12 Poets #1: Despair (After George Herbert’s “Deniall”)

The next George Herbert poem I am going to respond to is one called “Deniall” (his curious spelling, not mine). It’s one of his darker poems, but also one of the best examples of his mastery of poetic form. 20th-century poet W.H. Auden wrote that Herbert possessed a “gift for securing musical effects by varying the length of the lines in a stanza”. This is certainly true of “Deniall”, as you will almost certainly see when you read it.

One of the curious things about “Deniall” is the fact that, for almost the entire poem, the final line of each stanza does not rhyme with any other line in the poem – it just hangs there, an abrupt, dissonant conclusion to the musicality of the rest of the poem. Only in the final stanza does the rhyme resolve, with a wonderful flourish that makes this one of my favourites of Herbert’s work. I have worked with the same form as Herbert and have expressed similar emotions in my poem, but have also used Psalm 88, the darkest psalm in the Bible, as something of a starting point for my work. Here it is, along with Herbert’s original poem.

Despair (After George Herbert’s “Deniall”)
           God, my soul is thick with dread
                                     And muted tears,
Sinking deeper with every step I tread
                And losing feeble years
                                     In silence.
            Heavy drags the weight of days
                                     Pulling me under,
And still you swamp me with all of your waves
                And deafen with thunder
                                     Yet say nothing.
        I look up to your sky to find
                                     There some escape;
Instead the clouds encompass all my mind,
                A heavy cloak, a cape
                                     But no flight.
        To you I call all day, all night,
                                     My spirit splayed;
The dead cry with me, yet they have no sight
                To see your grace displayed
                                     And do not dream.
        My eyes veiled from what you have done,
                                     Already close to death,
I follow you into oblivion
                With weak and fading breath
                                     And thinning faith.
        Darkness is my closest friend;
                                     Still I pray,
For, with no resolution and no end,
                You may yet mend the fray
                                     And bring in day…
Deniall (George Herbert)
           When my devotions could not pierce
                                     Thy silent eares;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
                My breast was full of fears
                                     And disorder:
        My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
                                     Did flie asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
                Some to the warres and thunder
                                     Of alarms.
        As good go any where, they say,
                                     As to benumme
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
                Come, come, my God, O come,
                                     But no hearing.
        O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
                                     To crie to thee,
And then not heare it crying! all day long
                My heart was in my knee,
                                     But no hearing.
        Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
                                     Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
                Like a nipt blossome, hung
        O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
                                     Deferre no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
                They and my minde may chime,
                                     And mend my ryme.

Published by Matthew Pullar

Teacher, writer, blogger, husband, father, Christian. Living in Wyndham in Melbourne's west, on the land of the Kulin Nation. Searching for words to console and feed hearts and souls.

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