Often I find that poetry helps me to learn about and understand deep topics better than anything else can. One of my favorite poets is George Herbert, a 17th-century Anglican priest. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on his poem “Temper (i).”
First, the poem itself. Read it slowly and take it in before moving on.
How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rhymes Gladly engrave thy love in steel, If what my soul doth feel sometimes, My soul might ever feel! Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more, Sometimes I peer above them all; Sometimes I hardly reach a score, Sometimes to hell I fall. O rack me not to such a vast extent; Those distances belong to thee: The world's too little for thy tent, A grave too big for me. Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell? Will great God measure with a wretch? Shall he thy stature spell? O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid, O let me roost and nestle there: Then of a sinner thou art rid. And I of hope and fear. Yet take thy way: for sure thy way is best: Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor: This is but tuning of my breast, To make the music better. Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust, Thy hands made both, and I am there: Thy power and love, my love and trust Make one place ev'ry where.
Title: “Temper” has two meanings significant to this poem. First, it can refer to mental disposition or state of mind. Contemporarily, it has a negative connotation, referring to anger, but generally the word is neutral. Second, it can refer to tuning a musical instrument’s pitch.
1-4: In a state of elation the poet wants to praise God. He wants to write poetry (“my rhymes”) about God’s love in a lasting and enduring manner (“engrave in steel”). The cause of this elation is the desire and plea for God to permanently give him spiritual joy and comfort.
5-8: “Forty heavens” is a play on the ancient concept of a tiered heaven. The lower tiers are closest and most like the earth and the higher tears approach God himself in heaven. Even if there are forty levels between the world and God, sometimes the poet can ascend them all and be with God in joy and comfort. However, at other times he can barely make it halfway. Sometimes he doesn’t ascend, but rather descends into the pit of despair and misery, left to himself, separated from God: hell. For the poet, the joy and elation of being close to God is transitory, and he is liable to fall into despair and separation from God.
9-12: Experiencing this distance is painful for the poet, and he pleads with God not to cause him to experience it. “Rack” might evoke the crucifixion. Only God spans the distance between heaven and hell. The experience of that distance is too much for a mere human to bear. It is too much to cycle from heavenly elation to hellish despair, from the presence of God to God’s absence. God is so large that the world can hardly contain him, compared to the poet whose cannot even fill out his grave, perhaps an allusion to the deathly effect of this experience.
13-16: God meets “arms with man.” “Arms” may have the sense of weaponry or limb. If limb, there is a sense of intimacy—dancing? If weaponry, the sense is more confrontational. Either way, God is coming face to face with the poet. In order to face and experience God, the poet is stretched beyond his natural limits, like a particle of dust being stretched to fill all the space between heaven and hell—an absurdity. “Measure” could have the sense of dueling with swords, or measuring distance. “Spell” could have the senses: relate or tell of, measure or constitute, substitute for. The questioning nature of this stanza implies that the poet challenges the fitness of all this.
17-20: The poet wants God to let him rest in his comforting presence, hid under the roof of God’s “home,” i.e. heaven (compare to stanza 2). By doing so, God would be “of a sinner rid.” The poet believes that if he could only experience this closeness to God always, then he would never again fall into sin and despair. He would benefit by never needing to fear for his salvation again or feel the despair of separation from God. This is the “what my soul doth feel sometimes” that the poet wishes he could always feel in the first stanza.
21-24: The poet resigns himself to God’s way, realizing that God has a good purpose behind his way. “Stretch or contract” refers to the tuning of an instrument, but also evokes the pulling from heaven to hell. This cycle from presence to absence is then how God is tuning the poet’s heart and soul to the proper pitch. Through this, the “music” of the poet, his life, will be made all the more beautiful. There is the sense that God is the musician, the poet his instrument. The experience of pain and joy and the cycle between them is “tempering” the poet so that God can make beautiful melody with his life.
25-28: Whether experiencing heavenly heights or hellish depths, the poet understands that God is behind it. He has accepted being “there” in God’s presence or absence. These are expressions of God’s love and his power. The proper response for these qualities of God is reciprocated love and trust. Trust is needed in God’s absence, and the poet must trust that God’s “way” will make better music. He hopes that in all aspects of life he will meet God’s love and power with love and trust.
