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.”

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

“What Love Is This” by Edward Taylor

Adams, Susan_Waiting for Something
Susan Adams (British, 1966–), Waiting for Something, 2002. Oil on panel, 36 × 58 cm. Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery, Bangor, Wales.

What love is this of thine, that cannot be
In thine infinity, O Lord, confined,
Unless it in thy very person see
Infinity and finity conjoin’d?
What! hath thy Godhead, as not satisfied,
Married our manhood, making it its bride?

Oh matchless love! filling heaven to the brim!
O’errunning it: all running o’er beside
This world! Nay, overflowing hell, wherein,
For thine elect, there rose a mighty tide!
That there our veins might through thy person bleed,
To quench those flames that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy love might overflow my heart!
To fire the same with love: for love I would.
But oh! my straight’ned breast! my lifeless spark!
My fireless flame! What chilly love, and cold?
In measure small! In manner chilly! See.
Lord, blow the coal: thy love enflame in me.

Edward Taylor (1642–1729) was an American Puritan poet and minister of the Congregational church in Westfield, Massachusetts, for over fifty years. This is Meditation 1 in his Preparatory Meditations, a collection of over two hundred poems divided into two series. A private spiritual diary written from 1682 to 1725, the collection was unpublished until the twentieth century.

Lamb for Sinners Slain (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece)
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1426–32. Oil on panel, 54 1/5 × 95 3/10 in. (137.7 × 242.3 cm). Lower central interior panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

. . . you were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

—1 Peter 1:18–22

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SONG: “I Will Praise Him” by Margaret J. Harris, 1898 | Arranged and performed by The Isaacs, on The Isaacs Naturally: An Almost A Cappella Collection, 2009

When I saw the cleansing fountain
Open wide for all my sin,
I obeyed the Spirit’s wooing,
When He said, “Wilt thou be clean?”

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.

Then God’s fire upon the altar
Of my heart was set aflame;
I shall never cease to praise Him:
Glory, glory to His Name!

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.
Glory, glory to His Name!

[Related posts: “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Artful Devotion)”; “No Other Fount (Artful Devotion)”]

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Ghent Altarpiece (open)
Ghent Altarpiece (open view) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432. Oil on twelve panels, 11 × 15 ft. (3.4 × 4.6 m). St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The monumental Ghent Altarpiece by Northern Renaissance painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck [previously] is one of the world’s finest art treasures—every student who’s taken Art History 101 knows this piece, and it has been the subject of much scholarship.

Perhaps you know it from the detail photos of the recently restored Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel that went viral in January.

Ghent Altarpiece restoration
Before restoration (left) vs. after restoration (right)

Over the past three years, conservators under the leadership of Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage removed the overpaint that was added to the van Eyck brothers’ original in the mid-sixteenth century, revealing a strikingly humanoid face on the Agnus Dei that surprised everyone. (The rest of the painting is much more naturalistic.) Social media users made fun of the cartoonish appearance of the lamb, but Hélène Dubois, head of restoration, says this lamb has a more “intense interaction with the onlookers.”

The haloed lamb who stands on an altar and bleeds into a chalice is the focal point of the entire fifteen-foot polyptych. He is, of course, a symbol of the self-sacrificial Christ. Angels surround him holding instruments of the passion, and the Latin inscription on the antependium (altar hanging) translates to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Mystic Lamb (detail)

You can zoom in on all the altarpiece panels and take a look at the restoration process (ongoing since 2010, with the upper interior panels to be tackled in 2021) at the Closer to Van Eyck website, which I’ve mentioned before—though the site appears not to have been updated in a while.

If you’d like to learn more, the Google Arts & Culture online exhibition Inside the Ghent Altarpiece is a great place to start, as is the altarpiece’s Wikipedia page. If you prefer to learn audiovisually, you might enjoy these two Smarthistory videos:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””