Chapter VII

Critic: William Empson
Source: "Chapter VII," in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, second edition, 1947. Reprint by by New Directions, 1966, pp. 192-233.
Criticism about: "The Sacrifice"
Author Covered: George Herbert (1593-1633)

Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[Empson was an English critic, poet, and editor. He is best known for Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; revised 1947), a seminal contribution to the formalist school of New Criticism. In the following excerpt from that work, he examines stylistic and religious elements in Herbert's poem "The Sacrifice."]

In "The Sacrifice," with a magnificence [Herbert] never excelled, the various sets of conflicts in the Christian doctrine of the Sacrifice are stated with an assured and easy simplicity, a reliable and unassuming grandeur, extraordinary in any material, but unique as achieved by successive fireworks of contradiction, and a mind jumping like a flea. Herbert's poems are usually more "personal" and renaissance than this one, in which the theological system is accepted so completely that the poet is only its mouthpiece. Perhaps this, as a releasing and reassuring condition, is necessary if so high a degree of ambiguity is to seem normal. For, to this extent, the poem is outside the "conflict" theory of poetry; it assumes, as does its theology, the existence of conflicts, but its business is to state a generalised solution of them. Here, then, the speaker is Jesus, the subject doctrinal, and the method that strange monotony of accent, simplicity of purpose, and rarefied intensity of feeling, which belong to a scholastic abstraction, come to life on the stage of a miracle play.

They did accuse me of great villainy

That I did thrust into the Deitie;

Who never thought that any robberie;

Was ever grief like mine?

Some said that I the temple to the floore

In three days razed, and raised as before.

Why, he that built the world can do much more.

Was ever grief like mine?

He is speaking with pathetic simplicity, an innocent surprise that people should treat him so, and a complete failure to understand the case against him; thus who in the third line quoted and he in the seventh make their point by applying equally to I and the Deitie. But before thinking the situation as simple as the speaker one must consider the use of the word rased to apply to the two opposite operations concerned; and that the quotation from Jeremiah which makes the refrain refers in the original not to the Saviour but to the wicked city of Jerusalem, abandoned by God, and in the hands of her enemies for her sins.

Then they condemn me all, with that same


Which I do give them daily, unto death;

Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth:

Was ever grief like mine?

Hark how they cry aloud still Crucify,

He is not fit to live a day, they cry;

Who cannot live less than eternally.

Was ever grief like mine?

Me all, "they all condemn me, they condemn the whole of me (I am Jerusalem and include them), they condemn me unto the total death of which I am not capable, they condemn me and thus call down their own destruction, I give them breath daily till their death, and unto death finally shall I give them"; so that rendereth includes "repay me for my goodness" and "give up the ghost," both at their eventual death and in their now killing me. The same fusion of the love of Christ and the vindictive terrors of the sacrificial idea turns up in his advice to his dear friends not to weep for him, for because he has wept for both, when in his agony they abandoned him, they will need their tears for themselves.

Weep not dear friends, since I for both have


When all my tears were blood, the while you


Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept.

Was ever grief like mine?

In each case, of course, the stress of the main meaning is on the loving-kindness of Jesus; it is only because this presentment of the sacrificial idea is so powerfully and beautifully imagined that all its impulses are involved.

Now heal thyself, Physician, now come down;

Alas, I did so, when I left my crown

And father's smile for you, to feel his frown.

Was ever grief like mine?

The secondary meaning ("to make you feel") is a later refinement, and the Williams manuscript reads "to feel for you."

The last verse of all contains as strong and simple a double meaning:

But now I die; Now, all is finished.

My woe, man's weal; and now I bow my head:

Only let others say, when I am dead,

Never was grief like mine.

English has no clear form for the Oratio Obliqua. He may wish that his own grief may never be exceeded among the humanity he pities, "After the death of Christ, may there never be a grief like Christ"s'; he may, incidentally, wish that they may say this, that he may be sure of recognition, and of a church that will be a sounding-board to his agony; or he may mean mine as a quotation from the others, "Only let there be a retribution, only let my torturers say never was grief like theirs, in the day when my agony shall be exceeded." (Better were it for that man if he had never been born.)

I am not sure how far people would be willing to accept this double meaning; I am only sure that after you have once apprehended it, after you have felt this last clash as a sound, you will never be able to read the poem without remembering that it is a possibility. For the resultant meaning of this apparently complete contradiction, one must consider the way it is used as a religious doctrine; "Christ has made all safe, a weight is off our shoulders, and it is for that very reason far more urgent that we should be careful. Salvation is by Faith, and this gives an intolerable importance to Works. O death, where is thy sting; because the second death is infinitely terrible." You may say the pious Herbert could not have intended such a contradiction, because he would have thought it blasphemous, and because he took a "sunny" view of his religion. Certainly it is hard to say whether a poet is conscious of a particular implication in his work, he has so many other things to think of; but for the first objection, it is merely orthodox to make Christ to insist on the damnation of the wicked (though it might be blasphemous, because disproportionate, to make him insist on it here without insisting more firmly at the same time on its opposite); and for the second objection, it is true George Herbert is a cricket in the sunshine, but one is accustomed to be shocked on discovering the habits of such creatures; they are more savage than they seem.

A memory of the revengeful power of Jehovah gives resonance to the voice of the merciful power of Jesus, even when verbal effects so pretty as these last cannot be found:

Herod in judgment sits, while I do stand;

Examines me with a censorious hand.

I him obey, who all things else command.

Was ever grief like mine?

