Today in the Anglican calendar we commemorate George Herbert, one of the great 17th-century metaphysical poets (1593-1633). According to the thumbnail bio at The Daily Office, he spent most of his short life as an humble and well-loved parish priest in a village near Salisbury, England. His reputation rests on a single book of poems, The Temple, that was published after his death by his friend Nicholas Ferrar. Below, his poem “The Flower” testifies to the dizzying emotional highs and lows of the spiritual life and how God’s constancy alone brings peace. I find it comforting that even a great Christian poet like Herbert had the same struggle for equanimity as the rest of us.
How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasures bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickening, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an hour;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell.
We say amiss,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.
O that I once past changing were,
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-shower,
My sins and I joining together:
But while I grow in a straight line,
Still upwards bent, as if heaven were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. O my only light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.