February 11, 2007

Quickness by George Herbert

This is I suppose a new branch of this blog- but poetry is something that interests me a lot and I'd love to have other people's views on poems that I enjoy and appreciate so please comment- George Herbert is one of the most interesting poets of Christianity to write in English, his poem Quickness to me illustrates some of the fundamental truths about Christian thinking in his and maybe in any era.


False life! a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the truth come on.

Thou art a Moon-like toil; a blind
Self-posing state;
A dark contest of waves and wind;
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit; but ever bright,
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

'Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile, and hath the skill
To please without eternity

Thou art a toilsome Mole, or less
A moving mist.
But life is, what none can express
A quickness, which my God hath kissed.

Many of Herbert's familiar tropes are visible here- the musicality of his language, the normality of his imagery- toilsome Moles struggling through the earth represent the souls of sinners struggling through their lives. Part of what poetry can do, which other ways to communicate struggle with, is to express very aptly a central concept to a particular creed or faith. You don't need to share the faith or creed to appreciate the elegance with which Herbert visualises in this poem a central concept of Christianity- indeed I write this as a non-Christian.

What Herbert gets at though here is something very profound that many Christians have shared. What Herbert wants to do is to contrast a false life- a life led without knowledge of Christ, a life that ultimately in his view is meaningless with the true life, a life led through knowledge of Christ. The first life he characterises as a life that means very little- its life as a procession of meaningless events, a life which struggles through the fact that it itself is false. The liver of such a life becomes a traveller who doesn't know where he is going, like the moon or a blind mole striving to find meaning. Herbert though wants us to realise that a real life, a life with Christ has a different order to it. The fact that it has been kissed or quickened by God makes it meaningful- it becomes a 'fixed... light' and acquires meaning and virtue from the mere fact that the human being recognises his true position in the cosmos. Fitted into a proper pattern such a Christian becomes someone who can please without caring that he dies, without eternity, because his life is part of the eternal pattern of meaning woven by God.

The beauty of this poem lies in that transformation brought about by God in the life in the beleiver- a transformation which Herbert wants us to see as something that transforms mundanity into mysticism. I'm not a Christian but the poem has incredible power- because by the end of those short lines things that at the beggining seemed meaningless in the eyes of the poet appear full of meaning and full of significance. The poet sees now through the mist in which he is wandering the faint glimmers of far off lights- the lights of heaven.

Please comment because as I say this isn't an authoritative post- this is a wonderful poem, just toy with the words and feel the sonority of them- I'm not a Christian but I'd love to hear how Christians regard Herbert.


christian? said...

not very familiar with his work but lovely poem and your analysis is spot on. I find it very moving and life enhancing

Gracchi said...

You must read him- he is an amazing writer one of the best poets about spirituality that I've read much of.

james higham said...

You are becoming increasingly esoteric, Tiberius, an acquired taste and that is no bad thing. Was it Coleridge who said that writers had to create the taste by which they were to be judged?

Fine post.

Gracchi said...

Thanks James- yes I do like being a little esoteric- I basically write what interests me that day and today it was 17th century Christian poetry.