As a high school English teacher, one of my greatest challenges was to teach teenagers how to understand poetry and enjoy it. It was not an easy task, but with a positive attitude, a bit of humor and a few skills, I often succeeded at least to the point where the students understood the poem and occasionally even had ah-ha moments!
Mark Oakley has done more than just succeed at this task with his book My Sour-Sweet Days; his reflections on forty of George Herbert’s poems clarify and open up Herbert’s writing as only a thoughtful author like Oakley would do. In his preface, he states his intention of trying to “entice readers to do their own reading of the poems and to encounter this most extraordinary author.” And not only that, he intentionally keeps each reflection “at such a length that a busy life might just about find the time to get through one a day.” And if that isn’t thoughtful enough, Oakley goes on to say,
“George Herbert is worth getting to know for anyone interested in humanity’s inner being, the benefits of honest, the mystery and love of God and what can be made of religion in a world of projections.”
All that said, you might ask if you don’t already know, who is George Herbert? Certainly he is well known to many of you, but for those who don’t know of him (and you are the ones I hope to interest in this book and his poetry,) Herbert was a 17th century metaphysical poet and priest. A little younger than his colleague John Donne, like Donne, Herbert used a literary device called metaphysical conceits. Conceits are extended metaphors which are often carried throughout a poem, and they are metaphysical because they are far-stretched, “beyond natural” as the word is translated.
Herbert’s life, Oakley suggests, is well worth studying, as is his use of literary skills like the one mentioned above, but Oakley’s main objective in his reflections is to reveal how Herbert’s poems are all about God and deeply in tune with the human heart. “I think that one of Herbert’s lasting influences on me is his insistence that God is the loving friend of human beings and not some distant, overbearing tyrant,” says Oakley. And so I introduce you to just a few of Herbert’s poems and the lovely reflections Oakley has offered the reader. As W. H. Auden said about Herbert, “I think that any reader will conclude that George Herbert must have been an exceptionally good man and exceptionally nice as well.”
Many of Herbert’s poems have been set to music, and in fact they are hymns in our Episcopal hymnal. Probably the most well-known is “King of Glory, King of Peace” set to the General Seminary tune. This poem is not included in the anthology, but another one you might know “The Call” is. It is hymn number 487, and you would do well to read the words for an understanding of the profundity of the poem. Almost all of the words are one syllable, and composer Ralph Vaughn Williams set the poem to music with a clever accentuation of the three words that have multiple syllables: killeth, maketh and joyes. Thus there is a simplicity in the tone of the poem making the complexity of the ideas so evident.
“Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:” it begins echoing the prologue of the gospel of John – In the beginning, the Word, was God, with God, life, light, shines. And Herbert goes on “Such a Way, as gives us breath: Such a Truth, as ends all strife: And such a Life as killeth death.” Like the prologue to John, Herbert “takes absolute nouns that refer to God and explains how they descend into the reality of the world and play their transforming part.” Where Jesus in John’s gospel tells his listeners that he is the way, the truth and the life, Herbert makes them my way, truth and life. Herbert continues in the second and third stanzas “Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength” and then “Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart.” Using capital letters to enunciate the reference to God, Oakley points out that “Herbert makes the last verse a call to the one who has captured his heart.”
Such a joy, as none can move:
Such a love, as none can part:
Such a heart, as joyes in love. ~The Call
Here Herbert echoes some of the words from the first line, completing the sense of love, and “that wholeness for which the whole poem aches.”
Below is a link to a short video of a baritone singing it, and I think this is the best way for us to sense the wholeness. Enjoy.
Another of Mark Oakley’s clever techniques is his careful explanation of Herbert’s use of Elizabethan English, posing questions we might all ask like what does this word mean and why this syntax, why this word usage. However, it is not only Oakley who is clever, but Herbert as well in his usage. In his reflection about “The Quidditie”, Oakley begins “What on earth is a quidditie?” and then goes on to explain that it either means the essence of something or a quibble over something irrelevant. Thus both meanings come into play in the poem as we discover that Herbert suggests that the world is quibbling over its values and social ladders and at the same time, the world is searching for something more profound and worthy of a life’s pursuit.
“My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute:
…But it is that which while I use
I am with thee, and Most take all.” ~The Quidditie
Oakley suggests that Herbert uses poetry, writes it, prays it and gives deep attention to it, “so it becomes a place of sacred encounter.” And Oakley admits at the end of this reflection, “ I too believe myself to be with God when encountering poetry.”
There are 38 more beautiful pieces of Herbert’s verse in this book, with 38 equally as beautiful reflections by Mark Oakley. Poems you might recognize include “Easter Wings” written to look like the shape of two sets of wings when turned sideways, and “Bitter-sweet” from which the title comes: “and all my sowre-sweet days/I will lament, and love.” Oakley achieved his thoughtful objective of making each reflection something a busy person might enjoy by reading just one a day. Most of all, I would suggest that Oakely’s reflections reveal that Oakley, as Auden said about Herbert, “must be an exceptionally good man and exceptionally nice as well.” Thank you, Mr. Oakley, for the holy encounter with George Herbert.