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Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry

July 31, 2017

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Ocean of Ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and Lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them is thy abuse.
Why should I Women’s eyes for Crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies, in the discovery.

–George Herbert 1633

COMMENTARY: Though born into a wealthy family and educated at Cambridge, George Herbert was to spend much of his adult life as a rural priest at Fugglestone St. Peter (what a name!) in a small farming community south of London. In his only prose work, The County Parson, he argues that rural preachers should use examples drawn from ordinary life–plowing, baking bread, dancing–which (despite their commonness) could be “lights even of Heavenly Truths.” His conception of Christianity as the worship of a God incarnate–the lowering of God to the realm of the commonplace–found its compliment in the idea of the exaltation of the commonplace to the status of the divine. As he says at the end of this sonnet, beauty lies in the discovery of the ultimate nature of what, in and of itself, is bones, filth, plants, stone, and ink.

The sonnet makes this point through a critique of the mundane cliches of what Herbert saw as “merely” the love poetry of the Petrarchan tradition. The poem is similar to Shakespeare’s “My Lady’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” though while Shakespeare criticizes the style and diction of Petrarchan sonnets, Herbert finds fault with the subject matter. It isn’t that it’s predictable to use lilies and crystals and clouds in a poem, it’s that it’s a misuse of those lilies and crystals and clouds to make them about a woman when, really, they are the little hiding places of God.

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From → Poems about God

One Comment
  1. The emphasis on writing here reminds me of Herbert’s “The Flower,” where he writes,

    We say amiss
    This or that is:
    Thy word is all, if we could spell.

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