George Herbert wrote around four hundred years ago, but his poetry is still powerfully immediate today. Perhaps it’s the sometimes shocking honesty of his work, perhaps the incredible confidence with which he moves between poetic forms and makes them altogether his own. This is particularly apparent in the handful of sonnets that he wrote. Herbert rarely wrote sonnets, but when he did they were powerful – so powerful that you often forgot you were even reading a sonnet.
Take “Redemption”, for example, one of my personal favourites. Breaking with a tradition that sees sonnets often being addresses to a beloved or an exposition of a theme, this sonnet is a story and one with an undeniable bite to it at the end. I have used “Redemption” as the starting point for a new poem which I have called “Justification”. Like Herbert’s poem, it tells a story which illustrates a theological concept. I have tried to stick as closely as possible to Herbert’s form without recycling his ideas. Here are both poems for you to read.Justification Tired out from night on night awake, Hurling back and forth these arguments, Revising who said this, made that mistake, My head worn out, my body weak and dense, I set before you my best-argued case, My final, full summation of the facts. The spleen I vented then before your face Fell in the night, the thudding of an axe. I turned to you, expecting angry flame, An answer thick with all your wounded pride; Instead I saw blood flowing from your side. You smiled in the silence of my shame. All mine is yours, whispered your last heart beat; You took my words and nailed them through your feet. George Herbert – Redemption Having been tenant long to a rich lord, Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold, And make a suit unto him, to afford A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old. In heaven at his manor I him sought; They told me there that he was lately gone About some land, which he had dearly bought Long since on earth, to take possessiòn. I straight returned, and knowing his great birth, Sought him accordingly in great resorts; In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts; At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied, Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.