Ordained Servant Online



Submission: A Model for Preachers

Gregory E. Reynolds

George Herbert’s poem “Submission” is a model for preachers in both form and content.

Submission
George Herbert (1593–1633)

But that thou art my wisdome, Lord,
     And both mine eyes are thine,
My minde would be extreamly stirr’d
     For missing my designe.

Were it not better to bestow
     Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
     And share in my degree.

But when I thus dispute and grieve,
     I do resume my sight,
And pilfring what I once did give,
     Disseize thee of thy right.

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
     That I should then raise thee?
Perhaps great places and thy praise
     Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
     I will no more advise:
Onely do thou lend me a hand,
     Since thou hast both mine eyes.

For spiritual and lyrical sublimity, as well as superbly crafted clarity, this poem has few equals. Harold Bloom acknowledges, “There are only a few extraordinary devotional poets in the language, including Donne, and the Victorians Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti. By any standard, George Herbert is the devotional poet proper in English.”[1]

The analysis of good poetry should, first of all, be a pure pleasure; but that pleasure can translate into a great benefit for preachers. The recitation and analysis of the best poetry disciplines the preacher in the economy, power, and beauty of the English language. In the case of sacred poets like Herbert there are personal lessons that may be learned and etched in the memory. This, in turn, can inspire the preacher to pass the most salient lessons on to his congregation. There is no preaching so powerful as that which is born of an understanding of Scripture that the preacher has deeply experienced. While much poetry does not do this directly, the sacred poems of Herbert and Donne are rooted in a profound understanding of Scripture. In the age of “wit,” understanding the complexity of structure and meaning can be daunting to the novice, but Herbert’s poem, “Submission,” is crystal clear.

“Submission” is especially well suited to instruct us regarding our worldly aspirations—to which every sinful man, especially preachers, given our public position, are prone. George Herbert, himself, had deep experience in this matter. If you are not content with your humble place of service to God in this world, a good dose of this poem is a potent and pleasant cure. Herbert was in a high position in Cambridge University as university orator; and he served in the king’s court, with hopes of appointment to secretary of state. Those hopes were dashed with King James’s death. Then the Lord called Herbert to the ministry—a call he hesitated to heed for a time—in a humble place, where he served until his untimely death in the country parish of Fugglestone St Peter in Bemerton Church near Salisbury, England. He used his wit well as a poet, reminding us of Alexander Pope’s observation, “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”[2] But unlike much of the wit of his age, he used it for the glory of God and the edification of the church. “Submission” is one of the most powerfully beautiful sacred poems in the English language.

The bulk of his poetry was published posthumously in The Temple in 1633. Herbert had instructed his close friend Nicholas Ferrar, whom he tasked with executing his literary remains, to publish his poetry only if he believed that it would be edifying to Christians. For one nobly born, of great intelligence, learning, and gifts, with high hopes of royal preferment, this was no small act of humility.

The Importance and Benefits of Poetry

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, raised worrisome concerns about the state of literary reading in America in the 1990s. Building on an alarming trend, Gioia sounded the alarm in dramatic fashion in 2004 and 2007 with reports “Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read.” He was often criticized as a doomsayer. But, because parents and educators, including the NEA, did not simply accept this as an irreversible trend, the 20 percent decline in literary reading in the youngest age group surveyed (ages 18–24) in 2002 was reversed to a dramatic 21 percent increase in 2008, as presented by Gioia in a subsequent NEA report “Reading on the Rise.” Sadly the only area of literary reading that continues to decline is poetry.

But, why is this so? My guess is that the difficulty of understanding poetry inhibits its ascendency in our culture. Of course, poetry slams have appeared in venues throughout America. Although this gives a glimmer of hope, it does not usually represent the kind of appreciation that grows out of a deep reading of the best poetry in the English language. I have even encountered disdain among slammers for the forms and discipline of the greatest poets. But this is not to say they are not onto something important. They read or recite their poetry in small public settings. Thus, I also think the decline is due to a lack of reading aloud, especially hearing poetry well read or recited. What I have discovered in my “memory walks” is that by memorizing poetry, through regular oral repetition, the meaning becomes clearer with time. Memory muscles are exercised along with the physical. The sound of the words begin to sink in, reminding me of Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is the “sound of sense.” But few of us have patience to repeat poems aloud until it is etched in our memories. That is why I have learned to combine it with my daily two mile walk.

There are also additional benefits for preachers. Reading and memorizing poetry trains us to meditate deeply on texts. The compression of language in good poetry forces the reader to pay attention to the details of grammar and punctuation. It thus tends to make us better oral communicators, speaking in memorable sentences, and—a near miracle for Reformed preachers—making our preaching more concise. I have often finished leading worship before noon since engaging in this exercise. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a little over two minutes long (280 words), while the forgotten Oration by famed orator Edward Everett was over two hours long (13,508 words). The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”[3]

It is also important to read more accessible poets. Herbert is surely one of them, although not every poem he wrote is as accessible as “Submission.”

