Prayer I

A celebratory sonnet

This poem is an extraordinary celebratory sonnet. It consists of a series of images for prayer, using a technique that would not seem out of date in modernist poetry today. Each image can be pondered, as a point of Christian meditation. But equally, the sheer variety and energy released by such imagery can just be enjoyed for its own sake.

Spontaneous prayer

Prayer is, of course, an activity common to all religions. In some, it is prescribed for set times or days, and there is this sort of regular pattern in the Church of England liturgy, too. But there is another kind of personal, much more spontaneous prayer, which is encouraged in Christian devotion also. The effect of spontaneity in Herbert's poem suggests someone who is used to as used to this second sort of prayer as much as to the first kind.

Prayer, by its very nature, will transcend all comparisons, so the poet piles a series of metaphors one on top of the other, in an attempt to conjure up something which is almost beyond human understanding. Some of the meanings of the specific images have to be guessed at, such as ‘The milky way' or the exotic ‘land of spices' and ‘bird of Paradise'. It is their suggestive quality, rather than their precise content, that makes them work. Whatever we associate with spices or the Milky Way can be applied to prayer. It's up to the reader to make the association.

Images of prayer

Other images, however, do have a more precise connotation. ‘God's breath' (l.2) refers to Genesis 2:7, where God breathes life into Adam. That breath now comes back to God as prayer. The ‘Christ-side-piercing spear' refers to the spear plunged into Christ dead with pierced sideChrist's side at his crucifixion (John 19:34). (See Herbert's The Bag for more on the connection between this spear wound and prayer.) The conceit is that, just as the spear pierced Christ, so our prayers also enter deeply into his being. Hebrews 4:15 suggests that Christ in heaven is touched by our weaknesses. This conceit takes that thought one step further. Genesis shows the world being created by God in six ‘days'.

Prayer that works

Some images take some working out: ‘Reversed thunder': thunder literally descends from the heavens to the earth. Reverse this, and prayer ascends, just as powerfully, ‘zapping' heaven. We need to see that Herbert believes prayer works because it really moves God. It is not some psychological feel-good activity. In the same way, manna was sustenance sent from heaven to earth (John 6:58): now it goes back to heaven. This reverse process is central in Herbert's cosmic imagination.

Investigating Prayer I
  • Read Herbert's Prayer I
    • Is there any sense of its being a sonnet?
    • Why or why not?
    • Try to work out ‘The six days' world-transposing in an hour'.
  • Where does the essence of Herbert's excitement about prayer lie?
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