Thursday, September 27, 2007
There are words we live by, words that become the creeds by which we live our lives. Those of us with any heart at all assemble them gradually, over a lifetime. They form our most intimate book, the essential text of our heart. The Phoenicians believed there was a specially designated being – neither angel nor god nor demon precisely, but charged nonetheless – whose job it was to read this book that each thinking person wrote with the pen of their life. Perhaps this is just as well: even among the very young (such as ourselves), that book is apt to be unbearably personal. Not something anybody would want to share even with those who know them best.
So imagine our surprise here at Stevereads when we read this week’s New Yorker and found one of our own basic heart-texts paraded out in the open for all to see. Usually, it’s safely buried in random obscure anthologies. But here it was, in James Woods’ very, very talented review of Robert Alter’s frankly stunning new translation of the Book of Psalms (a gorgeous production complete with commentary).
The lines in question come from the busy quill-pen of George Herbert, whose works lie largely forgotten today except by students forced to read him. George Herbert, who was shy and well-spoken and endlessly sympathetic to everyone who ever told him a sad story. If ever in the sad history of mankind there was a person whose life directly depicted the struggle between avid, inconclusive flesh and the thing Christians call the soul, George Herbert was that person. On the naked membrane of his life the age-old struggle was hammered out daily, and he was spared none of it, and he, in his turn, spared us none of it. His poetry is therefore harrowing, and yet always there is light in it, and so very belatedly, one of his little lyrics made its way into our own innermost book. Only a hyper-intelligent young mortal caught in the coils of the faith-virus that has plagued mankind since its inception could bleed out the words we saw so callously printed for every bored dentist in Larchmont to read:
“Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
So will I do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.”
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, not the whole but at least one single page of our own personal book (those of you in a position to know will perhaps be able to guess a couple of others, although, as is only fitting, nobody knows the whole text). ‘I will lament, and love’ … the forlorn yet somehow valiant hopelessness of such line … we can honestly say: George Herbert taught us that.
(the implicit challenge here is to you all: append one line, one segment, one verse that forms a plank in your own existence … we promise not to tell)