Structure to Model

Herbert’s creation of the simple rhythm of the five quatrains is itself an act of submission.[4] So, structure and meaning are closely allied. Herbert often broke from traditional forms to make a point. But here he impresses the reader with the lovely rhythms of his alternating rhyme scheme (abab). The poetic feet, in this case iambic (the syllabic pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), follow the poetic pattern known as the “hymnal measure.”[5] This standard form of quatrains contains alternating lines first of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet), and then iambic trimeter (three iambic feet) and so forth.

The biblical metaphor of sight for faith, or its absence, is brilliantly conceived to hold the whole poem together. Scripture is filled with this concept. “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways (Ps. 119:15); “there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps. 36:1).

The poem is also a perfect chiasm, following the patterns of ancient poetry, in Herbert’s pre-Enlightenment world. Each stanza follows the form with the first and fifth, second and fourth, focusing on the problem in the central third—his sin.

But that thou art my wisdome, Lord,
     And both mine eyes are thine,
My minde would be extreamly stirr’d
     For missing my designe.

     Were it not better to bestow
          Some place and power on me?
     Then should thy praises with me grow,
          And share in my degree.

          But when I thus dispute and grieve,
               I do resume my sight,
          And pilfring what I once did give,
               Disseize thee of thy right.

     How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
          That I should then raise thee?
     Perhaps great places and thy praise
          Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
     I will no more advise:
Onely do thou lend me a hand,
     Since thou hast both mine eyes.

When he complains about his humble state he views things from a purely human and sinful perspective, thus robbing God of his Lordship.

The chiasmic center is nested between stanzas two and four. Each represents a query. The first asks, would it not be better for the Lord to place him in a powerful position, since then God’s praise would grow with and share in the poet’s ascendancy. Here the hubris of the poet’s ambition is made plain, especially in his address of such a question directly to the Lord. The second (stanza four) asks the convicting question, which gets to the heart of the temptation, how do I know, if the Lord should raise me to a high place, that I would glorify him. He concludes with the most memorable line of the poem, “Perhaps great places and thy praise, Do not so well agree.”

Then the inclusio (bracketing or framing device) of the first and last stanzas focus on the wisdom of living by God’s wisdom, instead of the poet’s own. It begins with an expression of the security the poet feels as a result of being committed to following God’s wisdom in his life as the introduction to the struggle he has been through and resolved. He gladly admits the Lord’s gracious hold on him, “both mine eyes are thine.” The conclusion in the fifth stanza is a beautiful expression of commitment to submitting the gift of his life and calling to the Lord’s wisdom in place of his own. He presents his gift without argument, acknowledging his need for God’s guidance with a simple supplication, “Onely do thou lend me a hand, Since thou hast both mine eyes.”

The structure and the content, as we will briefly see, are really inseparable.

Content to Model

Although wisdom is mentioned only once, in the first line, it is clearly the theme of the poem: whose wisdom will guide his sight? Herbert wrestles with God’s wisdom over against his own. Herbert scholar Helen Wilcox suggests that the poem is based on Proverbs 4:5–9 [6]

Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

Job 28:28 also comes to mind, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.”

The pilgrim, living in a fallen world, has two pathways to follow—his own or the Lord’s. Herbert is brutally honest about his temptation. He knows that following his own vision for his life is a kind of robbery, “pilfring what I once did give,” which easily tempts him. He recognizes that, left to himself, he would be deeply troubled by not realizing his own plan for his life: “My minde would be extreamly stirr’d For missing my designe.” Only God’s wisdom has prevented such inner trouble.”

He has a profound understanding of the nature of his temptation,

Were it not better to bestow
     Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
     And share in my degree.

This is the folly of thinking that we will naturally use preferment for the Lord’s glory. But this is the sight of the natural man, the perspective of the man who seeks self-glorification,

But when I thus dispute and grieve,
I do resume my sight

This leads to the great question,

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
That I should then raise thee?

And then the punch line,

Perhaps great places and thy praise
Do not so well agree.

And finally, the firm resolve,

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
I will no more advise:

The plea for help restores his divinely given sight, depending for guidance on his Lord, and looking at his life from God’s perspective. This reminds us of Psalm 139:24, “And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Onely do thou lend me a hand,
Since thou hast both mine eyes.

What a call to contentment with God’s calling in our lives. The world’s ambition so easily intrudes into our lives as servants. The quest for celebrity has always been a temptation, and even more so in our electronically mediated world. We are called to be God’s ordained servants. This is a lesson in servanthood as well as a lesson in the value of poetry for the servant preachers of the Word.

Endnotes

[1] Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost (New York: Harper-Collins, 2004), 183.

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism. This is actually a long poem.

[3] Bob Green, “The Forgotten Gettysburg Addresser,” The Wall Street Journal (June 22–23, 2013): A15.

[4] For a comprehensive literary biography, I recommend Joseph Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954). For commentary from many authors on every English poem of Herbert I recommend The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Thanks to Leland Ryken for these recommendations.

[5] I highly recommend Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).

[6] Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 344.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2013.

Return to Formatted Page