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. Read the rest of this entry
The best religious poems
What are the best religious poems in English literature? Obviously religious faith – and, indeed, religious doubt – has loomed large in English poetry, whether it’s in the devotional lyrics of John Donne and George Herbert or the modern, secular musings of Philip Larkin in ‘Church Going’. We’ve excluded longer works such as John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, although naturally that’s a must-read work of English religious poetry, just conceived on a different scale from what we have here.
Caedmon, Hymn. Perhaps the oldest poem written in English, Caedmon’s Hymn was composed in the 7th century by a goatherd and takes the form of a short hymn in praise of God. It was Bede, or ‘the Venerable Bede’ as he is often known, who ensured the survival of Caedmon’s Hymn, when he jotted it down in Latin translation in one of his books. An anonymous scribe then added the Anglo-Saxon form of the hymn in the margins of Bede’s book. Read the rest of this entry
George Herbert’s most famous poems
George Herbert (1593-1633) published none of his poetry during his lifetime, instead sending his poetic works to a friend shortly before his death, with the instruction that if his friend thought the poems worth publishing, he should do so. Thankfully, they were published, in The Temple in 1633, a few months after Herbert’s death. The following poems are what we consider the ten greatest George Herbert poems (although other readers will doubtless have their own top ten list). Click on the title of each poem to read it, and discover more information about the poem.
‘Jordan (I)’. A poem calling for plain speech in poetry, rather than clichés or needlessly obscure and convoluted metaphors. This may strike us as somewhat odd given Herbert’s fondness for elaborate conceits and analogies elsewhere in his poetry, but Herbert’s main objection appears to be to lazy poetic tropes which are complex but unoriginal. This is neatly exemplified by the implied comparison of the river Jordan (in the poem’s title) with the feeble streams of inferior pastoral poets. Read the rest of this entry