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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 December 2019

Christmas is summed up in a phrase of George Herbert’s that is full of rich possibilities, says Malcolm Guite

OF ALL the luminous and generative phrases in George Herbert’s astonishing poem “Prayer (I)”, “Heaven in ordinarie” is both the most famous and the most suggestive. Scholarship has opened up some of the rich possibilities in that phrase that a modern reader might miss, but it remains just as suggestive, generous, and generative for the “ordinary” reader.

All of us who have read Herbert’s poem and savoured this phrase can have an immediate sense of what he means: that prayer itself sometimes lifts a veil and allows us to see the ordinary and everyday transfigured for a moment — to glimpse the temporal made suddenly lucid and lucent with a touch of eternity.

The phrase always seems to summon that other famous verse of Herbert’s which we sing together in church:

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.

Just for a moment, the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through, and we have a brief anticipation of St Paul’s great hope for us all: that, although “now we see through a glass darkly”, one day “we shall know as we are known”; one day “we shall see face to face”, and the face we shall see is the face of Love.

But scholars who have studied the many ways in which the word “ordinarie” was used in Herbert’s day, can offer some additional insights. They point out, for example, that “the ordinarie” was a phrase used by innkeepers. When a traveller arrived at an inn, he would be asked whether he would like a bespoke supper, brought to him upstairs in a private room, or whether he would be happy to have “the ordinarie” with the other travellers, and sit round the fire with “the company” in the common room. The “ordinarie” was whatever happened to be cooking in the common pot, ladled up and served round in earthenware vessels at the common table.

If Herbert was playing on that sense of the word, then he might be suggesting that prayer enables us to glimpse and discern heaven itself in the midst of our common life together, in the shared meal, the chance encounter, the acknowledgement of our common humanity, our common pilgrimage. We don’t always have to go into a private room, shut the door, and pray in secret (though our Lord tells us that that is sometimes necessary).

Perhaps Herbert is even hinting that we’ll glimpse the heaven in our midst only if we give up a few of our exclusive privileges and entitlements, and are happy to throw in our lot with “ordinary” folk. That interpretation is strengthened by the fact that, in his striking poem “Christmas (I)” Herbert imagines himself as just such a weary traveller arriving at an inn. But it turns out that, by some slip in the fabric of space and time, the poet’s nearest inn, “the next inne he could find”, is the inn at Bethlehem:

I took up in the next inne I could finde,
There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?

And, having arrived to find his Saviour unexpectedly waiting for him at the inn, he turns to address Christ himself:

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger.

And the link to Christmas goes, I think, even deeper. If I were to look for one phrase that sums up the whole of Christmas, that tells me the true heart and meaning of the incarnation itself, it would be “Heaven in ordinarie”. At Christmas, heaven comes down to earth, for heaven is not really a place, but a person. To be in heaven is to be fully and delightedly in the presence of the living God, and to know his presence as Love. We sing that truth together in Faber’s great hymn “Immortal Love”:

Alone, O Love ineffable,
Thy saving name is given
To turn aside from thee is hell,
To walk with thee is heaven

At Christmas, that “Love ineffable” is ineffable no more, but comes to us and takes a name, comes to be present with us, comes into the midst of the ordinary: the crowded inn, the beasts at the byre, the straw and muck of the manger. Perhaps it is because heaven was able to be “in ordinarie” at the inn that we can all occasionally glimpse heaven in the ordinariness of our own lives.

When I came to write my sonnet sequence After Prayer, in which I took each phrase of Herbert’s “Prayer” as the starting-point and stimulus for a new poem, I approached this most famous of Herbert’s phrases with some trepidation. How to compass so much in so few lines? But then I realised that compassing so much in so little is the very tune and tenor of Christmas. As Donne, in “Annunciation”, says to Mary:

Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

So my sonnet started with Christmas, and then looked from there, as Herbert’s Christmas poem does, towards the cross, and beyond the cross to the resurrection, and on from there to those moments when this world’s walls no longer stay our eyes, and we do indeed glimpse “Heaven in ordinarie”:

Heaven in Ordinary

Because high heaven made itself so low
That I might glimpse it through a stable door,
Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,
And call me through the voices of the poor,
Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through
Amidst the clutter of the every day,
Illuminating things I thought I knew,
Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.

Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,
A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,
The moment holds me in its strange surprise,
The gates of paradise are drawn apart,
I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

From After Prayer
(Canterbury Press, 2019)

After Prayer: New Sonnets and other poems by Malcolm Guite is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.

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