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Herbert’s “Prayer (I)”

November 6, 2016

Prayer (I)
George Herbert

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.

George Herbert wrote this sonnet in 1633, and the historical context must be remembered while unpacking some of its meaning. The poem provides a wonderful example of the analogical nature of art. It consists of a series of metaphors, each of which is meant to provide an image of prayer.

  1. List the metaphors, then ask yourself exactly how prayer is like the thing in each image.
  2. More specifically, what sorts of prayers would correspond to each image? Does Herbert see prayer as a single exercise, or as a variety of exercises?
  3. If Herbert is right about prayer, then how should it be practiced? What place should it occupy in a believer’s life?
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