Malcolm Guite finds in the words of George Herbert the strength to cajole himself out of bed for the pre-dawn Easter vigil

29 March 2018

Malcolm Guite finds in the words of George Herbert the strength to cajole himself out of bed for the pre-dawn Easter vigil

I AM glad that there are now so many early-morning Easter services: pre-dawn vigils and fires, gatherings of Christians to greet the rising sun in the light of the Risen Son.

At least, in theory I’m glad. In practice, I find that I am not such an early riser as I would theoretically like to be, and that my drowsy and gradual coming-to, all my yawning and stretching, seem to take more effort, and, together with that essential first cup of tea in bed, seem to take longer than they used to.

But perhaps I am in good company. Many of us will read George Herbert’s glorious poem “Easter” on Easter Day. One way of reading the poem is to see it as Herbert’s long, metrically intricate way of cajoling himself to get out of bed.

Easter day would have started for Herbert like every day, with early morning matins, and his poem “Mattins” opens with the line “I cannot ope mine eyes”. I know how he feels. Though, of course, Herbert goes on in the following lines to change the sense of the first line, because of Christ’s transforming presence with him:
 

I cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.
 

“Ah, you’re already there in church ahead of me, I’d better get going and catch up,” he seems to be saying. But, as he crossed the little lane in Bemerton from the rectory to the church, still wiping the sleep from his eyes, and stumbled through Psalm 57, one of the proper psalms on an early Easter Day matins, Herbert might well have recited verse 9 with feeling: as a quite literal “wake-up call”:
 

Awake up, my glory, awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early
 

Certainly, it was that line which became the inspiration and starting point for “Easter”, whose first verse opens:
 

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
 

And whose second verse echoes that with a call to his Lute:
 

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.


But this Easter wake-up call differs from his poem “Mattins”, in which we sense an effort to catch up with Christ, who is “ready there”, an effort all packed into those two words “must needs”. But, in “Easter”, it is the Risen Christ himself who graciously comes to Herbert where he lies abed and actually helps him rise:
 

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.
 

We are not far off that moment when, in his masterpiece “Love (III)”, Herbert will sum all this up in the simple phrase “Love took my hand”.

So I intend to get up early this Easter Morning. Like Herbert’s lute, I might “struggle for my part”, but I also know that, when I stumble into church to celebrate an early Easter communion, Love will have risen before me and be ready to greet me, and I will say to him, as Herbert does in “Easter”:
 

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

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