On Poetry: George Herbert

If you want to understand poetry, a great place to start, or continue, is by listening to this John Piper biography on George Herbert. The talk is aimed at an audience of pastors, but it’s a wonderful explanation of poetry in general. Some of the treasure here is Piper’s emphasis on how finding ways to say or express something, is often also the path to delight and joy in the thing expressed.

This talk has a great conclusion – listen to John Piper read Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” at the end of the talk. It’s a great read-aloud. Here’s what Piper says about the sonnet before he reads it:

“This is a sonnet. It’s called “Prayer.” [It] has no verb in it, that is, no main verb. It’s not a sentence, it’s a collection of about twenty phrases describing prayer. Most of which you will have never heard in your life. I would imagine this took him days to write – these fourteen lines. They are very strange. And here’s what he was doing: it hit him as a glimpse, ‘I talk to God! I pray. Human beings are called aloud to talk to the Creator of the universe.’ So that’s a glimpse…of something stunning… [Herbert] circles around this thing for who knows how long, asking, ‘God, show me the wonder of what prayer is!'”

And here’s the poem “Prayer” by George Herbert, where Herbert expresses some of this wonder:

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.