Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A dialogue with George Herbert

Here’s one of my favourite George Herbert poems: “Dialogue”, from his collection The Temple (1633). If you’re having trouble following, it’s a dialogue between George Herbert and God (God’s speech is in italics). Herbert is arguing with God; he is in despair, since he feels completely undeserving of salvation, and he can’t imagine his own life having any worth to God. God replies twice, and then Herbert interrupts God’s speech in the final line.

Sweetest Saviour, if my soul
        Were but worth the having,
Quickly should I then control
        Any thought of waiving.
But when all my care and pains
Cannot give the name of gains
To thy wretch so full of stains,
What delight or hope remains?

What, child, is the balance thine,
        Thine the poise and measure?
If I say, “Thou shalt be mine,”
        Finger not my treasure.
What the gains in having thee
Do amount to, only he
Who for man was sold can see;
That transferr’d th’ accounts to me.


But as I can see no merit
        Leading to this favour,
So the way to fit me for it
        Is beyond my savour.
As the reason, then, is thine,
So the way is none of mine;
I disclaim the whole design;
Sin disclaims and I resign.

That is all, if that I could
        Get without repining;
And my clay, my creature, would
        Follow my resigning;
That as I did freely part
With my glory and desert,
Left all joys to feel all smart—

        Ah! no more: thou break’st my heart.

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