Selected Poem - 'A true Hymne'

Herbert’s poetry sings. It is musical in its very nature. In this poem, Herbert considers what makes up a sincere offering of praise to God.

'A true Hymne'

MY joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say:
And still it runneth mutt’ring up and down
With onely this, My joy, my life, my crown.

Yet slight not these few words:
If truly said, they may take part
Among the best in art.
The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords,
Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.

He who craves all the minde,
And all the soul, and strength, and time,
If the words onely ryme,
Justly complains, that somewhat is behinde
To make his verse, or write a hymne in kinde.

Whereas if th’ heart be moved,
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth supplie the want.
As when th’ heart sayes (sighing to be approved)
O, could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.

Commentary

Perhaps we have here a hymn within a hymn. The repeated words 'My joy, my life, my crown' in the first verse are the true hymn, where the poet is praising God. But are those the only words that can be said? Are they really enough? Surely God deserves more than that! The poet answers himself. The words might sound inadequate, but if they are sincerely said, they are enough.

There seems to be a playful quality about the third verse. The biblical understanding is that of loving God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength but we are brought up with a jolt - the word time is substituted for heart. (After all, the first verse described how the poet had spent all day looking for inspiration). There is, however, another rhythm in the praise of God, which goes beyond rhyme and meter. A poet might be concerned with his poetic art and get the rhyme right, but that is not enough for a true hymn.

We find out what that is in the last verse. The poetic art might be inadequate, but if the heart is in the right place – that is enough for God. He will 'make up our defects with his sweet art' (Herbert’s poem 'Easter'). Even that however, is not the last word. The final resolve to man’s inadequacy and yearning lies not within him and the gaining of approval, but within the grace of God. The words of the poet fall short: God takes over as writer, and writes the word “loved” in man’s heart.

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