Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week

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George Herbert (1633)

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I’ve long believed that George Herbert wasn’t just the greatest religious poet in English, but the greatest of all our lyric poets, regardless of what they write about. He knows how to compress a powerful story into a short space. He knows how to use a single word to mean three or four distinct things at once, all of them fit for the poem. He has a sharp eye for physical objects, how they look and feel and work. He is clear in his view of the passions that animate the human heart, and honest in showing us what they are. No English poet ever had a better sense of how to embody in a unique poetic form the significance of an idea or its emotional and dramatic power. And there wasn’t anything of the mere showman about Herbert. He had given over a promising career in the halls of power in church and state, to become the vicar of a poor and far-flung parish in the flatlands of Kent, often walking many miles to minister to people who needed his spiritual counsel or material assistance.

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“La garde du Tombeau,” James Tissot. Public Domain.

Now, what is the hardest substance in the world? If you say, “diamond,” Herbert would smile and say, yes, it’s diamond, if you want to cut stone with it, but if you really want a hardness that imprisons you in sin and death, consider the human heart. And this is a profound mystery. God loves us, and is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. He commands only what is to our good, and forbids only what would hurt us: commands us to feast on true food, and forbids us to consume the poison of sin. And when we went along our wayward path, He sent to us His Son, to call us back. What we did to Jesus, we would not do to our worst foe. What did Jesus want from us, but a dwelling place within our hearts? “Abide in me, and I in you,” he said to his disciples. What tremendous love we find in this humility of God, that he should wish to dwell in us, that we might dwell eternally in him — and we respond with the cold, hard foulness of stone.

The Holy Sepulcher, the subject of our Poem of the Week, was innocent, though we are not. It entertained the Lord, when we did not. It provided him with a place in order, when we had clutter and chaos. We gave Jesus a mere feeding trough to lie in when he was born, and when he died, no better place than a tomb hewn out of rock. And that was after we had tried to slay him by stoning him. We say we have no room for him, as there was no room in the inn on the night of his nativity, and that, Herbert says, is true and not true. Our hearts are full of “toys,” vain, trivial things, not to mention “transgressions by the score,” so that’s why there is no space left over. Yet the Sepulcher — what we might shy away from, because a tomb is a cold and solitary place — does the Lord the honor of housing him and him alone. If we would admit him into our hearts, we would be made new; not tombs, but tabernacles.

Yet we do not have the power, not of our own, nor are we fit places to hold the Lord. The initiative comes from him. There is nothing, no matter how “cold, hard, foul,” that can withhold him from loving us. See what Herbert has done? You’re not supposed to rhyme with a word that just repeats the same syllable in full, but he does it here to remarkable effect. We are not fit to hold the Lord, but we are also not powerful enough to withhold him, no matter how dingy and cold our hearts are. And he will cleanse us, and soften stony hearts, and warm them with his life.

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O Blessed body!  Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
                                                Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts' good store,
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
                                                They leave thee.

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
What ever sin did this pure rock commit
Which holds thee now?  Who hath indicted it
                                                Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee,
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
                                                And order.

And as of old the Law by heavenly art
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart 
                                                To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can, 
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
                                                Withhold thee.

Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us. Learn more about subscriptions by clicking the button below.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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