Selected Work - 'Matins'
This is one of the poems in George Herbert's 'The Temple', first published in 1633. Twice a day, he would walk across the lane between his Rectory and the tiny Bemerton church opposite for Matins and Evensong. He would be joined by his household and some neighbours. Izaak Walton gives us the delightful picture of parishioners working in the fields, on hearing the church bell toll for Matins, resting their ploughs and joining Mr. Herbert in prayer.
I cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.
My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?
My God, what is a heart,
That thou shouldst it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?
Indeed man's whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav'n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.
Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.
This poem is a personal one, despite our understanding of Matins as a shared service of worship. Herbert pictures God as ready to greet him at the start of the day so that a fresh contract is made, a partnership renewed: 'we must needs for that day make a match'. This partnership is no cold formality, but one of love - Herbert must have enjoyed seeing God as having 'nothing else to do' but pour out his love on each individual. But there is a serious point to this playfulness. If that is the measure of God's love, if that is the investment God is making, then the individual's response must be the wholehearted service of God and, what is more, to grow to appreciate the richness of that love.
The 'new light' of the last verse is both the light of the new dawn and the dawning of fresh understanding. In the last line, Herbert typically uses a familiar pun - 'sunbeam' is at once the ray of light helping the poet to reach God, and son beam, the wood of the cross on which the Son of God died. The poem not only illustrates Herbert's pleasure in using such puns, but also his frequent use of biblical and liturgical allusions such as 'my morning-soul and sacrifice' (Psalms 130:6 and 51:17).
This poem has been set to music by David Halls, Salisbury Cathedral's Director of Music. It is one of the new hymns in the George Herbert hymnbook 'Another Music'.