Prayer: Two Poems

Fear not. These have not been written by me!

Instead, they come from the pens of two great British poets–men who are famous, and rightly so.

The first in an excerpt from Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). He was Poet Laureate, so he knew what he was doing when he wielded that pen of his. I leap straight from that, however, into confessing that I have not read Idylls of the King. I have, however, been familiar with this excerpt from it since I was twelve. Or thereabouts. It’s a striking description of the importance of prayer.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Isn’t that beautiful? And convicting? “More things are wrought by prayer/Than this world dreams of”.

The image of the fountain is so fitting. A fountain is constant. Every morning finds it lifting up its water to the heavens; every evening finds its water splashing into the pool below, while more rises. A fountain doesn’t have on days and off days. It doesn’t promise that its water will rise and fall this week, only to get to the end of the week and realise that it hasn’t.

I’ve had to refresh my memory when it comes to metrical patterns and form. Having done so, I can now tell you (in case you were wondering) that this poem is written in iambic pentameter, which means that it follows a pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable and that that pattern repeats itself five times in every line. If we put the stressed syllables in bold typeface, the second line would look like this:  “Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice“.  If you think that there’s something different about the first line, you’re quite right. It only has three pairs of syllables, not five, because the excerpt has actually broken into the middle of a line. Even though the poem is unrhymed, or blank, the rhythm keeps you going and gives that sense of satisfaction and completion.

The second poem is quite different. Here, we’re leaping back a couple of centuries to George Herbert (1593-1633), an Anglican priest and poet (good combination, that). If the previous poem tells us what prayer does, this one tells us what prayer is:

Prayer (I)

Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.

Different, but so beautiful. And all he’s doing (all–oh the irony) is giving us a list–chiming off vivid descriptions, metaphors, of prayer. “The soul in paraphrase”–isn’t that striking and lovely?

You can see the difference between the two poems not only in content, but also in poetic form. I believe this second one is an English sonnet, which means that it has fourteen lines and follows the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.  So, lines one and three rhyme with each other (“age” and “pilgrimage”) as do lines two and four (“birth” and “earth”), and the next two groups of four lines also rhyme that way within themselves–in theory, anyway! I think Herbert does something different with the rhyme scheme in lines 9-12. The last two lines, evidently much less social creatures, just rhyme with each other.

As to the rhythm, broadly speaking this too is following iambic pentameter in terms of the stressed and unstressed beats, although when I was sounding it out, it didn’t seem perfect, and Wikipedia kindly confirmed for me that while English sonnets do generally follow iambic pentameter, some degree of latitude is permitted. We won’t begrudge Mr Herbert that poetic leeway.

My favourite part of this poem is right at the end–“Something understood”. That pause just before it, where the semicolon is, makes for such a feeling of completion when I get to those last two words. Yes, this is just where it should end. It doesn’t need a word more or less. It’s perfect.

Unlike our actual prayers, which are often halting and incomplete and misguided and far from “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss”. But God still understands. Is it God’s understanding that Herbert is referring to in those last words? I don’t know. Either way, it’s true.

And if I have done nothing else, at least you now know that Gerald Manley Hopkins isn’t the only poet I enjoy!

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