Poetry as Theology: Reading George Herbert’s “Prayer [I]”

Update: each phrase of the poem below now links to its corresponding post. All of the posts can still also be found here.

Readers of this blog (and people who know me) will be aware that devotional poetry is close to my heart. (See this post on George Herbert, in which it was all I could do not to include at least twenty poems, or this one on Gerard Manley Hopkins, or any of the Sunday Morning Poems I’ve posted.) It would be very hard for me to have a spiritual life without poetry—and why should I have to? Yet if all God-talk is theology, what are the implications of having that theology take poetic form? Some time ago I read a book arguing that poetry in the Early Modern period handled the realities of conversion more effectively and accurately than did prose theological treatises. At stake here is nothing less than Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” Is truth contained in rigorous arguments moving logically from proposition to proposition, or is there something more evasive about it, something toward which we can only hint through images and metaphors? Or, conversely, are images and metaphors a cheat, deceiving us into the belief that there’s an easy way around working carefully and patiently to reason out the truth?

I don’t think that the paths to truth are so starkly binary as that, but I do believe with an ironical kind of conviction that theology itself means using words to encircle and embrace a mystery. I’ve also been reading Sarah Coakley lately—a new favorite thinker of mine—and part of her project is to redefine a theologian, with Evagrius of Pontus, as “the one who truly prays.” (I strongly suggest listening to the brief interview in that second link.) In the spirit, then, of bringing together rational theology and the mystical quest of prayer, I will be writing an occasional series of reflections on the descriptions of prayer in George Herbert’s “Prayer [I]”:

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Comments

  1. Olde Skool says:

    Ah–“something understood.” That’s the crux, yes–in both senses of the word. As someone for whom devotional poetry is scripture, and is central to spiritual practice, I am looking very forward to reading more. Thank you, Jason.

  2. Amen and well put, Jason. Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost–do we really think they only speak in prose? When I think of speaking with the tongue of angels, I think of poetry.

    A year or so ago I tried writing, just for my own edification, a summary of my thoughts and beliefs about the sacrament. But I found that the only way I could express those thoughts and beliefs was in the form of a poem.

  3. Thrilled for the first installment. I agree heartily with your description of theology and Herbert’s Collected Works was the first book of poetry I ever owned.

  4. Jason this continues to be wonderful in every way. I agree, poetry is theology. Or at least for me the most important part.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Steve.

  6. Love this — thank you for this effort and instruction!

  7. Thank you, for the whole series.

  8. Jason, this series was great. Next you should do “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire.”