George Herbert’s poem, Prayer (I) is a dense cascade of metaphors, ending in the simple phrase, “something understood.” Here is the poem, followed by helpful commentary by an Australian theologian and blogger, Ben Myers.
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.
The whole poem comes rushing out as a single breathless exhilarating sentence, piling image upon image in a kind of rhapsodic abandon. The images are startling, contradictory, incapable of conceptual reduction. Prayer is as gentle as breath or the fragrance of spices, yet it is also a violent ‘engine against th’ Almightie’, a battering ram with which the Christian lays siege against God. It is as soothing as ‘a kinde of tune’, yet it’s a tune that strikes ‘fear’ into the heart of all creation. It is exotic, strange, inexplicable – the Milky Way, the bird of paradise, the land of spices – yet also as homely and familiar as dressing in one’s Sunday best. Yes, prayer is heaven, but it is ‘heaven in ordinarie’. It maps out the contours of the inner self – ‘the soul in paraphrase’, ‘the souls bloud’ – but also reaches ‘beyond the stars’. It’s like a ship’s sounding line, not dropped into the sea but cast up into the sky, a ‘plummet sounding heav’n’. Similarly, it is ‘reversed thunder’: Jove’s thunder is turned back on himself, a bolt shooting up from earth to heaven.
These dizzying spatial images stretch the imagination beyond its furthest limits. The stage on which prayer takes place is infinitely vast. Yet juxtaposed with this immensity is the image of prayer as ‘the soul in paraphrase’, a tiny abridgement of all the depths and complexities of a human story. Indeed prayer is an hour-long abridgement of the whole ‘six daies world’ – an image that at once evokes the huge dimensions of prayer and its minute scale. It is a gigantic mystery that sounds the most profound depths, yet so small you can fit it in your pocket…
In the final stanza, all the senses are engaged. Prayer is soft and supple to touch; it tastes like manna; it is the vision of a star-filled sky; it smells like the land of spices; it sounds like the distant peal of bells (either earth’s bells heard in heaven, or heavenly bells heard on earth: Herbert is tantalisingly ambiguous). This explosion of sensual imagery doesn’t serve conceptual clarity. What would church bells sound like if they echoed from another galaxy? What does an exotic country smell like, a country you’ve never visited? Come to think of it, what exactly does heavenly manna taste like? If these images teach us something about prayer, it is primarily by destabilising our understanding, driving us to the brink of an unspeakable mystery.
And so the whole great cascade of imagery is finally resolved in just two words, ‘something understood’… In Herbert’s poem one anticipates a resolution, but it never seems to arrive – until it suddenly interrupts the final line in a way that is startling, abrupt, unexpected. Just as prayer abridges all history into an hour, so the whole poem is condensed into these closing words. What is prayer? It is ‘something understood’. These are the only words in the poem that are not wrapped up in some imagery: here there is neither concept nor imagery, only a quiet understanding.
The real purpose of all the conflicting images was simply to clear this space – not, in fact, a space for understanding (as though the poem were trying to ‘explain’ prayer), but a space for prayer itself. As talk-about-prayer passes over into praying, something is understood that language can never capture. In fourteen lines we have plumbed heaven and earth, feasted and made war, spanned all the farthest reaches of time and space. But now – as so often in Herbert – we find ourselves kneeling alone in the dusky light of a little country church, listening softly to that profound yet homely silence. Here at last, where understanding ceases, prayer is understood.
Certainly, then, there is something akin to an apophatic moment. The moment of silent understanding, however, occurs not in opposition to the clumsy limitation of language, but within it. It is Herbert’s first thirteen-and-a-half lines that create the experience of the poem’s close. It’s not as though there were first of all a sheer wordless experience of prayer, which is subsequently described in words. Rather the poetic language itself creates the conditions for an experience of silence. Wordless prayer is a possibility within language. Contemplative silence is the calm eye at the centre of the roiling storm of language.
To put it another way, Herbert’s poem is not about the poverty of human language, but about the inexhaustible riches of prayer. Prayer is too much – too much for language, too much even for poetry. More than anywhere else in Herbert’s poetry, we catch a glimpse here of language straining against its own possibilities – not as one struggles against a straitjacket, but as a horse champs at the bit before a race, straining because there is too much to say. Silence is not the phenomenon that ensues when language reaches its limit, much less some primordial pre-linguistic abyss from which language subsequently emerges. In the company of a close friend, I sometimes find myself reduced to silence. Not because the relationship is wordless (nothing is more verbose than friendship), but because in friendship one can never say enough; the real goal of friendship is to talk your way into silence. This is just what Herbert portrays in so many of his poetic conversations with God. One can never say enough to God. And so, in its fullness, language ripens into silence. Language is outrun by its own resources, it spills over into the baffled joy of contemplation.