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POTW: Sin and Love: Ways of Knowing and the Iconic Imagination

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Herbert’s “The Agony” presents a profound contemplation of two immense realities: Sin and Love. Through imagery, imagination, and metaphor, Herbert offers an iconographic reflection of sin and love through the agony of Christ—for only in the blood of sorrowful Passion and salvific Communion are the ineffable abstractions fully realized and understood.

Working within the varied and rich seventeenth-century poetic tradition, Herbert offers the artistic means by which to measure the great abstractions of sin and love: through the force and profundity of metaphysical verse. So initially perhaps, the “The Agony” reveals, in a meta-poetic way, that poetry is what is needed to sound the depths of “vast, spacious things.”

The opening stanza presents a primary contrast in the poem: there are two kinds of knowledge. The worldly “philosophers” embody the standard empiricist-rationalist way of knowing (and what has since become the exceedingly dominant way); they “measure” and “fathom” the physical world—its mountains and seas, its states and kings. They calculate and quantify, seeking scientific and informational knowledge which controls and aggrandizes. With their worldly intellect, they (ironically) even ascribe themselves prophetic power—they “walk with a staff to heaven.”

The image has multiple connotations. The staff might suggest their bid for power over the physical world, as Aaron’s miraculous staff held power in the plagues. Or perhaps it is Prospero’s magic staff in The Tempest; or perhaps Jacob’s staff, used in astronomy and navigation to calculate and measure angles and distances (whose long history can be traced from Herbert’s time as far back as the patriarch Jacob and his staff mentioned in Gen. 32:11).

Herbert’s candid treatment of the philosophers’ ambitions slips through—for example, in his diction—the philosophers receive the confident, vigorous verbs measured, fathomed, and walked. But the spiritual seekers Herbert is addressing in the poem—“us” Herbert and the readers—receive the more simple and humble verbs “let us repair” and “let us assay.” This is Herbert’s means of delineating the meek and open attitude of heart necessary to understand the “spacious things” of sin and love. He invites us, “Who would know Sin”—but this is not to “know” in the reductionist way of the philosophers, but rather to understand. For richly, by calling us to think poetically and imaginatively, Herbert will lead us from one way of knowing unto another, from worldly knowledge unto spiritual wisdom.

The opening line of stanza 2, “Who would know Sin, let him repair” calls us by our imagination to travel to the Mount of Olives—the mountain on the edge of Jerusalem, named for its olive groves and used for a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years. And what do we see on this mountain of death? Christ (not accidentally in the center point of the poem) “so wrung with pains, that all his hair, / His skin, his garments, bloody be.” Herbert prods us to imagine Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of Mount Olivet as he prays and reflects upon his imminent passion. Only here Christ is already stained and bloodied, well before his passion—Christ’s spiritual agony has subsumed his yet-to-happen physical agony. In this paradox, time is transcended—at once fully realized yet still to come. In like manner, when we think poetically and imaginatively, through imagery and metaphor, our way of knowing is enlarged, indeed transformed. The inner eye of the heart, which sees both into and beyond things, is opened.

Poignantly, Sin and Love are two realities in the world that remain beyond the bounds of rationalist and empiricist knowledge. Herbert leads us to them because they necessitate analogous and imaginative thought to sound their depths. For example, at the close of stanza 2, Herbert appropriates the imagery and allusion of the wine press: “Sin is that Press and Vice.” The mystical imagery of the winepress comes from Isaiah 63:3, a prophetic messianic verse: “I have trodden the winepress alone,/And from the peoples no one was with Me… their blood is sprinkled upon My garments,/ And I have stained all My robes.” This conveys the image of the sacrificial Christ, the treader of the grapes, who will be crushed by the vice press, whose bloody wine will be poured out for all. Paradox abounds here, for sin is the press which crushes Christ into wine, as he bears the world’s sin through his passion. As well, the image is further enhanced by the personification of pain “hunting his cruel food through ev’ry vein.”

With a flash of 1 Corinthians 13, the poem’s final stanza ends in Love. For love, after all, is greater than sin. We are asked, imaginatively, to taste the blood-wine which flows from Christ, the outpour from the pike piercing his body as it might “broach” a barrel of wine. The synesthetic tasting stirs our senses to iconographic intellection of the agony of Christ: He is the Love, that liquor sweet and most divine; we are the wine, the poetic possibility of knowing and being.

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