07 April 2012

Poems for Lent (43): ‘Sepulchre,’ by George Herbert

The Αποκαθήλωσις (Apokathelosis) ... a traditional representation of the deposition of the body of the dead Christ in Orthodox iconography

Patrick Comerford

The Lichfield-born philosopher and writer Samuel Johnson was a pious and prayerful Anglican, but thought that prayer was too high and holy for poetry. Although Johnson knew of Herbert and Donne, he lived a century before poets like Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nor could anyone fail to appreciate the intimate connections between faith, prayer and poetry in the life-work of TS Eliot.

Nevertheless, it is surprising how few poets have written about Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Day. Yet once there were so many churches on these islands called Holy Sepulchre or Saint Sepulchre, including the Round Church on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street in Cambridge, and the former palace of the Archbishops of Dublin was known as the Palace of Saint Sepulchre.

Christ on the Cross, and Christ at the Resurrection, inspires the minds of great poets and artists, even those who doubted or turned away from Christianity. But few have been inspired by the image of Christ in the Tomb, or his descent into Hell – the great drama of the Harrowing of Hell.

Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca 1521), Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

And so, on this morning of Holy Saturday, as we wait after Calvary for the dawn of the Resurrection, my choice of my final Poem for Lent in 2012 is ‘Sepulchre’ by George Herbert (1593 - 1633).

Louis Martin, Professor of English at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, in a paper in the George Herbert Journal (2000), has pointed out that the final stanza in this six-stanza poem is the only one to consist of 33 syllables. Aptly, this reminds us of the age of Christ was at the time of his death and resurrection, which is the message of the stanza: “Though [the sepulchre [the human heart] be cold, hard, foul,” it cannot “[w]ithhold [Christ] from loving man.”

Similarly, Sibyl Lutz Severance notes that George Herbert placed his poem “Sinne (II)” thirty-third in the 1633 edition of The Temple, in order to recall Christ’s age at the time of his death and resurrection.

Alastair Fowler argues that John Milton designed the length of the overall action of Paradise Lost – 33 days – to recall the length of Christ’s lifetime, and to correspond to Dante’s canto totals of books in the Divina Commedia.

I hope to return tomorrow morning with another George Herbert poem for Easter.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Round Church, on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sepulchre, by George Herbert

Oh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

Christ in the Sepulchre ... a modern icon

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

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