Two Poets of the Anglican Way
A precious part of our Anglican heritage is the devotional poetry which it has inspired. Devotional poetry is not to be equated with 'religious' poetry. It is not the choice of subject or the underlying belief, or even a poetic statement of faith which makes poetry devotional. It is poetry created from an active state of mind and spirit, deeply feeling the presence of God, seeking to come closer to him through words. It is an apprehension of the divine, an attempt to express the uncreated through the created. There is poetry in our faith and worship: the Psalms and other verse portions of the Bible, the probable inclusion of early Christian hymns in the New Testament such as Philippians 2.5–11. Christian liturgy has had from the beginning a poetic quality, a desire for beauty and also the mnemonic value of patterned and rhythmic forms. The English of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version is unsurpassed in its dignity and power.
Credenhill and Bemerton
Two seventeenth-century priests contributed through their poetry to the formation of Anglican devotion. George Herbert is well known and respected by many who may sit lightly to his faith. Thomas Traherne is less familiar; although not equal to Herbert on all respects as a poet, he has not been valued as he deserves. Herbert was born in 1593 and after a promising career at Cambridge and then at the Court of James I he was ordained and in 1630 became the incumbent of the parish of Bemerton in Wiltshire. Until his death in 1633 he was a devoted and loving pastor to his people. Traherne was born in 1637 and lived through the depredations of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. He was the incumbent of Credenhill in Herefordshire, but seems to have spent more time in his later years as Chaplain to the Keeper of the Great Seal, a post he occupied until his death in 1674. Both men wrote prose works of devotional value, but it is their poetry that has had the greater influence, though most of Traherne's poetic work was not rediscovered until early in the last century.1 Over two generations, from the height of the Laudian Church to the strengths and weaknesses of the Restoration settlement, they proved that the life of faith continues while public events ebb and flow.
When Herbert was at Bemerton the Church of England was the Church of the nation, furnished with a superb liturgy and biblical translation, privileged and powerful but already under threat from Protestant extremes. Jewel and Hooker from different but not ultimately opposed positions, had set out its claims and credentials to be a distinctive but unquestionable part of the Holy Catholic Church. What was now needed was that less apparent but vital quality which would be come to be called its 'genius' or 'ethos' or 'character'.
The Affirmative Way
To see what these poets contributed to that formation, we may begin with their delight in the created world. It is the Affirmative Way , the respect for that which is God's gift to us in this life. Beginning as a mystical approach, it has led to the incarnational theology which inspired the social concern of the successors of the Tractarians, Maurice and the Christian Socialists, Stuart Headlam, Gore, Temple and Kirk. Traherne rejoices in the wonders of creation:
The sun itself doth in its glory shine,
And gold and silver out of very mire,
And pearls and rubies out of earth refine,
While herbs and flowers aspire
To touch and make our feet divine.
Human ingratitude for the joy of life in this world is an affront to God:
If we despise his glorious works
Such sin and mischief in it lurks
That they are all made vain
And this is even endless pain
To him that sees it. Whose diviner grief
Is hereupon –ah me!– without relief
Herbert ends a poem in praise of creation with the thought that each created thing contains not only its own identity but the manifold divine nature.
Each thing that is, although in use and name
It go for one, has many ways in store
To honour thee; and so each hymn thy fame
Extolleth many ways, yet this one more.
Such adoration of the Creator through the created demands respect for the routine of life, for work and humble service. Christianity is a faith which must honour the body as well as the spirit, and the Anglican way has always been related to the everyday world, as the Book of Common Prayer meets us in the critical times of our lives for sorrow or joy. 'Seven whole days, not one in seven/I will praise thee' and these lines of Herbert are famous as a hymn
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.
The Anglican way of life avoids both the excessive mortification which sometimes corrupted Roman Catholic piety in the past, and the grim Calvinist opposition to worldly pleasure, but it encourages a disciplined and ordered life. Herbert, like all the rest of us, knew moments of rebellion and frustration, impatient even with the needful restraints of religion.
I struck the board and cried, ‘No more’
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling. 'Child!'
And I replied, 'My Lord'.
But refraining from wrong is not enough and our great divines have taught us to aspire to holiness, following the command of our Lord himself. We cannot draw nearer to divinity without prayer, perhaps the most difficult of any religious activity to describe outside one's personal practice. Herbert succeeds through a bold succession of images, without attempting logical sequence or a precise match. The poem 'Prayer' is impressionism in its most holy sense. It needs to be read in full, but for those who do not know it the last lines give its flavour:
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
It is the prerogative of poetry to express the inexpressible. Private prayer is at the heart of Christian life, but no one except the rare hermit can be a Christian in isolation. The Church works through word and sacrament to bring her people into the presence of the Risen Christ. Sin has marred God's image in us but, as Herbert says:
Thou hast restored us to this ease
By this thy heavenly blood
Which I can go to when I please
And leave the earth to their food.