Even in so quiet a line as the second, me is made to ring out with a triumphant and scornful arrogance--"the absurdity of the thing"--and there is a further echo from the former dispensation in that his attitude of deference before Herod is one would give full play to his right hand and his stretched-out arm; that he will be far more furious in his judgment than his judges; that one would stand to exert, as well as to suffer, power.

Why, Caesar is their only king, not I.

He clave the stony rock when they were dry;

But surely not their hearts, as I well try.

Was ever grief like mine?

It is by its concentration that this is so powerful. The first line is part of his defence to his judges: "I am not a political agitator." In the bitterness of this apology, that his kingdom is not of this world, he identifies Caesar with Moses as the chosen leader of Israel ("Oh no, it was Caesar who gave them the water of life; I am only an honest subject"), and by this irony both the earthly power of the conqueror and the legal rationalism of the Pharisees are opposed both to the profounder mercy of the Christ and to the profounder searchings of heart that he causes; I may cleave their hearts with my tenderness or with their despair:

Ah, how they scourge me! yet my tenderness

Doubles each lash; and yet their bitterness

Winds up my grief to a mysteriousness.

Was ever grief like mine?

Doubles, because I feel pain so easily, because I feel it painful that they should be so cruel, because I feel it painful they should be so unjust, because my tenderness enrages them, because my tenderness (being in fact power) will return equally each stroke upon them, because I take upon myself those pains also. Mysteriousness, because the bitterness in them or (for various reasons) due to them produces grief no one can fathom, or because it dramatises that grief into a form that can show itself (as in initiation to the Mysteries) to a crowd (as the scourgers also are a crowd), wound up like a string to give out music, and echoing in the mind, repeatable, as a type of suffering.

Behold they spit on me in scornful wise

Who with my spittle gave the blind man eyes,

Leaving his blindness to mine enemies.

Was ever grief like mine?

Leaving his blindness wilfully, the conceit implies, as a cruel judgment upon my enemies, that they should in consequence spit upon me and so commit sin. (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.) These two events are contrasted, but that they should spit upon me is itself a healing; by it they distinguish me as scapegoat, and assure my triumph and their redemption; and spitting, in both cases, was to mark my unity with man. Only the speed, isolation, and compactness of Herbert's method could handle in this way impulses of such reach and complexity.

Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear,

For these are all the grapes Zion doth bear,

Though I my vine planted and watered there.

Was ever grief like mine?

So sits the earth's great curse in Adam's fall

Upon my head, so I remove it all

From the earth on to my brows, and bear the


Was ever grief like mine?

The thorns of the curse upon Adam, the wild grapes of the wicked city against which Isaiah thundered destruction, and the crown of vine-leaves of the Dionysiac revellers (and their descendants the tragedians), all this is lifted on to the head of the Christ from a round world, similar to it, in the middle distance; the world, no longer at the centre of man's vision, of Copernican astronomy. The achievement here is not merely that all these references are brought together, but that they are kept in their frame, of monotonous and rather naive pathos, of fixity of doctrinal outlook, of heartrending and straightforward grandeur.

They bow their knees to me, and cry, Hail, King!

Whatever scoffs or scornfulness can bring

I am the floor, the sink, where they it fling.

Was ever grief like mine?

Yet since man's sceptres are as frail as reeds,

And thorny all their crowns, bloody their deeds,

I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds.

Was ever grief like mine?

I, out of my mercy making their sins as few as possible, reflect that I am indeed a king, and so worthy of mockery; because all kings are as inferior (weak, outcast, or hated) as this; because I am king of kings, and all kings are inferior to me; or because from my outcast kingship of mockery all real kingship takes its strength (the divine right of kings, for instance, and the relief of popular irritation under lords of misrule). He has united Herod and Pilate, "whose friendship is his enmity," and his scarlet robe of princes shows that only his blood "can repair man"s decay."

Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,

The tree of life, to all but only me.

Was ever grief like mine?

The first line now at last, with an effect of apotheosis, gives the complete quotation from Jeremiah. He climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he was putting the apple back; but the phrase in itself implies rather that he is doing the stealing, that so far from sinless he is Prometheus and the criminal. Either he stole on behalf of man (it is he who appeared to be sinful, and was caught up the tree) or he is climbing upwards, like Jack on the Beanstalk, and taking his people with him back to Heaven. The phrase has an odd humility which makes us see him as the son of the house; possibly Herbert is drawing on the medieval tradition that the Cross was made of the wood of the forbidden trees. Jesus seems a child in this metaphor, because he is the Son of God, because he can take the apples without actually stealing (though there is some doubt about this), because of the practical and domestic associations of such a necessity, and because he is evidently smaller than Man, or at any rate than Eve, who could pluck the fruit without climbing. This gives a pathetic humour and innocence (except ye receive the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child, ye shall in no wise enter therein); on the other hand, the son stealing from his father's orchard is a symbol of incest; in the person of the Christ the supreme act of sin is combined with the supreme act of virtue. Thus in two ways, one behind the other, the Christ becomes guilty; and we reach the final contradiction:

Lo here I hang, charged with a world of sin

The greater world of the two ...

as the complete Christ; scapegoat and tragic hero; loved because hated; hated because godlike; freeing from torture because tortured; torturing his torturers because all-merciful; source of all strength to men because by accepting he exaggerates their weakness; and, because outcast, creating the possibility of society.

Between two theeves I spend my utmost breath,

As he that for some robberie suffereth.

Alas! what have I stolen from you? Death:

Was ever grief like mine?

Herbert deals in this poem, on the scale and by the methods necessary to it, with the most complicated and deeply-rooted notion of the human mind....

Source Citation: Empson, William, "Chapter VII," in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, second edition, 1947. Reprint by by New Directions, 1966, pp. 192-233.