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‘Interpret thine own work’: Figural reading with George Herbert and John Donne

By Nate Wall

Editor’s note: This is the third piece in our series Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition. See the introductory essay by David Ney for more details on Anglicanism as a community centered on the Word: “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics.” Find all the essays (and others related to them) under the tag ressourcement.

Socrates wanted to expel the poets from the city. Anglicans can’t share his dream; how could we withstand the loss of our poets? Some of their best gifts come to us in their figural readings of Scripture. It is one thing, after all, to theorize about figural reading; it’s another to get inside the event of figural reading. For that, we can hardly do better than the word work of poet-priests George Herbert (1593–1633) and John Donne (1573–1631).[1]

Both Herbert and Donne read Scripture as if it came from the mouth of a “Metaphoricall God,” and both sought to to write after God’s example. In the Bible, “figures flow into figures, and pour themselves into farther figures”; the poems of Donne and Herbert likewise move fluidly between biblical figures and images.[2] They carry poet and reader along in Scripture’s current, coming to a rest after a last, sudden turn — the spiritual and interpretive equivalent of a sonnet’s volta.

By the end of many Donne and Herbert poems, it is as if the Bible and its reader have switched places. The interpreter of Scripture has become the interpreted. While the poet strings together turns of phrase — that is, “tropes” — the God who speaks in figures himself tropes the poet. Donne and Herbert take us inside this experience. They show us what happens when we find ourselves suddenly “translated” by the Bible’s figures: our lives are transformed as they are translated into God’s mother tongue, mercy.

George Herbert

In his poem The Flower, Herbert admits that life often seems little more than a confusing mess.

We say amiss,

This or that is:

Thy word is all, if we could spell. (“The Flower,” ll. 19–21)

By our own lights, the ups and downs of the Christian life look like a jumble of letters. God writes to us in the clack-clack of the ordinary, but we remain unable to decipher our experience.[3] Where can we go for help?

Like William Tyndale before him, Herbert turns to the Bible. Its figures become the vocabulary and grammar he uses to interpret himself. In his two-part poem, “Holy Scriptures,” he addresses the Bible:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,

And comments on thee: for in ev’rything

Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,

And in another make me understood. (“Holy Scriptures II,” ll. 9-12)

We go hunting for help in the Bible only to have its words find us out, says Herbert. There we are: Adam lonely no more or Sarah laughing at God’s absurd promise; we are thumbing our nose at daily bread in the desert, or wincing before the rooster crows. The Bible brings figural parallels and so makes us understood.

But for Herbert, God’s Word does not name us and leave us as we are. Like Jacob who wrestled the angel, Scripture changes us in the act of (re)naming us:

Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glass,

That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well

That washes what it shows. (“Holy Scriptures I,” ll. 8-10)

The Bible is an unusual mirror. It reflects us truly and heals our sight at the same time. Like a reflection mirrored back in the surface of well-water we see ourselves, and in seeing we are washed by our reflection in the Word.

One of the most striking examples of this figural transformation comes at the end of Herbert’s poem “The Sinner.” After lamenting how large a shadow his sin casts over the “scraps” of his holiness, Herbert pleads with God,

Yet, Lord, restore thine image, hear my call:

And though my hard heart scarce to thee can grone,

Remember that thou once didst write in stone. (“The Sinner,” ll. 12-14)

There is a lot happening in these three lines. Scripture labels the sinful human heart as “hard.” This hard heart would seem to put him as far as possible from obedience. But the figure of the stony heart sets off a chain reaction of scriptural referents: for instance, the “image” of God (Gen. 1:27), the promise of its restoration (Col. 3:10), God’s promise to inscribe his law on his disobedient people’s hearts (Jer. 31:33), and — most surprisingly — the original inscription of the law on stone tablets (Exod. 31:18; cf. Rom 2:15). Figure flows into figure, and suddenly, Herbert’s hard heart means something different. This hard-hearted sinner is, paradoxically, prepared perfectly for obedience. Under God’s finger, Herbert’s hard heart can become a stone tablet. Where grace seemed furthest, it is nearest.[4] Figural reading takes a dead end and makes it a path into God’s mercy.


