Interpreting Herbert’s “The Sacrifice”

24 Mar

George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” is among my favorite works of devotional poetry. When I was a dorm supervisor at IBC, on several occasions I used the evening devotional time to read the work to the men in its entirety (and the reading never fit in the ordained fifteen minutes).

As Good Friday and Easter approach, I am again hoping to be able to read the poem for devotional benefit, both for myself and for some who will hear me. I am currently putting together a small booklet of hymns and poems for a Good Friday service, and with the poems, I am adding short notes to help explain the more complex syntax and allusions.

Unfortunately, I am myself stumped regarding a handful of phrases, and I would be very interested in getting some help from others who are better at reading poetry than I. Here are the expressions that I am struggling to understand:

Line 26: “both the Hemispheres”: Some notes suggest that this is a reference to eyes; it seems to me that it could also refer to the whole world.

Line 55: “Comments would the text confound”: Here, I am unsure what meaning of confound Herbert is using, and I am also unclear what is the referent of the text.

Line 119: “more than heav’n doth glass”: Again, I have a general idea of Herbert’s meaning, but am not certain about his specific idea.

Line 146: “That he before me well nigh suffereth”: Here, I’m pretty well lost. I assure he refers back to the taunter in the previous line, but I’m not able to unpack much more than that.

I apologize that the version of the poem to which I linked has no line numbers; I wasn’t able to find a online version which did.


Posted by on March 24, 2010 in Personal, Worship


13 responses to “Interpreting Herbert’s “The Sacrifice”

  1. unknowing

    March 24, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Nothing wrong with having ambiguities. But here’s what I think:

    I don’t see why Hemispheres should refer to anything other than the world, which we so divide. Perhaps, however, some secret lore of balsam limited it? Would seem notes would cover that.

    It seems to me the accusation being brought against Jesus is that his commentary on the text of the OT makes it nonsense or contradicts it, as do some stupid footnotes.

    The use of the verb “glass” is a difficult one, isn’t it? Have an etymological dictionary? I don’t. How about mirror? glass, v. = mirror, v. I would assume the verb mirror is being translated into a noun and from there he gets the noun glass and reflects it back as a verb?

    In calling for his death, they do it with such vehemence as nearly to suffer from their own exertions, but not quite.

    • Michael Riley

      March 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm


      Very helpful, and very appreciated, thoughts.

      I tend to side with you on Hemispheres.

      Regarding “comments”: you’re saying that the phrase “Comments would the text confound” represents the Jews understanding of Jesus’s teaching. I was taking the expression to refer to Jesus’s evaluation of his opponents’ criticisms. On re-reading, your understanding makes good sense. I suppose some of the interpretation hangs on the force of the full colon.

      I was taking “glass” as a verb to mean “reflect,” but even then, the precise notion of Herbert’s thought escapes me: “more peace than heaven reflects”?

      Your last explanation makes utter sense and seems dead-on.

      I did find one more that puzzled me: line 127 “winds up my grief to a mysteriousness.” My guess is something like this: each lash Christ receives increases his grief to the point of infinity. Thoughts?

      Thanks again, Joel, for your input. Very helpful.

  2. unknowing

    March 24, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Yes, you really need an etymological dictionary on glass. In Cormac McCarthy it would mean to look at through binoculars. Maybe it means encompass. I still think the association of a mirror may be correct. Mirrors reflect things, but remain untroubled, calm, impassive.

    I think the mysteriousness is a way of saying something is like a paradox, the way the immanence and transcendence of God are a mystery when considered jointly. His tenderness, their bitterness, his suffering and grief increased by their malice. . . for their own benefit. By their own hands they bring about the redemption of the guilt they then incur. It is a mystery, it winds or perhaps sublimates the grief of Jesus.

    • Michael Riley

      March 25, 2010 at 10:53 am

      Can I throw one more at you? In Herbert’s “The Sepulchre,” he has the following stanza:

      Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
      And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
      Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
      And order.

      And I’m good, until the fourth line. Even grammatically, I’m having difficulty processing “and order.” Any thoughts?

      • unknowing

        March 25, 2010 at 11:52 am

        I have misgivings. It is worth more to one if one works at the answer rather than automatically reads commentaries. It is a bad habit when it comes to anything worthwhile to take an easy way out, and it will damage you. Sometimes you have to wait for years, and it is worth the wait. This one took me over a year

        You put it down, and you come back again. You’ll have better satisfaction if you do. Let me advise you to try reading poets from another period, expanding gradually to widen your tastes–no matter how wide, there is always for us room to grow in English poetry, I think–and then come back.

        But we also need conversations about these things, not only contemplation.

        My thought on this one would be: why is there an ambiguity? It can either mean they “entertain order” or they “order thee.” Sometimes it is a question of having enough of a grasp of Herbert’s inner world to understand. Sometimes it is an unusual use of the word, perhaps here the word entertain. It meant to maintain.

        Just try working with that if you haven’t, and don’t read on right away.

        I think that along with the thought developing in stanza 3, a certain disorder creeps into things, so that the suggestion of the last line of that third stanza, which expects an unambiguous no, is entertained (= a metaphysical conceit) and then dropped.

        The rocks aren’t the rowdy ones, which is the point all along, the irony of his conceit.

  3. Jason Parker

    March 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for bringing this up. I have been working through “The Complete English Works” of Herbert this year. In the annotated edition I have, there are some interpretive comments related to your questions on lines 26 and 146.

    Lines 25-7: Christ’s suffering together with man’s remorse can cure…all the world – except the suffering of Christ…

    It is clear that the editor takes “Hemispheres” as a reference to the world.

    Lines 146-7: They all call for my death so vehemently (with utmost breath) that they almost die before me. The dying Christ will also spend his utmost breath at l. 229; there is an ironic contrast here.

    Hope that helps.

    • Michael Riley

      March 25, 2010 at 10:54 am

      Thanks, Jason. Good to have extra voices confirming some of these interpretations.

  4. Chuck Bumgardner

    March 25, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Hi, Michael.

    BTW, great webcast on RA with Scott; looking forward to future installments.

    The “Hemispheres” stanza is fascinating, isn’t it? I wonder if it could refer to the roundish drops of blood and the roundish tears to which Herbert alludes: “both” “these drops” and “a sinner’s tears”. The mixture of atoning blood and repentant tears applies a “balsam” (=”balm”) for BOTH Hemispheres (HEMIspheres because blood and tears have been mixed together, “half-and-half”.) It provides a balm for sinners’ “wounds” (connects with “blood”) and for sinners’ “fears” (connects with “tears”).

    That’s not to say that there couldn’t simultaneously be a reference to the two eyes (but why then HEMIspheres?) or to the two halves of the globe (connecting with “all”). What do you think?

    • Michael Riley

      March 25, 2010 at 10:13 am


      The only problem that I see with what you’re saying is that if the tear/blood mixture is the balsam (which is right), I don’t see how the balsam is the Hemispheres, if the Hemispheres are somehow synonymous with the balsam.

      I just wrote a nightmare sentence; does it make any sense?

  5. Chuck Bumgardner

    March 25, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Well, if I’m heading down the right path with my suggestion, the mixture of blood and tears would be the bal(sa)m that would provide a cure for each of the COMPONENTS (i.e., “hemispheres”) which comprise the balsam.

  6. d4v34x

    October 28, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Ridiculously late to this, I know, but . . .

    I think “and order” is actually a continuation of the prepositional phrase “in quiet”, split by the verb and object due to metrical concerns. In prose the sentence would then read, “Only these stones in quiet and order entertain thee,” picturing Christ in the silent and otherwise empty tomb.

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