('The Holy Communion')
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine
The Anglican approach to the Eucharist teaches deep reverence without superstition, personal preparation without the self-regard of receptionism. Neither the unworthiness of the celebrant nor of the communicant affects the validity of the sacrament. Confession and repentance are required; but when we 'draw near with faith' and do not absent ourselves from the altar through scruples which can spring from a kind of spiritual pride and lead to crippling guilt, we receive the free grace of God, not a benefit proportioned to our own merits. In the poem 'Love' Herbert's colloquy with his Lord continually asserts his sinfulness. He dares not look on Love, who replies, Who made the eyes but I?' The he cries out:
'Truth, Lord, but I have marred them. Let my shame
Go where it doth deserve' .
‘And know you not’, says Love, 'who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down', says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
The sad confession, 'Truth, Lord…' recalls the Authorized Version rendering of the words of the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter. He seemed at first to reject her, with a harsh saying that the Gentiles were like dogs wanting to eat the food to which only the Jews had right. Her humble acceptance, 'Truth, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table' (Matthew 15.27) brought not the crumbs but the full healing she craved. Schleiermacher wrote, '[I]n the state of sanctification sins always carry their forgiveness with them… [provided that] the sin must come to consciousness as an accomplished fact and as accompanied by repentance.'2 We seek 'a new small-rented lease', to serve God in the little things when our grand aspirations have failed again. The short steps towards heaven are the way for most of us. Sometimes a leap forward may be given to encourage us, but we seldom stay for long on the top of the mountain. The love which grants our suit, which invites us to sit and eat, meets us in the valleys and the stony places, even to the valley of the shadow of death and beyond. None who come in humility and faith will be turned away from the Lord's Table.
Through the Eucharist we can begin to grasp the idea of theosis, or 'deification', that by the Incarnation our humanity has been lifted up into the mystery of divinity. It was a doctrine of the early Greek Fathers, urged strongly by Athanasius3 and carried further by Cyril of Alexandria: fallible human nature yet shares in the ultimate Holiness. If we avoid the danger of sects, which claim to be free from sin and incapable of sinning, it is a counter to the Augustinian fear of human depravity which afflicted the narrowest Calvinism. Thus Traherne directly challenges sin through the death of the Saviour:
His blood, thy bane; my balsam, bliss, joy, wine;
Shall thee destroy; heal, feed, make me divine.
It is an aspect of the Affirmative Way:
The soul’s a messenger whereby
Within our inward temple we may be
Even like the very deity
In all parts of his eternity
(‘A Hymn upon St Bartholomew’s Day’)
Even the humblest and least attractive church building is a holy place when it is filled with worshippers:
Upon the face of all the peopled earth
There's no such sacred joy or solemn mirth,
As that wherein my Lord is in a Quire,
In holy hymns by warbling voices praised,
With eyes lift up, and joint affections raised.
A Heart of Love.
Our piety, our spirituality, call it what we will, is empty if touches only the mind and leads only to outward actions. We must feel the love of Christ with our emotions and then try to bring it into our lives. The great Anglican writers have taught the practice of faith through recognising the price of our redemption. Herbert tells of seeking a favour from a 'rich Lord', failing to find him in the places of wealth and power until
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, 'Your suit is granted', said, and died.
Such perfect love is truly honoured only when it produces human love, as Traherne writes:
O holy Jesus who didst for us die
And on the altar bleeding lie
Bearing all torment, pain, reproach and shame,
That we by virtue of the same,
Though enemies to God, might be
Redeemed and set at liberty .
As thou didst us forgive
So meekly let us love to others show
And live in heaven on earth below!
The poetic encounter can make personal what is already contained in Bible and tradition, and apprehended imperfectly through our human limitations. Emotive response to what is not intellectually fully accessible in religion can be dangerous, but its exclusion can be harmfully restricting. Both Herbert and Traherne were prolific poets and only a very few points can be made in a single article. The next step is for the reader to go to their texts and learn more. Beyond them there are other Anglican poets who have tried to resolve the paradoxes and mysteries of faith through imaginative language, William Cowper, John Keble, Christina Rossetti, TS Eliot, RS Thomas among them. It was a Roman Catholic convert, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who said that Herbert's poetry was his 'strongest tie to the English Church’.
Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London and a retired priest in the Diocese of Southwark.
Herbert's poems are printed in many editions and are easily accessible. The best edition of Traherne is Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings Anne Ridler ed OUP 1966
F Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, English edition, T and T Clark,1968, p515.
'He was made man that we might be made God' (De Incamatione Verbi Dei, NPNF, Series 2, vol iv, p65).
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