T. S. Eliot writes about George Herbert in his short book on the poet, “The great danger, for the poet who would write religious verse, is that of setting down what he would like to feel rather than being faithful to the expression of what he really feels. Of such pious insincerity Herbert is never guilty.”
I love Herbert’s poetry because it runs the gamut of emotion and experience that a person feels in relation to God, in all its myriad complexity, from light to darkness and back again. Herbert is a poet seeking after righteousness in full and raw honesty. His experience is not contrived or imagined, but rather in his poetry he exposes for his readers the fullness of what it means to be human in the Presence of Holy God.
This poem is defined by twin themes of comfort/presence and despair/absence. God is fiery Love: overflowing, pulsing, consuming. To come near to this God is to burn with the fire that is just him. To peer above all the heavens, to come under the roof of God’s very own house, this is Herbert’s idiom for the soul’s ascent and combustion. Perhaps Psalm 18 can lend a hand, “By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” Although the picture is of violent warfare, we understand that the Presence of God gives such strength that we feel we could conquer an entire army by ourselves, not even the colossus of a city’s walls could hinder us. To say it another way, sometimes the joy and power of God’s presence makes us want to sprint across the mountain tops.
However, Herbert identifies another state. After every mountain top experience there is a descent. This is the place where God becomes absent. There is no joy in this place: it is despair, apathy—even terror. This is natural: every person who has wandered the spiritual path reports struggling with desolation and the felt absence of God, and there are plenty of examples in the tradition—the torment by demons in the monastic tradition, often in the form of vices: boredom, lust, apathy; the “dark night of the soul;” the struggle to know—truly—that you are loved by God. We experience this every time we, in our pain, ask the question, “Why God?” Why do I have to suffer in this way? Are you really there? Do you actually care about me? This experience can take many forms. Here I merely give some examples.
What I find wonderful about this poem is that Herbert characterizes these experiences, the dark side of spirituality, as an important part of spiritual growth. Somehow this despair and desolation is God “meeting arms” with us. I imagine dancing: as God takes our arms in his, holds us close, it is beautiful, joyous—and at times it’s a painful stretch—just like growing up isn’t easy. Bones ache as they grow. Our hearts ache too as they grow in proximity to God’s Presence. To spell God, to know God intimately enough to recite his fundamental parts (as a figure of speech: God doesn’t have parts, is uncomposed) comes through the twin paths of presence and absence.
The crucifixion is echoed in this poem: “O rack me not to such a vast extent.” It is difficult with these words not to imagine Jesus Christ emotionally, mentally, and physically racked on the cross. The cry of dereliction—Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me—this is the quintessential cry in the face of God’s absence that somehow gathers up all our cries of dereliction. To read this in the context of Christ in Gethsemane helps place it in context. The cry is not merely a bolt out of the blue, but the culmination of “not what I will, but what you will:” arms held open on the cross, for God all given, nothing withheld, and from this—life for the world.
As Christ, so Herbert: “Yet take thy way.” We would love to have only the mountain top experiences, the flourishing, the healing, the joy (we see this one-sided emphasis in much of Pentecostalism, especially in its prosperity form). But the difficult things temper us, bring us into pitch. The song God is playing is the reconciliation of the world to himself, and this stretching is God bringing us into key, into harmonic resonance with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
Herbert is not emotionally simple. His message is very different from the American revivalist hymnody in which my life used to be a wreck, I got faith, and now my life is all joy and flowers. (Though, to be sure this is an important theme for Christian theology! It is just one side of things.) Herbert is willing to question God, to quarrel, to complain, even to challenge God. In this regard he reminds me of the Psalter. But his poetry is always moving somewhere—toward reconciliation. The path isn’t an endless cycle of despair and comfort.
Thus, we come to the final stanza of this poem, a beautiful prayer that we should all learn to pray. It is not resignation, but trust and love. As the Psalmist says, “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” And as the Son of God says in Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Remove this cup from me. Yet not want I want, but what you want.” Christ had love and trust in the Father, that through him—the crucifixion and cry of dereliction—God would be bringing life to the world.