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Apposing Opposites: A Dialectic of Meaning in George Herbert's "Prayer"

Updated on November 19, 2013

Prayer by 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.

In George Herbert’s “Prayer”, the poet attempts to help the reader understand the dynamic nature of the human relationship with God. This sonnet apposes extremely varied and symbolic imagery to demonstrate the manifold incarnations of prayer and what it means: in one sentence that takes up fourteen lines, the idea of one’s dialogue with Christ is compressed into one “little room”. The effect of this is that the reader has to, ironically, accept the fact that sermons cannot close the gap between the Christian and Christ – but rather, that “something understood” is the manifestation of all the things prayer represents. This poem attempts to demonstrate that praying carries more meaning than simply asking God for something: it is many things; some contradictory, even mutually exclusive things. This sonnet is so internally diverse in its iterations and appositions of what prayer is that we come to understand the act of prayer as a dialectic of both negative and positive power, with the unknown and exotic somewhere in the middle. It is a painting, a symphony—a thing with many parts whose sum is a whole that is impossible to transpose into fragments. Prayer is at once a banquet, a side-piercing spear, and “something understood”. Because there is no orienting action verb, the reader must use the images in this poem to triangulate the meaning of this “something understood” that Herbert’s speaker ultimately concedes that he cannot convey.

”Prayer” begins on a very confident note which draws the reader in instantly. Humans are attracted to confidence, and the speaker seems to be quite sure of what he is saying. The sonnet is in iambic pentameter, but there is a hole where the unstressed beat should go before the stressed “Prayer”. This trochaic substitution sets the tone of the piece as bold and assured. The speaker is not saying “maybe prayer is…”; he is an Anglican priest giving a homily on what he knows and his followers need to learn. Because of this forceful beginning, we also accept the ellipsis of an action verb. “Prayer, the church’s banquet…”—here the speaker demonstrates that he is not encumbered by the conventions of grammar or a narrative through-line. The fact that he starts the piece off this way pushes away from the traditional use of the sonnet: given the history of this form, one might expect perhaps an “if, then” dialogue or a romantic lament followed by some sort of closure. Instead, Herbert reclaims the sonnet and his speaker commandeers it to be a cascade of apposed images.

After the initial declaration of the subject to be treated, the poem continues on with twenty-seven different “ways of looking at the blackbird”, per se. It is difficult to tell whether to unpack the images as relative to each other or as discrete and independent of each other: our first image is that of the church’s banquet: a bounteous table replete with nourishment. This suggests that prayer is more than just personal, but an act of community making communion with God, which keeps man alive, sustains him. In this first incarnation, prayer does not belong to an individual human. Following is the “angels age”: does this mean the era of angels, or the age in the sense of time elapsed since birth? Either way, the image of angels keeps us elevated above man, in an arena that he cannot reach. The next image is one of communion, like the church’s banquet: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth” is an ambiguous construction which makes the reader wonder who “his” is referring to – God, or man. The preceding sense of communion makes it easier to overlook this confusion and accept a fusion of the two in one— since “breath” and “spirit” both come from the same word, we can imagine prayer as God’s own spirit coursing through our lungs, past our vocal chords and into the air, breathing life into and out of us.

The next group of images is one of movement: “soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage”: the soul is being translated, the heart is traveling in search of something holy, and the Christian plummet is “sounding” the distance between heaven and earth—a measurement of something foreign. This latter image is interesting because “sounding” in this context is measuring a distance with a weight tied to a string, so we imagine that prayer is a ball of lead sending a message back up to God. It is also interesting to think of the dual meanings of “plummet” and “sound”: although the message is traveling up to heaven, the violence we encounter later invokes the possibility of a bad, downward plummeting, and the sound of lightning.

The poem continues with images of heights and aerial communication, except that out of nowhere, the piece makes a massive ‘volta’ toward the evil: [prayer is an] “Engine against th'Almightie, sinners towre, /Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear” (5-6). Perhaps what is omitted in the ellipsis is not what prayer is, but what prayer could be—perhaps the speaker is describing how the act can be misused. The word “engine” invokes the visual of something mechanical or political. Is this truly prayer? Maybe here we are supposed to see that “prayer” incorporates any sense of conversation with God – not just a loving supplication. On the other hand, this apposition may be intended to be an ironic critique against the use of prayer for selfish or evil purposes. The next image, the “sinners towre”, continues with the theme of humans struggling with God, evoking the moral of the story from the tower of Babel: humans’ hubris in believing they could build their way from earth to heaven. We are finally grounded in something outside the poem: the story is a testament to what happens when humans believe themselves to be entitled to heaven. The consequences of this are the scattering of meaning, confusion, and fracturing of unity. This may be a coda for the poem: try too hard to understand anything, and you are trying to play God (which is a punishable sin).

The sonnet stays in this negative framing and meditates on the violence of returning thunder back to heaven, in the sense that a thunderbolt reversed is to attack God himself. The next image follows naturally: “christ-side-piercing-spear” is another way we violate God. To suggest that prayer is not just supplication but ill will directed toward Him is strange after the poem has just recently established that prayer is the beautiful communion bringing God to earth. The poem continues with an interesting set of images that could be interpreted as quite sublime: “the six-daies world transposing in an hour” may suggest that prayer is another act of playing God, because the man who prays can do in one hour what took God six days. On the other hand, this particular appositive could signify something entirely different: the hinge word is “transposing” – this musical term resonates with all the other music (or non-musical sound) throughout the piece. The sound of prayer in church is beautiful: a congregation of people saying words they love together. And most outspoken is the music of this poem: a plummet “sounding” heaven and earth, the clap of thunder, a “kind of tune which all things hear and fear”, and finally “the church bells beyond the starres heard”. In this way Herbert demonstrates how the poem, and prayer itself, is like a symphony comprised of many individual instruments.

