The Explicator, Summer 1993 v51 n4 p215(2)

 Herbert's 'Prayer I.'
 by Robert H. Ray

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1993 Heldref Publications

Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

One of the puzzling phrases in "Prayer I," and one that has been interpreted in many ways by modern editors and scholars, is "Heaven in ordinarie" (line 11). The most frequent gloss on it is that it refers to a regular daily meal set out in a public eating house or that it refers to the eating house itself. Examples of such explanations are found in Abrams (1340), Baker (209), and Martz (445). Many critics have endorsed this meaning in the context of the food imagery of the poem ("banquet," "Manna," "spices"). Some note the eucharistic connotations of the phrase. For example, Bonnell says, "'Heaven in ordinarie' naturally refers to the consecrated elements, which are 'ordinarie' bread and wine made sacramental by the heavenly presence of Christ" (41). Greenwood (40) poses the possibility that "ordinarie" refers to the divine service and the book containing the divine service. Hecht (165) sees it as a heraldic term, implying that Heaven is "wearing heraldic bearings." Others, including Greenwood (39), suggest that the phrase could also play on such courtly, official phrases as "chaplain in ordinary."

In the context of the multiple meanings and motifs of the poem, certainly some of these explanations are valid to some extent. However, I would propose that Herbert's most specific and primary reference here makes the others of a secondary and additional nature. The primary contrast in line 11 concerns types of clothing (the physical image becoming metaphorically spiritual). Mere "man" being "well drest" (through prayer) is paradoxically contrasted to great "Heaven" being "in ordinarie" (through prayer): it apparently has not yet been noted that a common meaning of "ordinarie" in Herbert's time, and one that Herbert is using here, refers to kersey, a coarse narrow cloth woven from long wool and usually ribbed (see ordinary and kersey in OED). An Act of 1552 said, "Kerseys called Ordinaries ... being well scowred, thicked, milled, dressed and fully dried ..." (OED s.v. ordinary, 17 a). Being dressed in kersey ("ordinarie") connotes, plainness, homeliness, inexpensiveness, and lack of cultivation and sophistication in dress, in contrast to the finer clothes of the "well drest" gentleman. For example, Shakespeare has Petruchio's lackey correspond in dress to his master's old coat and worn breeches by having him garbed in "kersey boot-hose" and gartered with discarded cloth (The Taming of the Shrew 3.2.67--68).

I would, then, suggest that "ordinarie" as kersey, with its lowly, humble connotations in dress, is Herbert's main meaing. The contemporary usages of the two terms, in fact, support the few editors and schoalrs who have speculated that clothing could be here implied, but without citing any specifics from usage in Herbert's time to give credence to their arguments. (For the first to suggest that there might be a general clothing metaphor, see Daniels 204).


Abrams, M. H., gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Vol.1. New York: Norton, 1986.

Baker, Herschel, ed. The Later Renaissance in England: Nondramatic Verse and Prose, 1600--1660. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Bonnell, William. "The Eucharistic Substance of George Herbert's 'Prayer' (I)." George Herbert Journal 9.2 (1986):35--47.

Daniels, Earl. The Art of Reading Poetry. New York: Rinehart, 1941.

Greenwood, E. B. "George Herbert's Sonnet 'Prayer': A Stylistic Study." Essays in Criticism 15 (1965): 27--45.

Hecht, Anthony, ed. The Essential Herbert. New York: Ecco Press, 1987.

Martz, Louis, L., ed. George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.