Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A poem a day by George Herbert: ‘The Flower’

Helen Wilcox

The Flower

This joyful poem is a celebration of God’s ‘returns’ – or rather, the speaker’s rediscovery of God’s presence after a period of spiritual barrenness. The tone is one of amazement at how simple and natural this recovery is: ‘Grief melts away / Like snow in May, / As if there were no such cold thing’. The sorrows of a ‘shrivel’d heart’ seem to fade into the past as ‘greennesse’ is restored, and it is hard for the speaker to believe that ‘I am he / On whom thy tempests fell all night’. Can this really be the same person, who is now so transformed? The poem likens the ups and downs of an individual’s spiritual experience to the seasonal changes in the life of a flower: the speaker’s heart has been ‘under ground’ and indeed apparently dead, like a bulb in winter, but it is now experiencing a springtime of renewal. Like so many of Herbert’s lyrics, this is a poem of resurrected life; it laments the instability of human moods (‘O that I once past changing were’) yet is fundamentally confident in the stability of God as the ‘Lord of power’ and ‘Lord of love’ who works ‘wonders’. The poem’s other wonder is its intense awareness of writing itself: when the speaker begins to ‘bud’ again, this is synonymous with fresh inspiration, and to ‘smell the dew and rain’ of spring is to ‘relish versing’. For Herbert, poetry and spirituality are a continuum. At the heart of the poem is its most tantalising statement: ‘We say amisse, / This or that is: / Thy word is all, if we could spell’. The poet’s rhetorical skills are God-given, but human language is never quite sufficient to the task of expressing the mysteries of life. The process of writing (and reading) devotional poetry is one of trying to learn how to recognise, decipher and copy the example already set by God – in other words, of practising how to ‘spell’!

Read ‘The Flower’ by George Herbert




About The Author

Helen Wilcox

Helen Wilcox is Professor of English Literature at Bangor University. She is the editor of the critically acclaimed edition of The English Poems of George Herbert, published by Cam...

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