Selected Poem - 'The Discharge'

One of the things that makes Herbert so accessible to readers still is the poignancy with which he depicts fundamental human feelings. In many of his poems he reveals a tormented spirit: “my breast was full of fears and disorder” ('Denial'), “struck with many a sting of swarming fears” ('The Pilgrimage'), “my shrivel’d heart” ('The Flower'). In all these poems, he looks ultimately for a divine solution, but it comes in different forms. In 'Grace', for example, he looks to grace which “drops from above”. In this poem, he seems to expect a more active role from the sufferer himself. It echoes a theme from Matthew 6:34 − “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” − and there are also secular resonances in this message, as in the First World War song 'Pack Up Your Troubles' − “What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile”.

'The Discharge'

BUsie enquiring heart, what wouldst thou know?
Why dost thou prie,
And turn, and leer, and with a licorous eye
Look high and low;
And in thy lookings stretch and grow?

Hast thou not made thy counts, and summ’d up all?
Did not thy heart
Give up the whole, and with the whole depart?
Let what will fall:
That which is past who can recall?

Thy life is Gods, thy time to come is gone,
And is his right.
He is thy night at noon: he is at night
Thy noon alone
The crop is his, for he hath sown.

And well it was for thee, when this befell,
That God did make
Thy businesse his, and in thy life partake:
For thou canst tell,
If it be his once, all is well.

Onely the present is thy part and fee.
And happy thou,
If, though thou didst not beat thy future brow,
Thou couldst well see
What present things requir’d of thee.

They ask enough; why shouldst thou further go?
Raise not the mudde
Of future depths, but drink the cleare and good.
Dig not for wo
In times to come; for it will grow.

Man the present fit: if he provide,
He breaks the square.
This houre is mine: if for the next I care,
I grow too wide,
And do encroach upon deaths side.

For death each hour environs and surrounds.
He that would know
And care for future chances, cannot go
Unto those grounds,
But through a Church-yard which them bounds.

Things present shrink and die: but they that spend
Their thoughts and sense
On future grief, do not remove it thence,
But it extend,
And draw the bottome out an end.

God chains the dog till night: wilt loose the chain,
And wake thy sorrow?
Wilt thou forestall it, and now grieve to morrow,
And then again
Grieve over freshly all thy pain?

Either grief will not come: or if it must,
Do not forecast.
And while it cometh, it is almost past.
Away distrust:
My God hath promis’d; he is just.

Commentary

The title of 'The Discharge' may refer to relief from a burden or the fulfilment of an obligation, though typically it has at least one more, equally relevant, meaning – sending something or someone away: “away, distrust”. The poem has links with all three meanings, though perhaps most to the first, as it almost takes the form of a counselling session where a person in a state of panic is helped to let go of their irrational fears.

The first verse is a graphic depiction of acute anxiety: you can feel the frenetic pace of the writer’s “busie enquiring heart”. The tone is critical – what is the justification for questioning? The “licorous eye” of this impertinently questioning heart evokes a sense of lechery, lusting after forbidden things. Here, Herbert foreshadows Shelley’s words “we look before and after, we pine for what is not”.

The following three verses are an admonition to stop worrying about things which cannot be changed (“Let what will fall: That which is past who can recall?”). They are a reminder both of the supreme power and benevolence of God, and of the contract which places obligations on God and man alike - another dimension of the “discharge” of the title.

 

The next three verses turn to the sufferer’s day to day responsibilities, which may have been ignored while trying uselessly to forecast the future. This is seen not only in terms of duty, but as practical and comforting, in the graphic metaphor “Raise not the mudde of future depths, but drink the cleare and good”. Repeatedly, man is reminded of his place in the universe: “Onely the present is thy part and fee”, “Man the present fit: if he provide, He breaks the square” (i.e. disrupts the natural order of things).

Yet man is not forever confined to the box of the present. As at the end of 'The Pilgrimage', death, though ominous, is seen in verse 8 as a gateway to that future which the poet says we must not reach out for now. And the final three verses offer both practical advice and consolation, stressing again an almost Zen philosophy of living in the moment, and ending with a resounding affirmation of faith in God.

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