Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

Ay! victory,
Which from Thine eye
Breaks as the day doth from the East;
When the spilt dew
Like tears doth shew
The sad world wept to be released.

Spring up, O wine,
And springing shine
With some glad message from His heart,
Who did, when slain,
These means ordain
For me to have in Him a part.

Such a sure part
In His blest heart,
The Well where living waters spring,
That with it fed,
Poor dust, though dead,
Shall rise again, and live, and sing.

O drink and bread,
Which strikes Death dead,
The food of man’s immortal being!
Under veils here
Thou art my cheer,
Present and sure without my seeing.

How dost thou fly
And search and pry
Through all my parts, and, like a quick
And knowing lamp,
Hunt out each damp,
Whose shadow makes me sad or sick!

O what high joys!
The turtle’s voice
And songs I hear! O quick’ning showers
Of my Lord’s blood,
You make rocks bud,
And crown dry hills with wells and flowers!

For this true ease,
This healing peace,
For this taste of living glory,
My soul and all
Kneel down and fall,
And sing His sad victorious story!

O thorny crown,
More soft than down!
O painful cross, my bed of rest!
O spear, the key
Opening the way!
O Thy worst state, my only best!

Oh! all Thy griefs
Are my reliefs,
And all my sins Thy sorrows were!
And what can I
To this reply?
What—O God!—but a silent tear?

Some toil and sow
That wealth may flow,
And dress this Earth for next year’s meat:
But let me heed
Why Thou didst bleed
And what in the next world to eat.

Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) [previously] was a Welsh metaphysical poet, translator, and physician, known chiefly for his religious poetry in English. For info on his life and times, as well as his literary importance, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/henry-vaughan.

Vaughan’s “The Feast” was originally published in 1655 in the expanded edition of his celebrated collection Silex Scintillans (1650). (The book’s title is Latin for “The Fiery Flint,” referring to the stony hardness of man’s heart, from which divine steel strikes fire.) The poem consists of thirteen sestets (six-line stanzas), each following the syllable pattern 4-4-8-4-4-8, with a few cheats. More specifically: the first two lines of each stanza are in iambic dimeter, and the third is in iambic tetrameter, repeat. Which is simply the technical way of saying that the rhythm sounds like da-DUM, da-DUM—unstressed syllable, stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is AABCCB. I mention these details because it’s important to see the structure of a poem.

Now let’s walk through it piece by piece.

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

The speaker starts out by beseeching Christ’s return. He’s saying that he, who is mere dust, has put the affairs of his heart in order and is ready for the next life. He has come to realize that earthly pleasures are but “short sips,” quick delights, and he wants a long, slow drink, one that infinitely satisfies. Like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13–14, to whom Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this [physical] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Those who truly seek for more than what this world has to offer will find it.

[Related post: “Lent, Day 3”]

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

“Come then, True Bread,” the speaker exclaims, addressing Christ in biblical metaphor. John 6 is a major reference point for Vaughan throughout this poem, which is where Jesus addresses the crowds whom he had just fed the day before with miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . .

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is the bread of life, whose flesh we eat at the Communion table, taking his self into our selves. Those who feed on Christ are strengthened in their union with him in both his crucifixion and resurrection. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

“Come,” the poem’s speaker continues, “antedate / On me that state / Which brings poor dust the victory.” He, as one who has already lost battle after battle against sin, asks that Christ grant him the victory post-factum, rendering his past losses of no account. In other words: “Christ, have mercy.”

Ay! victory,
Which from Thine eye
Breaks as the day doth from the East;
When the spilt dew
Like tears doth shew
The sad world wept to be released.

“Ay!” he cries, an expression of sorrow, echoing the yearning of all creation to be done with the struggle. The world weeps for redemption (Rom. 8:22–23), its tears like dew that covers the grasses, but the victory Christ won for the world shines forth brightly like a sunrise, evaporating despair.

Spring up, O wine,
And springing shine
With some glad message from His heart,
Who did, when slain,
These means ordain
For me to have in Him a part.

Such a sure part
In His blest heart,
The Well where living waters spring,
That with it fed,
Poor dust, though dead,
Shall rise again, and live, and sing.

Stanzas 5 and 6 bring us back again to John 4 and the eucharistic meal. Using a literary device known as apostrophe, the speaker addresses the blood of Christ as wine that springs forth from Christ’s heart as from a well, an image of abundance. Drinking this lifeblood, this wine, has a revivifying effect. It courses through our veins and becomes a part of us, enlivening every corner. (It was known at the time that the heart constantly circulates blood through the body—and Vaughan, in addition to writing poetry, practiced medicine.) I love the image, strange and graphic though it is, of the church drinking from the heart of Christ, our truest source.

O drink and bread,
Which strikes Death dead,
The food of man’s immortal being!
Under veils here
Thou art my cheer,
Present and sure without my seeing.

This, the sacrament of bread and wine, is humanity’s food. Christ is present in the elements in a veiled way.

How dost thou fly
And search and pry
Through all my parts, and, like a quick
And knowing lamp,
Hunt out each damp,
Whose shadow makes me sad or sick!

In stanza 8 the speaker compares Christ to a searcher with a lantern: he enters our interior selves, “hunt[ing] out each damp” (the noun damp is an archaic term for dejection, a lowness of spirit) and dispelling all such shadows with his light.

O what high joys!
The turtle’s voice
And songs I hear! O quick’ning showers
Of my Lord’s blood,
You make rocks bud,
And crown dry hills with wells and flowers!

The imagery in stanza 9 is of the arrival of spring, of barrenness made fecund. I hear echoes of Song of Solomon 2:10–13, traditionally read by Christians, at least on one level, as an allegory of the love between Christ and his church:

My beloved speaks and says to me:

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
    and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
    and come away . . .”

