Waiting on the Word: George Herbert’s ‘Christmas (I)’

Editor’s Note: For our second Advent reflection on Malcolm Guite’s, Waiting on the Word (Canterbury Press, 2015), Nayeli Riano reflects upon George Herbert’s ‘Christian (I)’ and its similarities to Pieter Bruegel’s painting, ‘Census at Bethlehem’ (1566).



Christmas (I)
 George Herbert

After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray,
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?
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:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave

The idea of inserting oneself into a place or a moment of time as a way of partaking in an older tradition has always been a natural, even intuitive, exercise in the literary and visual forms of artistic expression. Reflecting on my reading of George Herbert’s ‘Christmas (I)’, I am reminded of Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem, painted in 1566, which, in my imagination, encapsulates Herbert’s poem in its entirety.

The painting is a Flemish winter scene of a small village. The landscape is covered in snow, evocative of Christmas. In the painting people are going about their busy, daily lives: children play in the snow; a pig is being slaughtered; people are working and asking for money; other people are ice skating in the distance. Everyone’s face is looking down, busy. The mood of the painting, moreover, is not representing a peaceful or jolly Christmas scene.

Most people’s backs are hunched over, working, their body language closed. They cannot be approached. The colors in the painting are rather dark, and barren trees in front of a setting sun reminds us of the cold that is pervasive.

Guite, interestingly enough, begins his reflection of Herbert’s ‘Christmas (I)’ by also comparing it to other works where the poet inserted himself into the Biblical setting. He brings to mind two other poems; Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ and Scott Cairns’ ‘Nativity’, reaffirming that this impulse for inward reflection on one’s faith is a yuletide tradition that extended itself to different forms of artistic expression, from painting to poetry, for example. [1]

Like Bruegel’s painting, the setting is not a romantic one in Herbert’s poem. Herbert opens by introducing a speaker, perhaps Herbert himself, who is riding on horseback somewhere.

The speaker begins his narration at a place that comes ‘after all pleasures’, but he also admits to us that he is lost. This feature hints that the speaker is aware of there being something missing in his life that has also rendered his horse and him tired ‘in body and mind’. His pleasures have not been enough, for they have depleted his body and his spirit. Pleasures and passions led him astray, but, tired from wandering, something else has led him to seek out an inn to spend the night.

The rider is traveling ‘with full crie of affections,’ which Guite points out is a reference of hunting with hounds. But is the speaker hunting, or is he being hunted?

While the poem starts off seeming that it is the rider who is in control, within the first two lines this already proves to not be the case because he states that he needs to seek shelter because he is tired. The inn, then, might serve two purposes: it is either a place of rest for the wary traveler to pause, or it may be a place of shelter where he can find protection from whatever it is that is hunting him.

But once the speaker arrives to the inn, he mentions that Christ was there waiting for him, expecting him. The way in which the speaker describes his encounter demonstrates that it struck him as a pleasant surprise—as a blessing: ‘Whom found I but my deare, / My dearest Lord..’(5)

The speaker realizes that the Lord was expecting him ‘till the grief/ Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there/ To be all passengers’ most sweet relief’ (6-8). Here we see that it is the ‘grief of pleasures,’ (6-7) which can be taken to mean the emptiness that comes from living a life of passions, that inevitably leads men back to Him, seeking something greater. Upon realizing that the Son of God is the ‘sweet relief’ of Mankind, the speaker must turn to Him and addresses his savior.

The next line in the poem (9) indicates what Guite calls ‘the volta’, where the poem shifts its attention from the past, and changes its tense to talk to God in the present. Guite explains that while for the first nine lines Herbert was explaining how the speaker himself was ‘the unexpected yet expected arrival at Christ’s inn’, Herbert shifts the end to address Christ, return the favor, and invite him into his soul.

Bruegel’s painting depicts Herbert’s poem: it depicts a world of travelers, tired from their labors and carnal pleasures but that carry along busily in their tasks ignoring the salvation that literally walks among them. In the center of the painting, right at the foreground, is the Holy Family walking through the crowds of people, blending in to the point of being hidden. But Mary’s face is one of the few that we can distinguish, looking down not at her labor, but at her Son.

Similar to when Herbert’s speaker arrives at the inn and finds Christ waiting for him there, as a surprise to him, Mary and Joseph appear to be riding towards the crowd of people who are too busy to notice them. Unbeknownst to them, she is going to deliver their Saviour unto them.

Herbert’s poem and Bruegel’s painting share a common message here: we are all travelers, weary from passions, running away from something that we perceive to be hunting us, but it is only until we stop and seek shelter and rest that we will find what we needed.Most importantly, we will realize that it has been there all along.

Guite summarizes the hope and beauty of this surprise, and the beauty of the Christmas season that comes around every year, in a poetic way himself: After all the searching, ‘We find that all the time, and by sheer grace, we have kept an appointment; our Lord was waiting patiently for us.’

 


[1] John Milton’s poem, ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (pp. 94-103) and Scott Cairn’s, ‘Nativity’ (pp. 109-114) are both featured in Waiting on the Word (Canterbury Press, 2015).

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