century art and theology this morning [9 February 2012], the offerings included poems by Richard Crawshaw, John Donne, John Dryden, George Herbert and John Milton, paintings by Carravagio, and compositions and settings by music by Henry Purcell (Te Deum), Gregorio Allegri (Miserere) and Thomas Tallis (Agnus Dei).

I concluded by reading George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter.’ I had bought two collections of Herbert’s poetry last weekend in Cambridge, where Herbert had been a fellow of Trinity College before entering parochial ministry.

‘Easter’ by George Herbert (1593-1633)

RIse heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Poetry, music and architecture

In his poetry, George Herbert brings together poetry, music and architecture. This poem, ‘Easter,’ was first published in The Temple shortly after his death (1633).

‘Easter’ is a complex poem, in two parts. Herbert’s poems sometimes take a double-poem organisation with two separate stanza forms – for example, he also used a two-part structure in a companion poem, ‘Good Friday.’

In this poem, Herbert addresses his heart as he prepares for Easter. In reflecting on the Resurrection, he is moved to compose a song (lines 1-18), which he then shares (lines 19-30).

There is good reason to believe that Herbert intended the second, less formal part to be sung to the accompaniment of a lute. Herbert was an accomplished player of the lute and a great fan of the works of John Dowland.

Dowland’s ‘The Most Sacred Queen Elizabeth, Her Galliard’ (1610) perfectly matches the meter and rhyming scheme of Herbert’s ‘Easter’ and may have been intended as the music to which it would be sung. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams also composed Five Musical Songs using George Herbert’s poems, including the first section of Easter, lines 1-18.

In this poem, Herbert turns to his lute to assist him in song, and draws on Scripture to illustrate the poem. Words from Psalm 57: 8-10 and the theme of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its exploration of how we are made right with God through Christ’s death on the cross.

In line 5, “calcined” is a chemical term referring to the process where impurities are removed from precious metals, or the means reducing things lime or some other similar substance. In this case, Herbert is thinking of how at death our bones are reduced to chalk or our lowest commonest denominator, the dust of which we all are made.

Herbert may be reflecting on Romans 6: 4, where we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, being re-created into a new creation.

In line 11 (“His stretched sinews”), Herbert pictures Christ’s arms stretched tight on the cross, like lute strings, which in Herbert’s days were made from the muscle fibres of animals. Sacred music was traditionally set to higher keys than secular music – and the tighter the string, the higher the pitch.

Just as the wooden cross proclaimed Christ’s saving work, so Herbert’s wooden lute resonates with the same message.

In line 15, “three parts” refers to the fact that most chords have only three different notes that are repeated and multiplied at different octaves in different voices or instruments. Just as chords are fundamentally composed of triads, Herbert sees the worship of his heart and lute as incomplete without the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes “up our defects with his sweet art” (line 18).

The heart responds to the melody by joining with it, as instrumentalists join together in consort to make music. But since none can sing this tune perfectly, a further strand needs to be woven: that of the Spirit who makes up “our defects with his sweet art.”

The change of structure in line 19 indicates the beginning of the song alluded to in line 1.In this song of joyful celebration, Herbert sees the day of Christ’s resurrection as unsurpassed in glory. “Can there be any day like this” (verse 19) – the sun that rises each day of the year cannot shine as brightly as the Son of God as he brings light to the world.

The first allusion in the song, in lines 19 to 22, is to Palm Sunday (see Mark 11: 8-9).

The second allusion, in lines 23 to 26, is to the women who brought spices to Jesus’s tomb (see Mark 16: 1-2).

However, the Risen Christ does not need their gifts. In fact, all gifts offered to Christ – including the sun illumining the empty grave, and the Magi providing gold, frankincense and myrrh years before – pale in comparison throughout the year (the “three hundred” days in line 29) to the glory of the Resurrection. For this reason Herbert sees Easter as the definitive moment in human history.

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.


Anonymous said...

Just for reference, Vaughan Williams did use the second half of the poem - he just set it to different music as the second piece within his song cycle, titling it "I got me flowers".

Cindy said...

Beautiful thoughts!