The “turtle” (turtledove) coos in Vaughan’s poem too, but in Vaughan, the rain that freshens the earth is blood-drops. It is by watering our hard, dry hearts with his blood that Christ causes life to spring up there.

For this true ease,
This healing peace,
For this taste of living glory,
My soul and all
Kneel down and fall,
And sing His sad victorious story!

O thorny crown,
More soft than down!
O painful cross, my bed of rest!
O spear, the key
Opening the way!
O Thy worst state, my only best!

Oh! all Thy griefs
Are my reliefs,
And all my sins Thy sorrows were!
And what can I
To this reply?
What—O God!—but a silent tear?

Because of this regeneration Christ effects, we give him praise, singing the “sad victorious story” of his death. The speaker digs into the paradox of Good Friday a bit, musing on how the Romans’ tools of torture (the crown of thorns, the cross, the spear) are soft and sweet and life-giving to us, though harsh and bitter and death-dealing to Jesus. He describes the spear that tore into Jesus’s side as a key that “open[ed] the way” for us to hide ourselves in him. (Another gory but fascinating image!)

[Related posts: “Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)”; “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s ‘The Agony’ and Bryant’s ‘Blood of the Vine’”]

Some toil and sow
That wealth may flow,
And dress this Earth for next year’s meat:
But let me heed
Why Thou didst bleed
And what in the next world to eat.

In the final stanza the speaker expresses his wish to honor Christ’s sacrifice by seeking ultimate nourishment at the foot of the cross. Whereas farmers plant food for reaping and eating in this life, he wants to not neglect the spiritual food that Christ offers in himself. Again can be heard traces of John 6: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (vv. 54–55).

+++

Herlin, Friedrich_Eucharistic Man of Sorrows
Friedrich Herlin (German, ca. 1425/30–1500) or workshop, The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows, 1469. Oil on wood, 156 × 106 cm. Stadtmuseum Nördlingen, Bavaria, Germany, on loan from the Evang. Kirchengemeinde (Protestant Parish), Nördlingen. Photo courtesy the museum.

When I feature poems on the blog, I like to pair each with a visual artwork that resonates in some way with the poet’s words. (I delight in allowing art from different disciplines to converse with each other!) For “The Feast” I’ve chosen this unusual painting attributed to the fifteenth-century German artist Friedrich Herlin or his workshop, given the title Der Eucharistische Schmerzensmann (The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows) by the Stadtmuseum Nördlingen, where it resides. It shows a frontally positioned, seminude Christ standing in front of a brocade curtain with hands raised in the ancient orans gesture, offering himself to the world. A stalk of wheat and a grapevine grow out of his bloodied feet, twining upward through the holes in his palms. This is “a degraded but reproductive body,” writes Brannon Hancock in his book The Scandal of Sacramentality: The Eucharist in Literary and Theological Perspectives. Christ’s wounds are the site of life and growth.

Part of each plant bends itself down to the chalice at Christ’s right foot, depositing an ear of wheat and a bunch of grapes, which become the bread and wine of the Eucharist. “Although sacrificed long ago, Christ’s body continues to produce the food of salvation,” writes Achim Timmermann in the essay “A View of the Eucharist on the Eve of the Protestant Reformation” in relation to this painting. “The physical body of Christ is perpetually processed into spiritual food for all humankind.” Timmermann describes how the artist conveys a “narrative about a body becoming food becoming a body.” That is, Christ’s body (his flesh) is ingested by Christ’s body (the church). We are what we eat.

I discovered this image through the writings of medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum, who points out that the trail of blood flowing from Christ’s side wound down his abdomen and out from underneath his loincloth links his final wounding by spear to his first wounding, his circumcision.

The man in the lower left corner is Paul Strauss, a wealthy citizen of Nördlingen who served as the city’s Bürgermeister in the 1430s and ’40s and as hospital caretaker. His family’s coat of arms appears beside him. The painting was made as an epitaph for Strauss, who died in 1469, as the inscription tells us: “Ano Dmi. MCCCCLXVIIII starb der Erbar Paul straus am Dunrstag zu muettvasten, der sel Got genedig sey.” That is, “In the year of the Lord 1469 the honorable Paul Strauss died on Thursday at midfast. God be gracious to the soul.” (“Mittfasten,” or midfast, refers to the middle of Lent.) This original inscription on the frame is lost but is known from other sources and was restored to the frame at the end of the nineteenth century, which is what you see in this photo:

Herlin, Friedrich_Eucharistic Man of Sorrows (framed)

According to the Stadtmuseum Nördlingen, the painting was possibly donated to Nördlingen’s St. Salvatorkirche (Church of the Savior), but it was brought to St. Georgskirche (Church of Saint George) sometime before 1768 or 1769, before eventually ending up in the collection of the city museum.

For other paintings with a similar iconography, see “The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows in Late Medieval Art” by Dóra Sallay, and search the icon type known as “Iisus Hristos, Viţa de vie” (Jesus Christ the Grapevine), especially popular in Romania (e.g.).

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The language I use to interpret Henry Vaughan’s poem and Friedrich Herlin’s painting may sound uncomfortably literal to you. But you don’t have to subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation or even the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to appreciate these two works of art. Even if you regard the bread and wine/juice of Communion as mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, the fruitfulness of Christ’s death is something all Christians can agree on. Vaughan (who was Anglican) gives us vivid poetic language with which to celebrate that mystery; Herlin (working in Swabia a half-century before Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses) gives us a striking visual representation of the same. Both are gifts to us from two of our ancestors in the faith, artistic meditations that still have the power to shape us in gratitude and theological wonder.

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