An evening salon on George Herbert

Even though I am on summer recess, a passionate teacher should never take a holiday from teaching. My parents recently hosted an evening salon at their home with friends so I could reflect upon three poems by my favorite poet, Anglican priest George Herbert (1593-1633). As I prepared for this event, I realized that each of the poems can be classified within the four-act drama of salvation history:

  • The Pulley” belongs to Creation (Act 1)
  • Sin (I)” belongs to the Fall (Act 2)
  • Love (III)” belongs to Redemption (Act 3) and Glorification (Act 4)

I also formulated existentially urgent questions that are raised from the poems:

  • “The Pulley”: Why am I never at rest?
  • “Sin (I)”: Am I ever safe?
  • “Love (III)”: Where shall I find love?

Since I led a salon and not a class, I kept the main things the “main things” by focusing on profit and pleasure, consistent with the poet’s vocation according to Horace: “Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life.”

“The Pulley”

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the playful use of the word “rest,” which means spiritual repose (lines 10, 14), remainder (line 16), and final rest (line 20). A pun occurs in the last line with the word “rest” buried in “breast” (“May toss him to my breast”); our true rest is the breast of God, as St. Augustine prayed in Confessions: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
  • Profit: (1) Sabbath rest is a temporal provision that anticipates our eternal rest. (2) There are two ways to union with God: the way of the saint (goodness) and the way of the sinner (weariness).

“Sin (I)

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the “stratagem” of the poet who builds a (false) confidence in the fortifications against sin only to ambush the reader when he least expects it.
  • Profit: (1) Our “fences” against sin are only as good as our nearness to the watchful Shepherd. (2) Sin is a covert enemy (cf., Jeremiah 17:9-10).

“Love (III)”

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the language of intimacy between the guest and his host: “Love bade me welcome” (line 1), “Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning” (line 5), “Love took my hand, and smiling” (line 11), “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat” (line 17).
  • Profit: (1) Consistent with what Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said is “the genuine meaning of the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of ‘justification by faith,'” one needs “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable” (The Courage to Be). (2) The eucharist feast is a foretaste of the eschatological feast.

For a bibliography on Herbert, click here.


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