George Herbert – “Jordan” (2), “Time”, “The Bunch of Grapes”

“Jordan” (2), similarly to the previous poem, is a discussion of what religious poetry should be. It also echoes, as the helpful footnote reminds us, of the first sonnet in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. The poet describes how he painted himself into the corner by trying to describe the joys of heaven in the best possible way, looking for “quaint words’ and be inventive. But as he gets more inventive, he also gets more dissatisfied with himself, blotting out what he has just written. And then he hears the whisper of “a friend” (God possibly) telling him that it is actually very simple, because all he should do is just to copy down “the sweetness of love”.

“Time” is a dialogue with Time, who here is more of a grim reaper, carrying a scythe. The speaker tells him to whet it and Time, somewhat surprised, says that most people prefer it to be blunt. The speaker than launches into the monologue explaining that Christians have no reason to fear death, because it is the beginning of a new, better life for them. So the scythe is for them like a pruning hook, freeing them of the unnecessary physical body, and Time is not an executioner but a gardener. The poem ends with a paradox which is, to be honest, quite difficult for me to understand. The speaker exclaims “Of what strange length must that needs be/which even eternity excludes!” I guess he refers to the length of the lives of the people who actually want to put off the moment of their death and the beginning of the eternal life. Time, visibly bored with this, says he won’t wait anymore because the speaker “does not crave less time but more”, which (I guess) means the speaker does not look at death as the moment when his life is cut short, but as the endless time.

“The Bunch of Grapes” is built around the stories told in the Bible about the journey of the Jews to the Promised Land. The speaker begins by admitting that he suffered some kind of spiritual setback which brought him back to the Red Sea, “the sea of shame” (because he feels his face getting red). The journey of each Christian is like the journey of the Jews, they have their guardian fires and clouds, and instead of manna they have the Scripture. And unfortunately they rebel against God’s authority as often as the Jews. But all the speaker asks for is some sign of the good things which are going to come, like the giant grapes which were brought by scouts from Canaan when the Jews began to feel discouraged. However, the speaker realizes that he does not need grapes when he has the wine of Jesus’ sacrifice, because Jesus turned the sour juice of the Old Testament into the sweet wine of the New.

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