Tuesday 27 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.


Anonymous said...

I think his much shorter Dialog between Death and the Christian is my favorite.t

Anonymous said...

In my efforts to learn to read and love poetry I came across Herbert. I know read his poetry as devotional literature as an effort to love God all the more.

Incidentally I came across his Country Parson and found it to be a useful cure for many misconceptions about being a pastor.

Anonymous said...

Now that's "transformation theology"!

Anonymous said...

Btw, after "Dialogue", check out "The Glance".

Anonymous said...

Wow... what great, passionate poetry... I've always loved John Donne's holy sonnets, but for some reason I'd never looked into Herbert. This is great stuff - as you've said, The Glance is also very touching.

Anonymous said...

The Glance reminds me of the scene in Ben Hur where the captive has his first encounter with the living God and the scales of hatred and revenge slowly start to fall from his eyes.
A brief encounter, a brief glance. That is all God needs.

Thanks for a beautiful and inspiring post.

- Steve M.

Anonymous said...

Amazing poem and great post.

Michael Metts

Anonymous said...

Love 2 is my favorite of his poems and in a word is my story.

Ben-did you get my package from USA?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Roger: yes, many thanks for the delightful gifts! You've been getting a lot of airtime in my house, and my kids adore your children's CD. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ben, I'm surprised that you write "Herbert interrupts God in the final line" - because it is possible to interpret the line as if spoken by God: his own heart being broken by the lack of self-esteem of one of his creatures.

I don't know the poem at all, but would it be possible for you to say where the division by typescript into the two voices originates? Is it present in Herbert's original? Or is it something which a later editor has superimposed in order to make the meaning clearer?

I agree this is a great piece of both poetry and theology.

Many thanks in advance for your clarification. Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Ben Myers said...

Hi John: that's an interesting question. I'm quite sure it is Herbert's voice coming through in that last line — it's just so characteristic of the way he addresses God throughout The Temple. But you're right, you could certainly imagine the last line as God interrupting himself (so to speak).

The printed editions use italics to separate God's speech from Herbert's — and I have no idea about the manuscripts, but it's a very interesting question. (I should ask my mum: she did a PhD thesis about Herbert's manuscripts.)

Anonymous said...

In my edition, that the last line is spoken by "Man" (in distinction from "Saviour") is explicitly in the text. However whether that is from the original, or an editorial gloss, I do not know.

Ben Myers said...

Actually, no need to consult my mother in this case: Mario Di Cesare's edition, George Herbert, The Temple: A Diplomatic Edition of the Bodleian Manuscript (1995), explains that the use of italics to distinguish the two speakers was introduced by Herbert's first editor, Thomas Buck, who printed the first (posthumous) edition of The Temple in 1633. In contrast, Di Cesare thinks (and, for what it's worth, my mum's dissertation agrees!) that the Little Gidding manuscript (transcribed by Tanner in 1633) better reflects Herbert's own intentions — and this manuscript doesn't visibly distinguish between the two speakers in "Dialogue".

Di Cesare remarks that Thomas Buck's editorial intervention in "Dialogue" has been followed by most editions: "His definition of the speeches was probably accurate, but the definition itself was neither necessary nor productive." (On the other hand, Kim, I think the use of the markers "Man/God" is a relatively recent editorial barbarism.)

So there you go, John: this leaves the field wide open for arguing that the final line might in fact be God speaking... (Personally, though, I think Herbert's way of addressing God — and his depiction of God's speech — is so distinctive that it's virtually impossible to confuse the poet's "own voice" with God's.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben, I love wide-open fields! Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Mrs Jaggins said...

Regarding the wonderful final line of Herbert's "Dialogue", it's also possible that it reflects both man and God's response to the matter. This kind of layered richness would be typical of Herbert.

Ben Myers said...

Oh, thanks for that suggestion, Mrs Jaggins (i.e. mum!).

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