Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Monday, February 15th

I have this week off from school as a study break. My wife and many friends are in a week-long retreat and icon writing workshop with a wonderful iconographer named Symeon van Donkelaar. I would that I could join them, but the last two months of seminary demand so much and I remain chained to my desk. I beg your prayers for the 12 participants as they write their icons of Christ this week, it is one of the most important parts of participating in icons.

Today’s poem is one by George Herbert:

The Pilgrimage (1633)

I Travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay
My expectation.
A long it was and weary way.
The gloomy cave of Desperation
I left on th’ one, and on the other side
The rock of Pride.

And so I came to phancies medow strow’d
With many a flower:
Fain would I here have made abode,
But I was quicken’d by my houre.
So to cares cops I came, and there got through
With much ado.

That led me to the wilde of Passion, which
Some call the wold;
A wasted place, but sometimes rich.
Here I was robb’d of all my gold,
Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti’d
Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,
Where lay my hope,
Where lay my heart; and climbing still,
When I had gain’d the brow and top,
A lake of brackish waters on the ground
Was all I found.

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting
Of swarming fears, I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King!
Can both the way and end be tears?
Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d
I was deceiv’d:

My hill was further: so I flung away,
Yet heard a crie
Just as I went, None goes that way
And lives: If that be all, said I,
After so foul a journey death is fair,
And but a chair.

We are considering Lent as a journey, or a pilgrimage, like Israel’s or Christ’s journey though the wilderness. Poetry can help us be honest about how round-about and sometimes tiring that journey is, and how the goal itself seems to shift. I love this poem by George Herbert; it makes me feel that when I’m tired and disoriented he has been in that place too, so at least I am in good company!

Although he often uses emblems and little allegorical vignettes, it is rare that Herbert writes such direct and sustained allegory, and some scholars believe that this sustained account of life as a pilgrim journey, passing between ‘the gloomy cave of Desperation’ and ‘the rock of Pride’, dallying in ‘Fancy’s meadow’ and getting through ‘Care’s copse’, may well have been the inspiration for john Bunyan’s more famous Pilgrim’s Progress. Here we have that book in advance and in miniature, as it were, but it may be that Herbert’s mapping exercise will help us to orient ourselves, and guide us a little on the way.

The poem starts without preamble, in medias res, right in the midst of the journey (like Dante), with the words ‘I travell’d on’; Herbert, like us, has already been some distance on a long and weary way. There is real psychological and spiritual insight in his pairing of the ‘rock of Pride’ and the ‘cave of Desperation’. Both pride and despair are forms of self-absorption and the Christian must try to steer between them, hard though it is. The second verse again shows his clarity and common touch. Like most of us he would like us to stay and stray, and make his abode in ‘Fancy’s meadow’, those places in lifethat seem rich with leisure and variety; like most of us he finds that he is ‘quicken’d by my houre’. Time hurries on, the next appointment calls, things have to be done, and more often than not even a brief dalliance in ‘Fancy’s meadow’ is followed by a hard slog through ‘Care’s copse’; the anxieties and difficulties of our life are likened to a close-grown and entangling thicket of woodland. No sooner have we ‘got through’ that with ‘much ado’ then there is another potential danger and diversion on our way.

In the third verse, in describing ‘the wilde of Passion’ Herbert avails himself of a series of wordplays that may not be clear to us in modern English. In Herbert’s day spelling was not fixed, and ‘wilde’ and ‘willed’, ‘wold’ and ‘would’ could all be spelled the same way! So Passion is described as a ‘wilde’ place or a wilderness, but the word ‘wilde’ then modulates to ‘wold’, an elevated tract of open country, but punning on ‘would’. The passions drive us to do what we ‘would’, just as for Herbert ‘wilde’ also puns on ‘willed’. The ‘wilde wold’ is described as both ‘a wasted place’ and yet also ‘sometimes rich’. This ambiguity is absolutely true to its subject. We all know about the waste and devastation, in broken marriages and broken lives, that result from uncontrolled passion, but also recognize our states of heightened emotion as being ‘sometimes rich’. Running deep under all these careful ambiguities is that of the word ‘Passion’ itself, which means both powerful human feeling and, in the older sense, ‘suffering’: what happens or is done unto us, and supremely the Passion of Christ. Perhaps Herbert is showing that while there is much to be lost, there is also much to be learned – even a kinship with Christ in all our Passion. Certainly he seems to hint at this in the final pun or wordplay of this verse, which turns on ‘Angell’. The Angell was the name of a gold coin in Herbert’s day, which bore the image of an angel.

Here I was robb’d of all my gold, Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti’d Close to my side.

Herbert seems to be pointing both to the truth that we may be ruined or impoverished by uncontrolled passion (or addiction!), and to the fact that somehow through it all we may be companioned by Christ, the true Friend, tied to us as the guardian angel of his accompanying love from which we will not be parted. For all its antiquated English, this verse speaks directly into modern life.

The following verses take us deeper and deal with one of the constant experiences of our life: disappointment. When, after all this trouble and coming through all these dangers he finally surmounts ‘the gladsome hill, where lay my hope’ he finds nothing but ‘a lake of brackish waters on the ground’ – no more than the saltiness of his own tears and sweat. He’s ready to give up, but still, even in this disappointment, he cries to God: ‘Alas my King’. He gives voice to his complaint, something we don’t always do. And then, out of this very disappointment, and from its new perspective, comes a renewal of vision, the pilgrim takes heart, and sees that there are greater heights, and the true hill is further off.

Then comes the final twist in the plot, and turn of the poem, seemingly bleak but full of hidden grace. As the pilgrim sets off afresh he is reminded of his mortality by a seemingly forbidden voice that cries, ‘None goes that way and lives’, but the pilgrim turns the warning around in two senses. The first, seemingly downbeat, in which he calls death ‘a chair’, might seem to be saying no more than ‘well, at least I’ll have a break from all this long slog’. But in the seventeenth century ‘a chair’ could also mean something more than that: a litter, or even a carriage, a means whereby we not only rest but are carried forward. Indeed, some commentators think that Herbert may have been thinking of the chariot of fire in 2 Kings 2.11, that will lift the pilgrim, like Elijah, beyond the low hills of his expectation into the true mountain country of heaven.



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