“MY joy, my life, my crown!”
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say:
And still it runneth mutt’ring up and down
With onely this, My joy, my life, my crown.
Yet slight not these few words:
If truly said, they may take part
Among the best in art.
The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords,
Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.
~ From “A True Hymn” by George Herbert
I know that this poem is hard to read, but stick with me. Most of the problem is the archaic language. We are going to simplify it and, I promise, it is worth the effort.
It describes the author, a great English poet named George Herbert who wrote in the 1620s, around the time of Shakespeare. He is trying to write a hymn, but the words, “My joy, my life, my crown,” are stuck in his head. Of course, these are words of praise to Jesus. My joy - Jesus is the source of all of the great happiness that arises in him, even when he is otherwise miserable, for no matter how bad his tribulation he knows that he will be saved and will live one day in perfection unknown to him today. My life - Jesus is his life. He, like Paul, has died to his flesh and his true life is now Christ. My crown - he is a king, but in only one way, and that is by his victory that has come through submission.
His heart was meaning all the day “somewhat fain to say,” i.e. to say something beautiful and pleasing, to write a great hymn. But it just ran on all day long with the same six words. He could not write his hymn, because his mind refused to say anything but “my joy, my life, my crown.” His poetic gift failed him; he got none of his life's occupation, writing poetry, accomplished.
“Yet slight not these few words”: He realizes that he is ignoring the poetry he does have, even though it is a meager six words without any poetic artistry. But that perhaps the meaning of the words is greater than he is giving them credit for. “ If truly said” - if he says them with conviction, if he means them - they “may take part among the best in art”: They belong with the greatest poetry written. And then, having prepared us, he hits us with the lines: “The fineness which a hymn or psalm affords” - the lofty pleasures a wonderful hymn or poem gives to us - “is when the soul unto the lines accords”. That is, when the meaning of the words strikes down into our very souls.
The true power of a poem is not how clever or beautiful it is. The greatness lies in whether it says something great, something that has meaning to our soul. And, we are to understand, that Herbert can only think of the six words, “My joy, my life, my crown,” because his love and praise of Christ outshine any verse he could possibly write. Art is only art, but our love for Christ is the ultimate exaltation. Writing a poem cannot compare to the simply overwhelming love for Christ that his soul is putting into his mind.
Lord, let me always remember that it is not the beauty of art or song that is most important, but that we express our love for you, in whatever words we have. Amen.
~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer