Selected Poem - 'The Elixir'

On a hot summer’s day, dust had come in through the open doorway of the little George Herbert church in Bemerton where I live. I swept it up, and sang “Teach me my God and King” with its verse about sweeping rooms and wondered whether the servants in Herbert’s time had felt they too were making “drudgery divine” when they swept his house.

'The Elixir'

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:

Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.


All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.

Commentary

This poem is one of the best known and most loved hymns in church worship. At its heart is transformation – from the down-to-earth to the glimpse of heaven; from dirt and dust to the pure and clean, from the hidden to the revealed.

Herbert called Jesus his "Master" (cf. 'The Odour') and one of the functions of a master is to teach. So the poem starts with a simple request to be taught how to see God in everything – and how to offer up every action to God. The second verse is rarely sung in the hymnody. But the use of the word “perfection” is interesting: Herbert wrote three versions of this poem, giving the title 'Perfection' to the first version.

The third verse explores the same theme as the poem 'The Windows'. It is about seeing, about seeing beyond and about transparency. Looking at the surface of a thing and letting the eye rest there will keep a person earthbound. Look beyond it - and catch a glimpse of heaven. So we have already a sense that there is more in the ordinary and everyday things of life than meets the eye, there is something more to be revealed.

 

The fourth verse provides the key. All that is done for God is made sacred. Further, it is open to all – there is a movement from the personal pronoun of verse 1 to the plural of this verse. The use of the verb “partake” points us to the shared meal of Communion. Nothing is worthless, however lowly, if it is done for God. Even the most everyday ordinary task, like cleaning a room, goes beyond the end result of a satisfyingly spotless room – the action of cleaning itself is made clean, made sacred. The Gospels record Jesus as saying “I am among you as one who serves”. Nor is the earthly servant, whether cleaning a room or ministering as a pastor, any different.

There have already been clues in the poem – the title, the use of the word “tincture” – to lead us to the full revelation of the last verse. We are in the world of alchemy, of science, an emerging world of discovery for Herbert and his contemporaries. How does a base metal get turned into gold? By the use of a touchstone – this is the philosopher’s stone, the elixir. So, spiritually, when touched by the risen Christ, human beings can themselves be transformed from the base metal of a self-centred life to the gold of a free offering of their life to God. The poem 'Easter' spells it out: “as his death calcined thee to dust, His life may make thee gold…”. So the dust of a person’s life can be turned to gold when it is offered “for thy sake”. That is gold dust indeed.

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