The poems of George Herbert have been to me a source of literary fascination, Christ-centred devotion, theological deepening, and spiritual provocation ever since I discovered him more than thirty years ago. Seventeenth century poetry can be heavy, laden with allusions now lost, or at least remote to us in a digital, image-soaked culture. In that culture we are fast losing the skilled precision of grammar, and syntax, built with near endless possibilities of words connected and inter-connected within a tradition of continuity constantly refreshed by innovation, invention and the disciplined commitment to enriching rather than impoverishing the language we use for our most profound, or playful or prayerful experiences.
This is Good Friday. I have slowly read through "The Sacrifice", sixty three stanzas, 252 lines, and every fourth line either the wondering sorrow of the question "Was ever grief like mine", or the equally awe-struck certainty in the affirmation, "Never was grief like mine." Throughout this long dolorous walk on the via dolorosa, Herbert imagines the inner anguish, and soul-crushing questioning of Jesus. The bruised and battered humanity experienced in the heart, mind and fleshly body of the Eternal Word, the Creator made creaturely, and assaulted by the creative evil of creatures made in the image of God, but now bent on marring, breaking and erasing that image of the invisible God whom they encountered, unknowingly, in Jesus.
Herbert takes a whole Medieval tradition of meditation on the passion of Jesus, and weaves it with a rich complexity of biblical reference and allusion so that, as Herbert the Protestant parson reflects on the core and climax of the Gospel passion narratives, and weaves a tapestry of scriptural imageand traditional Catholic liturgy, creating an imaginative soliloquy from the mouth of Jesus. It is a long poem; there is a monotonous rhythm, a slow stepping journey from the betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, through the halls of Herod and Pilate, through the abuse and mockery of career soldiers careless of human suffering, and on up the hill to crucifixion, mockery, self questioning and final surrender.
Some day I would like to create a Good Friday service with this poem as the centre-piece, bracketed by hymns such as When I survey the Wondrous Cross and O Sacred Head sore wounded. "The Sacrifice" is a poem that demands time, attention, patience and a willingness to be delayed by a sorrowful story slowly told, a narrative composed of complaints at the cruelty and complacency of those whose "bitternesse / windes up my grief to a mysteriousnesse..." Interestingly that word "mysteriousnesse" sits at line 127 almost exactly at the centre of the entire poem of 262 lines. It's quite possible, Herbert being a master of metaphysical poetry and the linguistic conceits of the age, that the word is deliberately fixed there as a hinge point in a poem where the narrator is emotionally baffled, spiritually bewildered, physically battered, and cognitively beaten up by the extremities of suffering laden with ironies which borrow their weight from the identity of Who it is who suffers, the Eternal Creator on whom the lives of the creaturely perpetrators depend.
The poem ends in words of relinquishment, but with an undercurrent of defiance.
But now I die: now all is finished.
My wo, man's weal: and now I bow my head.
Onely let others say, when I am dead,
Never was grief like mine.
"My wo, man's weal." Or as Isaiah says, "He was wounded for our transgressions....with his stripes we are healed." Or Paul, "He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." For all the controversy down the centuries about the meaning and extent of the atonement, Herbert condenses the "mysteriousnesse" at the heart of our faith into a distilled couplet of two clauses, two words each. That's the genius of Herbert.
If you have time, and want to read The Sacrifice sometime today, there is a good and clearly legible version here.