Monday, 28 May 2012

George Herbert's 'Whitsunday'

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

Where is that fire which once descended
On thy Apostles? thou didst then
Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

The sunne, which once did shine alone,
Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

But since those pipes of gold, which brought
That cordiall water to our ground,
Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

I have a confession: I just don't get Pentecost (or Whitsun, or whatever you like to call it). Almost every other occasion in the church's year has some meaning for me, and if nothing else I can always make some kind of connection with the imagery or the music or the story of it, but Whitsun is just - there. And this is unfortunate, because you're meant to be all excited and spirit-filled and burning with passion (or whatever it was Ælfric was talking about in that sermon I posted earlier) and I really just never feel that way. I think it's because it's all rather intangible - ironically, for a feast which is about spirit becoming visible.  So for this reason I was interested to read today George Herbert's poem 'Whitsunday', in which he seems to reflect something of the same sense of disappointment - though maybe I'm reading my own feelings into it. He describes how glorious the first Pentecost was - so wonderful that the stars themselves "were coming down to know / If they might mend their wages [i.e. 'change their jobs'!] and serve here". At that time the Spirit, he says, 'kept open house' (that's a nice choice of phrase; it reminds me of what Herbert says elsewhere about what flowers do in winter), but now the door is shut: "Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink". Ouch. I think "if the braves of conqu’ring sinne / Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink" means something like 'if you weren't roused to action by the boasts of sinners, you'd just let us sink altogether'. And the last verse, while beautiful in itself, doesn't really resolve the question: Herbert comes back to belief in "the same sweet God of love and light" and suggests Pentecost isn't as good as it was once because we're not as good, since we change but God doesn't. Well, maybe. But for me, the image from this poem which lingers in the mind is that closed door.

1 comment:

Al Pearson said...

I offer an alternate reading of the last verse. It's an email responding to my choir director's request for testimonials regarding benefits of singing in the choir. We're singing a setting of Whitsunday. I needed to find the poem on internet to grab the last verse, and that's how I got to this blog.

Here's the body of my email.

I get regular blessings in choir. Often it’s a text. The most recent was in rehearsal last Thursday. The composition was the Grayston Ives setting of George Herbert’s poem Whitsunday. We will sing it on, well, Whitsunday. I was struck by “Lord, though we change, thou art the same.” As a child I took comfort in the innocent belief that my grandparents’ house in Staunton, Virginia, would be a refuge in summers into perpetuity. Ever so slightly wiser, I now know that God, unchanging and ever faithful, is always there for me. And that, ever changing, I can count on the slow but sure rebirth promised to me in the Gospels.