Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Prayer (I)" by George Herbert / Comment by Carl Phillips

Prayer (I)

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
         God's breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

In George Herbert's entirely associative (and entirely fragmented "Prayer (I)," it is the method of association itself that provides the poem with its argument. If the poem is a list of definitions, it is more accurately a list at war with itself. On the one hand, we have a list that works inclusively - that is, the gesture is one of defining prayer and constanly elaborating on that definition, finding it necessary to keep expanding it, as if the more one understood about prayer, the more one had come to realize the impossibility of including everything that prayer apparently includes. And on the other hand, we have a list whose gesture is one of constantly rejecting, in search of exactness of definition: prayer is X; no, prayer is Y; no, keep trying. And in that final definition, "something understood," the poem seems to argue that the human impulse to define (in a sense, to impose pattern, which is what the sonnet form seeks to do here with the information that keeps threatening to overwhelm it) is itself the problem, and that prayer is finally that which is understood as itself utterly. Inclusive of everything, and like nothing that it contains.

1 comment:

  1. 'Inclusive of everything, and like nothing that it contains.' I love this sonnet and I love the commentary. It's the dissociative collection of imagery that fulfills my desire to express faith.