Selected Poem - 'Denial'

The piano in the little Bemerton Church where George Herbert was Rector will soon be tuned for the Advent Service. It is important to have this done, as an out of tune musical instrument makes for disharmony and discomfort. The poem 'Denial' is a lament: the poet’s soul is disturbed, out of tune with God and unable to reach him.


When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way;  some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying!  All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung;
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung

 O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.


This is no mere intellectual struggle for the poet.  His whole being is caught up in the disorder.  His heart is broken, his breast full of fears.  In another poem, 'Business', Herbert brings heart and knees together.  "Who in heart not ever kneels":  the heart, the soul, bows  before God.   Here, knees and heart are numb with crying out day and night to God -  "My heart was in my knee" - but still God is silent and unresponsive.   The final line of verse 3 "But no hearing" is repeated in verse 4. Nothing the poet can say or do seems to pierce God’s "silent ears". Further, it is God who has given mortal man (verse 4) the capacity to cry to God, and then not to hear…..

In the penultimate verse the soul is seen to be laid aside "Untuned, unstrung".  In her commentary on this poem, Helen Wilcox sees the coming together of the musical metaphor and the metaphor of war of verse 2:  an unstrung bow cannot even send arrow prayers.


In the last verse, the narrative of the rest of the poem is replaced by a prayer that God will indeed meet with the soul and bring tune and harmony.   Herbert finally allows harmony to come in the rhyming sequence:  disjointed rhyme in the first five verses is replaced by a rhyming last line in the last verse.   The final order in the words mirrors the new order to be found by the soul:  outer form and inner spirit find harmony.

The poem reflects the spiritual struggles of the psalmists, and those of Christians through the centuries.  It has been set to a hymn tune by Simon Lole, and is one of the tracks on the CD George Herbert:   Hymns New and Old.

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