Friday, 8 July 2016

Easter - George Herbert

I know it's not Easter - although every Sunday we celebrate it as the first day of the week i.e. resurrections day - but I could not resist George Herbert's poem "Easter"

George Herbert - who was Welsh and an Anglican clergyman from the 17th century - was a skilled pastor and teacher, as well as an accomplished musician, and this poem is a beautiful illustration of both. Easter was originally two separate poems. But the call in the first verse, 'Rise heart; thy Lord is risen', and the musical images of verses two and three, find their fullest expression in the song of praise of the final three verses.

'Easter'

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined1 thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied2
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way:
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred3, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Commentary

The poet draws on Scripture to illustrate the poem:  the words of praise from Psalm 57:8-10 and the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its exploration of how people are made right with God - justified - through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Christ, stretched out in death on the wood of the cross, becomes God’s instrument, playing a melody of love to the world.   The heart responds to the melody by joining with it, as instrumentalists join together in consort to make music.  But since none can sing this tune perfectly, a further strand needs to be woven:  that of the Spirit who makes up 'our defects with his sweet art'.

In the following song of joyful celebration, the poet sees the day of Christ’s resurrection as unsurpassed in glory. 'Can there be any day but this' - the sun that rises each day of the year cannot shine as brightly as the Son of God as he brings light to the world.

Vaughan Williams set these words to music in his Five Mystical Songs, and the first three verses form one of the hymns composed by Barry Ferguson in the hymnbook 'Another Music'.

1 calcined - reduced to ashes by burning
2 vied - added to
3 three hundred - a rounded figure for 365 days of the year

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