John Donne

Donne’s poetry enacts this same figural turn. Often — in keeping with Donne’s stormier temperament — the drama of the turn is more intense. Take “Holy Sonnet V,” in which Donne imagines himself as a “little world.” This world’s pollution by sin means that it needs to end, says the poet, which leads him into a string of apocalyptic figures of deluge and firestorm:

Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envie have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burne me O Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heale. (“Holy Sonnet V,” ll. 7-14)

In both cases, whether by water or fire, judgment becomes mercy. It’s the equivocal fluidity of these scriptural images, which destabilizes Donne’s sense of godforsakenness. Water might mean a destructive flood of weeping or the cleansing of baptism. If Donne’s world seems destined for hellfire, already ravaged by the flames of lust and envy, this figure still summons the refining fire of Psalm 69 and John 2, the fire of zeal that burned Jesus’ temple-body to ground, only to result in the wholeness of a resurrected body restored and given for “eating.” All of this happens in the bare juxtaposition of scriptural figures and texts. These double-sided figures of water and fire converge on Donne. In the end, he is proven right: his world did need to end. But, as he finds himself interpreted by Scripture, he finds that his end becomes grace’s beginning.

Nowhere in Donne’s poetry is this figural turn performed more literally — or powerfully — than in the poem “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.” On Good Friday, the poet finds himself on horseback heading West, away from East — away from Easter. Realizing his back is turned toward God, he fears that his posture is more than incidental. The turn begins when Donne realizes his gaze is not the only gaze.

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face. (“Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” ll. 33–42)

Not only is Donne unable to prevent Christ from looking his way, but Donne has — strangely —  drawn nearer to Christ by turning his back on God. This is because Christ has preceded him into the place of “disobedience.” The wayward poet finds himself united with Christ in the scourging of Good Friday. God’s grace has outflanked him. Riding away from Christ has become a part of turning toward Christ. Scripture steals Donne’s disobedience from him by giving it a merciful translation through the figures of the Gospel passion narratives.

Back-translation into mercy

The poetry of George Herbert and John Donne illustrates what happens — experientially — in “the bare reading of Scripture.” Both poets teach us to interpret the Scriptures while praying to its Author, “Interpret thine own work.”[5] When they read Scripture, they allow its figures dress them and take them somewhere they had not planned to go.

During the winter of 1623 John Donne was bedridden with a life-threatening illness. Using the figures of Scripture, Donne deciphers his sickness as God’s judgment. But the figures of Scripture do not leave Donne hemmed into judgment. Instead they open onto the horizon of God’s grace. Donne uses the metaphor of “translation” to capture this turn from judgment to mercy:

Let me think no degree of this thy correction casual, or without signification; but yet when I have read it in that language, as a correction, let me translate it into another, and read it as mercy; and which of these is the original, and which is the translation; whether thy mercy or thy correction were thy primary and original intention in this sickness, I cannot conclude … (Devotions, “Station 7,” Prayer)

By figural reading, Donne’s afflicted self is carried from judgment into mercy. In so doing, Donne begins to suspect that he has not translated God’s word of judgment into a foreign language, but has actually back-translated to God’s one and only original language: mercy.

This is what figural reading does for us too. It helps us to read the everyday jumble of our suffering, affliction and godforsakenness in the language of God’s judgment, only to find that our lives are already being translated into God’s mother tongue, mercy. With Herbert and Donne, we find ourselves prepared for obedience by a hard heart, freed from water by water, rescued from a lion by a Lion, saved from fire by fire, and delivered from death by death. Scripture’s figures teach us to “spell” the Word which is “all.” As we read, Scripture’s figures convey us to the headwaters of all mercy, the spear-pierced side of the Word made flesh (John 19:34).

Nate Wall hails from the Canadian prairies but now lives in Toronto, where he studies at Wycliffe College and serves as pastor of discipleship at Church of the Transfiguration. Nate’s doctoral research explores figural reading of the Old Testament in John Donne’s sermons.


[1]  Both left a legacy of spiritual poetry that has fed the devotion of generations ever since the 17th century. (You may find Herbert here and Donne here). Happily we have over 150 of Donne’s sermons. Sadly, we have none of Herbert’s sermons.

[2] John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Station 19,” Expostulation (Ann Arbor Paperback, 1959). I have changed past-tense verbs to present tense.

[3] I borrow “clack-clack” from Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (Harper One, 1989), p. 12.

[4] A similar turn also occurs in Herbert’s two “Easter Wings” poems.

[5] Devotions, “Station 2,” Prayer.


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