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"PRAYER (1)" George Herbert (1633) The first of two poems that focus on the same topic, "Prayer (1)" by George Herbert is a sonnet, which preserves the traditional buoyant tone of the form but focuses on religious passion rather than erotic passion. Herbert uses figurative language in the first 12 lines to compare the act and nature of prayer to many other aspects of religion. He labels it, for example, "the Church's banquet, Angels' age," in the first line, with the food reference reminding readers of the vital nature of prayer to promote a healthy soul, and the angel imagery connecting prayer with service to God. It is "The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage," in line 3, a skillful pairing of two important human "organs," the soul and heart, in reference to faith. While the soul can speak, the heart journeys away from flesh, seeking God. Prayer acts in line 6 as "Reversed thunder," an intriguing suggestion, in that thunder generally issues from the heavens, whereas in this case, it issues from earth and is aimed at the heavens. In that same line prayer is also "Christ-side-piercing spear," referencing the spear with which a soldier stabbed the crucified Christ to speed his death. Because Christ's death meant life for humans, a prayer may do the same. It is likewise "A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear," a bit of a contradiction. The word tune invokes a familiar feeling, an association with an informal and common song, not likely to promote "fear." Here Herbert may intend the meaning to be "awe," a component of which may be fear. The ninth line offers a series for comparison: "Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss," all products of prayer. Herbert's insertion of the conjunction and between the items in his series, instead of a mere comma, emphasizes the large number of pleasures to which prayer compares. it is also "Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed," meaning the common language for Heaven, which opens its lofty ears to hear man's "well dressed" supplication and praise. The speaker also compares prayer to another unexplained wonder, "The milky way," which has been identified but remains unexplained by man, who lacks the necessary language and tools to do so.
Herbert includes further reference to the stars in the concluding couplet, traditionally a summation of a proposal presented in the sonnet's first 12 lines: "Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood, / The land of spices; something understood." The final phrase acts as unification for the concept of prayer that precedes it. Herbert suggests that in whatever form it is delivered, a prayer will be heard and understood. its delivery remains important, not its form.
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