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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A crumb of dust

George Herbert, who left us gold...
"To be a window, through thy grace."
St. Andrew's, Bemerton, Wiltshire.
Ash Wednesday.

Flakes of snow falling out of the ash-light.

As I am dust, and to dust I will return, I started off the day properly with tea (needed to moisturize that dust in the meantime!) and a rich, metaphysical poem from the marvelous Anglican poet-saint, George Herbert (1593-1633), writing of "a crumb of dust." Some poems are touchstones that tell the gold a poem can be--how large and bold and beautiful. This is one.

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
     Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
     If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
          My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more,
     Sometimes I peer above them all;
     Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
          Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
     Those distances belong to thee:
     The world's too little for thy tent,
           A grave too big for me.

 Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
      A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell?
      Will great God measure with a wretch?
           Shall he thy stature spell?

 O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
      O let me roost and nestle there:
      Then of a sinner thou art rid,
           And I of hope and fear.

 Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
      Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
      This is but tuning of my breast,
           To make the music better.

 Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
      Thy hands made both, and I am there;
      Thy power and love, my love and trust,
           Make one place ev'rywhere.


  1. Thank you for sharing the thought-filled poem. My New Critic tendencies lead me to ponder the profusion and balance of the personal pronouns (I, me, my) versus the Divine (thou, thee, thy), and then I ponder the tension between the entities. But perhaps I over-reach. In any case, have a wonder-filled Lenten season.

    1. Thank you. I hope yours is meaningful!

      I also love the sweep of this poem, the quick changes, the move from expanse to smallness, the rapid metaphorical transformations.

  2. That word: so evocative. Recently re-read Waugh's novel and shuddered at the title quotation: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust".

    But not just Eliot; new to me is Tennyson's Maud: "Long dead! And my heart is a handful of dust." No doubt Eliot knew but did Waugh?

    Both proclaim despair whereas Herbert is sustained by thoughts of redemption. I am amazed by Herbert's dates but shouldn't be; the 21st century has no monopoly on articulacy and expressiveness.

    In my new world I am delighted to discover that Purcell (prehistoric dates but oh, how his tunes tweak one's feelings) found Herbert's "Longing" worthy of setting to music. But here's something personal: in my brief period as a pure-voiced but mindless treble chorister I actually sang Herbert: the almost aggressively upbeat "Let all the world in every corner sing." Now there's a hymn that must have been written in a major key.

    But you are unbelievably conscientious, you must know that. And never a one for the greetings card response; always a valuable fragment of yourself. This comment was meant to be far shorter but greed at what I might reap has propelled it. You should discourage me; provided you use wit ("Stay not upon the order of your going") I'll take the hint.

    1. My mind must be already half dust because I didn't even recognize that line from "Maud." (And for that matter, I might as well not have read Waugh and Eliot--it's all an alphabet soup in my mind. I suppose it's the mind's transformation that is important.)

      I used to be in the soprano section of a choir, and it seems to me that we sang a Herbert poem. Maybe Ralph Vaughan Williams? Maybe "Come my way, my truth, my life"? Or perhaps I am simply fabulating I've already said my skull is a bowl for alphabet soup, after all.

      You are amusing! Come back any time. I should go visit you in your e-abode after my youngest heads back to school. Young love must be home on Valentine's Day, it seems. Until then, stretched thin...

    2. p. s. Insert missing period after "fabulating." Typos, you little evil demons of the print realm!

      p. p. s. I expect you give me miles and miles of too much credit with "unbelievably conscientious." Perhaps I am simply compulsive, and can't help it. Or irretrievably gregarious. I expect a load of less flattering reasons will arrive if I consider it any more, so: a stop!

  3. "Simply compulsive." Oh sure. The same conclusion running through Thomas Stearns' mind when he straightened up and contemplated (for the first time):

    A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year...

    And as if that wasn't enough, being worried about typos and - for goodness sake! - punctuation. Who in this Iphone age bothers about those little speckles?

    But then it's there in your origins: "a calcium carbonate or lime-rich mud or mudstone which contains variable amounts of clays and silt. The dominant carbonate mineral is calcite, but other carbonate minerals such as aragonite, dolomite, and siderite may be present."

    You were born into a splendid vocabulary; you cannot help yourself. But don't bother with Tone Deaf, it would seem like a trade.

    1. Hah. I also can't bear tags on clothing. Scritch-scratch. Minutiae.

      What a pretty list of clay-componnents. I looked up the Tolkienesque one, as I had never heard of it: "Aragonite's crystal lattice differs from that of calcite, resulting in a different crystal shape, an orthorhombic system with acicular crystals. Repeated twinning results in pseudo-hexagonal forms. Aragonite may be columnar or fibrous, occasionally in branching stalactitic forms called flos-ferri ("flowers of iron") from their association with the ores at the Carinthian iron mines." Flos-ferri!

      And now, to the mine, to look for crystals!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.