Prayer is a tune that “all things hear and fear”—the interesting part of this appositive is the choice of the word “things”, instead of people. Incorporating all incarnations of sentient beings allows the poem to later move out of the human and into the exotic. Here we get a feel of closure, keeping with the tendency of the sonnet to divide into an octave and sestet, despite this poem’s refusal to align with convention. But one way the poem is strongly sonnet-esque is in the shift between lines 8 and 9. There could be an end stop after “fear”, because afterward there is a strong change in tone. The poem’s through-line returns to pleasant imagery like in the beginning with “softnesse, and peace…” etc. in line 10. We are back to good things again: prayer is all the best parts of living. In the next line, with “exalted Manna” we return to the first line, the nourishing banquet. This time, though, the images are less elevated and more grounded in the mundane. Quite literally: “heaven in ordinarie, man well drest” describe perhaps the poet himself and how priests (or people dressed in their Sunday best) embody prayer—heaven in the mundane. And from the mundane, by contrast, Herbert makes his penultimate move to the exotic.

The scope changes drastically throughout this piece. At this point in the poem, the speaker moves from the earth to the Milky Way. We must go back to the elliptical [Prayer is…]—so prayer is the Milky Way. This image is hard to parse: how can you equate an act to the galaxy? The poet is asserting that everything in the known world is prayer. This appositive stands out because it has no action or implications other than pure size. This is how we know the poem is coming toward a fever pitch. Next up is prayer as the “bird of paradise”—suggesting the phoenix, the idea of the biblical and exotic. This bird is affiliated with regeneration and the cyclical nature of life. From this image we can cull the hope for life after death. In the “church-bels beyond the starres heard”, we literally return to the Milky Way, where we can hear the church bells ringing. Prayer is everywhere, is everything. It is the oxymoron of the “soul’s blood”: something completely nonphysical, manifest sanguine.

In the final line, we return to the earth again. The land of spices, the Orient, is imaginably a Christless land; the speaker suggests here that prayer is this unclaimed land of spices in order to deepen the argument of its ubiquity. Our feet back on the earth, but still in exotic territory, here is when Herbert drops the unprecedented “something understood”. In these homely words, there is no artifice, and our guide finally leaves us. The poem ends on a perfect iamb followed by the silence filled with the echoes of this sensory overload of a poem.

There does not seem to be a pattern dictating the movement between the themes: the nature of the images moves quickly from the holy— “churches banquet, angel’s age”—to the violent—“reversed thunder”—to the sublime—“six days’ world transposing in an hour”—to the exotic—“the land of spices”, and culminates prematurely, perhaps presumptuously, in the familiar of “something understood”. Because of the seemingly arbitrary placement of these appositives, it is hard to know what to make of the relationships between them locally: while we can understand the logic of moving from “soul in paraphrase” to “heart in pilgrimage” – both sonically and semantically—it is harder to see the relationship between “Christian plummet” and the “engine ‘gainst the almighty”. The images are an effusive overflow that need to be seen simultaneously, instead of as a sequence. Just as we hear multiple instruments at once to perceive the resonant pleasure of an orchestra, prayer is all of these disparate but apposed things at once, just as Picasso’s Guerica is at once beautiful and terrible.

The compression chamber of the sonnet helps to meld all of the dialectic appositives in “Prayer” together by creating echoes so the reader has to juggle many images at once without a verb to close any one “deal”. This way they are forced not to pigeonhole prayer as any one thing. Many of the images fit into multiple of these categories at once, and the sensory overload of this poem makes the colors bleed further. Lovely internal rhyme, assonance, a very developed sense of rhythm, and the sheer diversity of images imbue this sonnet with a richness that makes the spare fourteen lines burst at their seams. Perhaps the piece is a prayer itself: that this desperate homily could possibly convey to us the multi-dimensionality of God’s love of his children.

“Prayer” is unconventional but follows suit with the sonnet form if one approaches it from a different orientation. The piece is still a dialogue, a dialectic: its argument does not transform according to narrative or temporal movement, but its images do come in three main groups, which create a logical friction comparable to that of a more traditional sonnet. This friction later must be pieced together and accepted blindly in tandem to create “gestalt” sense of what the reader is supposed to see. A major difference between a painting and a poem is that we encounter poems letter by letter and word by word, so it has a through-line; a painting, we experience all its parts at once. This piece must be accepted as a tableau of concurrent, disparate truths in order for the reader to arrive at its ultimate volta into the “understood”.

“Prayer” edifies the faithful while being aesthetically pleasing. Like a good speech, the strongest material is at the beginning and the end. It is a set of parentheses: Prayer…something understood. Although the piece is punctuated largely by meter, rhyme, and caesura, the structure is barely more than a catalogue of different shades of what prayer means. When we think about the act of prayer, can we call it the Christian conversing with God? Is it the manifestation of both the Christian’s and his God’s love because the Christian is made in the image of God himself? How does one reconcile one’s inherent state of sin? This poem demonstrates that man must find his own way to God through following the Christian doctrine, and making that extra gap that only he personally can make – no Anglican priest can make it for him: prayer. Something so magical it spans the moral and the geographical compass, nourishes, and resonates. Something we cannot begin to master. Something understood.


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    • profile image

      Akshay Kke 

      4 years ago from New Delhi

      What a brilliantly insightful analysis of a rather overwhelming poem! I especially vouch for the dialectical unity of form and content which you have expounded with razor sharp precision.


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