A simple verse form

This poem is an excellent example of simple verse form, song-like in the shortness of its lines. There are just five syllables to every line in each stanza except for the third line, which has only three syllables. This means that each quatrain is only one syllable longer than a Japanese haiku.

God's discipline

The choice of this form for a poem entitled Discipline, might seem strange, as we think of the subject as serious and heavy, not light and lyrical. The term discipline means instruction, teaching and correction. The biblical subtext may be 1 Corinthians 4:21, in which St Paul asks the Corinthians if they would prefer him to come ‘with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?' There is also a relevant passage in Hebrews 12:5-11 on God's discipline, saying that it should be accepted patiently.

Love is better than a rod

Herbert argues with God that love is a better discipline for him than a ‘rod', a metonymy for punishment. The central lines read

Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stonie hearts will bleed.

Love brings softness to the ‘stony' heart. The Bible speaks of unresponsive hearts ‘of stone' which God will replace with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).

God is forgiving

Herbert's other argument is, that when he does wrong, he is immediately sorry: ‘Though I fail, I weep'. He also comes to ask forgiveness: ‘I creep/To the throne of grace.' This phrase ‘the throne of grace' comes from Hebrews 4:16, where Jesus is pictured as a king who has the power to pronounce pardon and human beings are encouraged to seek mercy and forgiveness.

Love is the better way

The poem then turns to a hymn of praise to love. The imagery used here may combine a reference to the Bible (The Lord is a man of war, Exodus 15:3) with an allusion to Cupid, the Roman god of love. The final argument is that it was love that brought Christ to earth and to humiliation. That love must inevitably make a much deeper impression on him than the threat of punishment.

Investigating Discipline
  • Read through Discipline
    • What does ‘I aspire/ To a full consent' mean?
    • What do you think ‘Though man frailties hath,/Thou art God' means?
  • Compare Discipline to Love II
    • What similarities do you note?
    • What differences?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness).

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