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 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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