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A Short Analysis of George Herbert’s ‘Discipline’

A summary of Herbert’s poem

‘Discipline’ is a poem by the Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633), who is associated with the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century but is also seen as one of English literature’s greatest devotional poets. What follows is a brief summary and analysis of Herbert’s poem ‘Discipline’. This isn’t as well-known a poem as some by Herbert, so its language and argument may not be as familiar to readers – hence the short summary that follows.

Discipline

Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.

For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
I aspire
To a full consent.

Not a word or look
I affect to own,
But by book,
And thy book alone.

Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.

Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.

Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
And can shoot,
And can hit from far.

Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.

Before we proceed to analyse ‘Discipline’, here’s a brief summary of the poem’s argument. Herbert asks God to use love rather than punishment when dealing with him, the poet. He asks God to throw away his ‘rod’, the instrument used to inflict punishment, and his ‘wrath’ (i.e. his anger) and instead to ‘[t]ake the gentle path’. This is because Herbert is fully amenable to God’s will, and will consent to whatever God wishes. He follows God’s rules as set out in his ‘book’, the Bible. He may fail and falter, but he does so in his attempt to please God and reach heaven and God’s George Herbert‘throne of grace’. Love is more powerful than fear of punishment, for it can make ‘stony hearts’ bleed; love can reach all of us, and quickly – as quick as a fast runner or as Cupid’s arrow which can ‘hit from far’. Nobody can escape Cupid’s, or love’s ‘bow’ and arrow: even God himself, in the form of Christ, was moved by love – love of mankind – to make his sacrifice, in the form of the Crucifixion which ‘Brought [him] low’:

Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

If love had the power to move God’s heart, then it can easily move a mere mortal like George Herbert. Herbert thus ends with the same request that he began ‘Discipline’ with, enjoining God to throw away his rod. Mankind as a species may possess many weaknesses and failings, but God is powerful enough to help man to overcome such ‘frailties’ with love, so there is no need for anger of ‘wrath’.

Stylistically, this is one of George Herbert’s simplest poems, written in plain language and presenting few problems in terms of convoluted syntax, extended metaphors, or difficult words. But even in this simplicity we can see that Herbert was a first-rate user of language:

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.

The fourth line is almost identical to the first, except that ‘wrath’ (which was probably rhymed with ‘Goth’ rather than ‘path’ in Herbert’s time too) slightly alters ‘rod’, right at the end. ‘Throw’ turns into ‘Though’, and then thins down further into ‘Thou’: things are being pared down to a very simple message that is reinforced by the relative shortness of that third line and its simple, almost banal statement (‘Thou art God’) and the simple repetition of the first line’s sentiment in the stanza’s – and the poem’s – final line.

‘Discipline’ displays George Herbert’s simpler, plain-speaking style that he advocated in ‘Jordan (I)’, one of his most celebrated poems. Although ‘Discipline’ requires less in-depth textual analysis to decipher it, the language of the poem still repays close reading.

Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

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Posted on November 30, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very inspiring we all can learn a lot from this poem. We would love to hear your thoughts in the famous new story at Gastradamus they call Queen Kong and I. Let us know what you think. Your feedbackwould meannthebworldnto us

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of George Herbert’s ‘Jordan (I)’ | Interesting Literature

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