A close reading of a classic religious poem
‘Prayer (I)’ is one of George Herbert’s best-loved poems. Herbert (1593-1633), who sent his poems to a friend Nicholas Ferrar with the instruction that his friend should publish them or destroy them, depending on whether he thought they were any good, is now revered as one of the greatest poets of the Early Modern period. ‘Prayer (I)’ is a relatively straightforward poem, but its language and references require some analysis and unpicking.
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,
Reversed 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.
‘Prayer (I)’ is so named because Herbert wrote several poems which were given the title ‘Prayer’. But this, the first, is the most famous and best-loved. What is ‘Prayer’ about?
In summary, George Herbert offers in ‘Prayer’ a series of synonyms or definitions for the act of prayer, and what it means to the worshipper: the ‘church’s banquet’ suggests Holy Communion, an intimate connection with God; since angels live forever, an ‘angels’ age’ is another way of saying ‘eternity’; ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’ refers to the moment in Genesis when God breathed life into Adam, the first man, thus returning modern man to ‘his birth’ as a species, when Adam was created. Prayer is the ‘soul in paraphrase’ because when we pray we put into words the often deep and complex emotions surging through our soul; and prayer is the ‘heart in pilgrimage’ because it is part of man’s journey towards God, an ongoing process of living as a good Christian.
The rest of the poem continues to offer such comparisons, things which are likened to the experience of prayer: prayer is like a ‘plummet’ which reaches not only the whole world but heaven too; prayer is like a siege engine which can be used to reach God, ‘th’ Almighty’, or a siege tower which can be used by man to climb up to God; prayer is also like a thunderbolt that man is capable of firing up towards heaven, reversing the usual direction of thunder. ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’ is a reference to the spear that pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion, and suggests that a prayer is a direct way of reaching the heart of God.
According to Genesis, the Earth and the heavens were created in just six days, but Herbert states that prayer can transform the world in just one hour. Prayer is ‘a kind of tune’ that is heard but also feared – because prayer has the power to change the world.
The ninth line signals a change of tone, as Herbert’s use of words like ‘Softness’ and ‘peace’ denotes a less earth-shatteringly fearsome idea of prayer. Prayer is like manna from heaven – but unlike manna, prayer travels the other way, back up to God. The phrase ‘man well dressed’ conjures up an image of a person in their Sunday best, the smart clothes they wear to church, reminding us that, whilst prayer may take place somewhere more private and personal, it is a holy connection such as we experience when we go to church. From this image we’re back to the grandness of the cosmos (the ‘milky way’) and to the exalted heights of heaven (the Bird of Paradise, the legend says, remains in flight and never comes down to earth), although the exotic habitat of the Bird of Paradise is also echoed in the reference to the ‘land of spices’. And then the poem ends with the very simple words: ‘something understood’.
The whole of the poem, it’s worth noting, constitutes just one extended sentence (although it’s not really a proper sentence even, since it lacks a main verb – suggesting that prayer is never finished and cannot be pinned down to the temporal world), building towards that final clause comprising just two simple words: ‘something understood’. These words, we might say, also neatly encapsulate the meaning of the poem: although a prayer is understood, precisely what is understood remains uncertain – just ‘something’, a decidedly vague word. Similarly, the poem’s images and references move between the grand and awesome (comparing prayer to the Creation or the Crucifixion) and the simple and small (‘Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss’). Something remains intangible and inexplicable, something resists straightforward analysis, about the power of prayer.
Is ‘Prayer’ a sonnet? It appears to conform to the English sonnet form, which rhymes ababcdcdefefgg; but that third quatrain gives us pause for thought: since bliss and Paradise form a more natural pair than bliss and drest, and best and drest fit together more than best and Paradise, Herbert has clearly deviated from the expected efef rhyme here and offered, instead, effe. If we wanted to go into more technical detail here, we might say this makes the poem a curious mixture between the English sonnet and the Italian sonnet, with the poem comprising two quatrains and a final sestet rhymed effegg, but let’s not complicate things unnecessarily. Occam’s razor, if you’re too sharp for your own good, can only help you to cut yourself. The basic analytical point worth making (perhaps) is that this is more or less an English sonnet but with a surprising deviation from the expected rhyme scheme in the third quatrain.