The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Holy Week and the Arts      6th April 2020
Bliss, George Herbert, and Malcolm Guite
Handley Stevens

For to-day’s reflection I have chosen a poem entitled Bliss from a new collection, After Prayer, by Malcolm Guite.  The poem is one of twenty-seven inspired by George Herbert’s exquisite sonnet Prayer, a cascade of 26 different images of prayer, one for each letter of the alphabet, concluding with the words ‘something understood’, a hint that somewhere amongst all these different images he might have found some aspect of the truth about our communion with God in prayer.  
So first I am going to read George Herbert’s sonnet - Prayer.  Next I will read Malcolm Guite’s sonnet – Bliss – itself a reflection on just one of Herbert’s 26 images, one of four in a single line.  And finally I will offer a few thoughts on that poem, and invite you to add yours.  I would like to hope that perhaps the wisdom and spirituality of George Herbert and Malcolm Guite may complement Jim Walters Holy Week reflections.
Prayer, the Churche’s banquet, Angels’ 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’Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies-world transposing in an houre,
A kind of tune which all things heare and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love and blisse,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the soul’s bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
And now Malcolm Guite’s sonnet;
Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss
Love made this way, and lifts us up each stair,
Our maker knows that we were made for this:
The utter bliss that Heaven loves to share.
We glimpse it sometimes in another’s eyes,
We taste it sometimes on the tongues of prayer.
It takes us wholly, takes us by surprise,
But grasping it, our arms clasp empty air.
Our bliss has vanished with a word of promise,
A sweet come-hither wave that offers more,
Each ecstasy has been a farewell kiss
That left us weeping on the hither shore.
Yet every passing moment whispers this:
Eternity shall love us into bliss.
Malcolm Guite himself has this to say about his poem:
It may seem odd to be contemplating Bliss amidst all the sorrow and fear that surrounds us in this present crisis, but this is precisely the time when we need to lift our eyes to the Heavens and contemplate that full and final bliss for which we are made.  Herbert knew this well, and of course his generation had to deal with several severe plague seasons, withdrawing from the fullness of their usual lives and sequestering themselves away, but such a time of crisis is just when faith deepens and just where the poetry comes from! 
Guite continues: Like joy, bliss is almost impossible to write about, to put into words, it is beautiful, fleeting, not to be seized or grasped, or even sought, but only received as a sudden gift.  In my poem (Guite’s words) I tried to evoke my own experience through particular glimpses and moments and to be true both to its brevity and promise.  For even the smallest moment of bliss seems to promise something more.  As I came to compose the poem I found myself remembering one of Milton’s rare uses of the beautiful word in his Ode on Time, lines he wrote to be engraved on a clock.  The poem begins ‘Fly envious Time till thou run out thy race’ but the lines that went to my heart, and which I was remembering when I wrote this poem were:
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood.
Guite again:  I loved that juxtaposition of the eternal and the personal, the infinite and the intimate, and I hope something of that comes across in my poem too.
What more could I possibly add ?   Guite’s own commentary adds a picture of William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, to illustrate his image of Love lifting us up each stair.  And if you liked this poem, you might well like some of Guite’s other work, perhaps some of the other sonnets inspired by George Herbert’s sonnet on Prayer, or perhaps at least ‘something understood’, even if it cannot ever be grasped and held, but must rather be allowed to vanish with a word of promise.  

Print This Page

Sermons from previous years are here | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005