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A Contemplation of Harmony and Disharmony

George Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop, and some thoughts on the CiRCE Conference

A week ago I was contemplating harmony with wonderful people in Charleston, South Carolina [at the 2015 CiRCE Conference, A Contemplation of Harmony]. After each long day of listening and talking, I would drive by the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and see lines of people outside its elegant white steps, praying and depositing large bright flower arrangements in memory of the nine dead. This coupling wasn’t so much ironic as it was a good reminder of Dorothy Sayers’ excellent essay The Triumph of Easter (

…Looking at Christ, what do we find God “doing about” this business of sin and evil? And what is He expecting us to do about it? Here, the Church is clear enough. We find God continually at work turning evil into good. Not, as a rule, by irrelevant miracles and theatrically effective judgments—Christ was seldom very encouraging to those who demanded signs, or lightnings from Heaven, and God is too subtle and too economical a craftsman to make very much use of those methods. But He takes our sins and errors and turns them into victories, as He made the crime of the crucifixion to be the salvation of the world. “O felix culpa!” exclaimed St. Augustine, contemplating the accomplished work.

Here is the place where we are exceedingly liable to run into misunderstanding. God does not need our sin, still less does He make us sin, in order to demonstrate His power and glory. His is not the uneasy power that has to reassure itself by demonstrations. Nor is it desirable that we should create evils on purpose for the fun of seeing Him put them right. That is not the idea at all. Nor yet are we to imagine that evil does not matter, since God can make it all right in the long run.

Whatever the Church preaches on this point, it is not a facile optimism. And it is not the advisability of doing evil that good may come. Over-simplification of this sort is as misleading as too much complication and just as perilously attractive. It is, for instance, startling and illuminating to hear a surgeon say casually, when congratulated upon some miracle of healing, “Of course, we couldn’t have done that operation without the experience we gained in the War.”

There is a good result of evil; but, even if the number of sufferers healed were to exceed that of all the victims who suffered in the War, does that allay the pangs of the victims or of any one of them, or excuse the guilt that makes war possible? No, says the Church, it does not….God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. He did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.

Sayers argues that our whole lives are to be in the service of identifying evil (in ourselves and in the world) and transforming it; she maintains that this is the pattern that Christ laid down for us with which to harmonize. There is nothing about the shooting that I accept or that I find harmonious; there is no sense in which I am glad it happened because of the “good” that has come out of it. It is evil. But it was beautiful to see the outpouring of grief and love in the midst of a troubled city.

At the conference I spoke on George Herbert. I began with a run through of his biography and mentioned that I wanted to describe the disharmonies of his life behind the scenes of his being called, by Charles Cotton, “a soul composed of harmonies.”

George Herbert, for all his remarkably resolved poetry, struggled profoundly. I’ll name just a few of the ways here. He lost his father at an early age; he encountered an extremely rigorous education at Westminster School; he became chief rhetor at Cambridge and struggled with the appeal it made to his vanity; he was passed over for court positions; he didn’t enter his vocation as a priest until age 35—some of the reasons for this were financial, some were the difficulty of making a decision to become a humble parson; he struggled with illness his whole life; he married at age 35; he died at age 40. His poetry reveals a psalmic grappling with God, with his doubts, with his nature.

In my session at the conference, we looked at a poem of his, The Flower, and one of Elizabeth Bishop’s (who was profoundly affected by Herbert), The End of March. As we talked of his life and read these exquisitely made and honest poems of long struggle and late arrival, people wept openly. All of our lives are full of disharmony and we often have long shriveled stretches just as Herbert records:

Who would have thought my shriveled heart

Could have recovered greenness? It was gone

Quite underground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown,

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

From The Flower

But the poem also describes his move from groaning to growing and further: “And now in age I bud again, /After so many deaths I live and write; / I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.”

I was and am struck by the fact that we are deeply aware that our lives do not match the harmony we can contemplate. Poets who live their lives next to us and tell us their groaning, witherin,g and decline as well as their “bud(ding)” and “returns,” give us a “garden where to bide” in the midst of this “steely,” “windy,” “shrunken” day of our lives.

I wrote about this in an essay on the way in which Herbert’s disharmonies and harmony spoke across three hundred years to Elizabeth Bishop and on the discussion their two poems have over that chasm. To read it click here.

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