A poem a day by George Herbert: ‘Prayer (I)’
Written by: Helen Wilcox
To celebrate the publication of George Herbert: 100 Poems, we ask volume editor Helen Wilcox to pick her favourite George Herbert poems and explain why she chose them.
This remarkable poem is a sonnet without a main verb, piling up a sequence of metaphors in a daring attempt to describe the almost indescribable process of prayer. Herbert suggests that prayer can be a communal celebration (‘the Churches banquet’) as well as an individual journey of love (‘heart in pilgrimage’), but he also knows that it can express anger towards God (‘Engine against th’Almightie’). It is a kind of home-coming (‘Gods breath in man returning to his birth’) experienced as both familiar and otherworldly, like ‘Church-bels beyond the starres heard’. Above all, prayer is the meeting-place of the believer and God, a site of reciprocal relationship (‘Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest’). These are wonderfully descriptive phrases, yet the poem is also about the limits of language. How can words encapsulate something as elusive as prayer? Even the most exotic vocabulary – ‘the bird of Paradise’, ‘The land of spices’ – turns out to be insufficient: prayer cannot be evoked but must be experienced. The poem concludes with a startlingly simple phrase: ‘something understood’. The appropriate use of plain language was one of Herbert’s greatest rhetorical skills, and these two words suggest the limitless possibilities of prayer, through which life and death, the person praying and the God to whom prayer is addressed may all be comprehended. The poem does not close, but ends by opening into the mystery of prayer itself.