Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

01 November 2019

Malcolm Guite meditates on a phrase used by George Herbert to describe prayer

MY ROOM in college is close to the chapel, which makes it easier for students to come and find me, and also means that my day is laced and interwoven with scraps of music, with little snatches of tune and song, drifting out from choir rehearsals, instrumental practices, and singing lessons. Indeed, when either of the organ scholars is at work, I can hear something of their music, certainly the highs and lows, reaching me through two closed doors. In fact, even as I write this, I can hear one of them rehearsing a kind of tune.

As it happens, I have spent some time meditating on that phrase, “a kind of tune”. It’s one of the phrases used by George Herbert as an emblem for the mystery of our prayer life, in his enigmatic poem “Prayer”. He might have meant many things by saying that prayer itself is a kind of tune. In the line before, he speaks of how prayer can “transpose” “the six-days world” for us: take the unsingable score of our working week and render it into a key we can manage, something within our range. So, the theme of music was already in the air when he called prayer “a kind of tune”.

Herbert was a skilled player and singer, and, for him, music was always an emblem of goodness and an echo of heaven. When he missed a music practice to help a wayfarer on the road, he wrote that the memory of helping the man would itself be “music at midnight”. John Drury recalls the story in his excellent book of that title. I wonder, too, whether, in calling prayer “a kind of tune”, Herbert recollected his older friend John Donne’s poem in which, facing death, Donne looked forward to the moment when “with Thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made Thy music.”

Herbert might also have known a great sermon of Donne’s, in which he compares the creation to a stringed instrument that has gone out of tune at the Fall, and sees the coming of Christ as the sounding of a true note in humanity at last, a note which we can all hear and to which we can tune ourselves:
 

Angels and Men, put this instrument out of tune. God rectified all again, by putting in a new string . . . the Messias, and onely by sounding that string in your eares, become we musicum carmen, true musick, true harmony, true peace to you.
 

I certainly had those lines of Donne, as well as Herbert’s poem, in mind when I wrote this sonnet on that phrase, “a kind of tune”, for my new collection After Prayer:

 

A Kind Of Tune

A kind of tune, a music everywhere
And nowhere. Love’s long lovely undersong,
A trace in time, a grace-note in the air,
Borne to us from the place where we belong
On every passing breeze and in the breath
Of every creature. All things hear and fear,
For faintly, through our fall, we too may hear
The strong song of the Son that undoes death.
 

And one day we will hear it unimpaired:
The joy of all the sorrowful, the song
Of all the saints who cry ‘how long’,
The hidden hope of all who have despaired.
He sang it to his mother in the womb
And now it echoes from his empty tomb.

 

Special offer: After Prayer: New sonnets and other poems (Canterbury Press) is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.

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