I was first acquainted with George Herbert through his poem Bitter-sweet, which was included in a John Piper book. And I must say that I have been quite mesmerised since then. I’ve never been good with poetry or literature in general; somehow the imageries and interpretations are lost on me (I’m wired to think like a scientist). But as I grow older, I realised that they evoke something in me that I’ve not appreciated previously and have helped me to be more in touch with my emotions.
So I was really thrilled to receive my book order of A year with George Herbert, a collection of 52 of the poet’s works, which comes with notes by Jim Scott Orrick explaining various ideas in Herbert’s poetry. The first that I picked out was Confession, where Herbert illustrated the work of afflictions in the heart of one with unconfessed sin and the benefits of confessing sin.
. O What a cunning guest
Is this same grief! within my heart I made
. Closets; and in them many a chest;
. And, like a master in my trade,
In those chests, boxes; in each box, a till:
Yet grief knows all, and enters when he will.
. No screw, no piercer can
Into a piece of timber work and wind,
. As God’s afflictions into man,
. When he a torture hath design’d.
They are too subtle for the subtlest hearts;
And fall, like rheumes, upon the tendrest parts.
. We are the earth; and they,
Like moles within us, heave, and cast about:
. And till they foot and clutch their prey,
. They never cool, much less give out.
No smith can make such locks but they have keys:
Closets are halls to them; and hearts, high-ways.
. Only an open breast
Doth shut them out, so that they cannot enter;
. Or, if they enter, cannot rest,
. But quickly seek some new adventure.
Smooth open hearts no fastning have; but fiction
Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.
. Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take thy plagues away:
. For since confession pardon wins,
. I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond: let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.
[Rheumes: watery matter from eyes, nose, ears, etc.; said to cause disease. (Oxford English Dictionary) One of the Outlandish Proverbs #475 reads: “Wealth is like rheume, it falles on the weakest parts.”]
God uses grief and guilt to prick our conscience when we try to hide our sins. He wields afflictions as tools most shrewdly, targeting our tenderest parts. Herbert then employs the imageries of as moles to the earth, keys to locks, halls to closet, and high-ways to hearts, to describe the unrelenting work of afflictions to penetrate the inner parts. But even if they enter in, they shall find no place to rest in a heart made smooth and open with confession, whereas fiction (lying that there is no sin) would allow affliction to take hold within. The most thorough confession makes a man’s heart so clear, that the brightest day and clearest diamond would be cloudy in comparison.
God made Herbert good with words. And it’s a gift well used, moving hearts to respond to God and worship Him.