The Explicator, Summer 1998 v56 n3 p175(3)

Herbert's 'The Thanksgiving.' Vanderslice, John.

Abstract: Author George Herbert's poem 'The Thanksgiving' is the ideal example of multifaceted, complex nature of the psychological aspect of religious experience. The speaker in Herbert's rigidly pious poems simultaneously expresses his frustration with the God he loves because of God's very love and generosity. God inspires in Herbert's speaker the awe and resentment any exceptional person inspires in his rival. This phenomenon is analyzed in 'The Thanksgiving.'

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Heldref Publications

If there is one outstanding contribution that George Herbert makes to our understanding of religious experience, it is his revealing how multifaceted and complex is the psychological texture of that experience. Indeed, in poems that are rigidly pious, Herbert's speaker can at the same time seem quite frustrated with the God he loves, frustrated because of God's very love and generosity. In these poems, the speaker regards God as a competitor in a game of salvation in which the winner is the one who shows the most selfless love and regard for the other. God thus inspires in the speaker the awe and resentment any talented player inspires in his rival. This unusual game, with its peculiar emotional side effects, I can only term "adversarial adoration."

The poem "The Thanksgiving" may be the best example of this phenomenon. Very early in the poem, the speaker states his difficulty, a fundamental one for all Christians: How can we make up for the physical and psychological torture Christ suffered for us? ("Oh King of wounds! How shall I grieve for thee, / Who in all grief preventest me?" [lines 3-4]). One would think the answer is simply, "We can't." Christ's suffering being a divinely selfless sacrifice, there is no way humanity can fully return the favor. Indeed, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice at all if repayment is expected. But the speaker refuses to rest easy. He furiously reviews the ways in which he might be tortured so as to equal Christ's own trials: "Shall I weep bloud?" (5), "Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?" (7). No matter what idea he comes up with, the poet encounters the essential difficulty that, in terms of physical suffering, Christ has already made the greatest imaginable sacrifice.

Moreover, this speaker does not want to directly imitate that suffering, his supposed desire to do so being nothing more than self-serving and self-deluding sentiment. He would rather find a less-bloody, less-demeaning way to satisfy his obligation; he would rather "sing, skipping thy dolefull storie, / And side with thy triumphant glorie" (11-12). But in that case, the question remains: "how then shall I imitate thee, and / Copie thy fair though bloudie hand?" (15-16).

The speaker cannot merely admit his spiritual incompetence, but like a fervid ballplayer who refuses to admit even the possibility of losing a game, he becomes frustrated with the Lord and insists he will somehow outdo him. The speaker stumbles upon a strategy: "Surely I will revenge me on Thy love, / And trie who shall victorious prove" (17-18). "Revenge" is a strong word, revealing both the speaker's determination to better the Lord and his resentment for the obligation he feels the Lord placed upon him in the first place. Clearly the speaker wants to "get back" at Christ. Yet, in this odd game of piety and sacrifice the only way to outduel one's rival is to be more selfless, more devout; more devoted, in fact, to that very rival. Here is the paradox of adversarial adoration, for if the game is played correctly, there is no actual contest at all. It is more cooperation than competition, and entirely emulation rather than conquest. It is a game where there can be no victory unless neither side wants to win.

In a confident rush of new ideas, the speaker lists ways he will equal the Lord's selfless commitment - an all-encompassing life's plan of service and submission. This plan includes his family: "I will not marry; or, if she be mine, / She and her children shall be Thine" (23-24); any friend: "if he blaspheme thy Name, / I will tear hence his love and fame" (25-26); his income: "If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore / All back unto thee by the poore" (19-20); even his music: "ev'ry string / Shall have his attribute to sing" (39-40). The poet will make God's love - the pursuit of it, the mastery of it, and, finally, the use of it - his singular study: "I will reade thy book, and never move / Till I have found therein thy love" (45-46).

The speaker, carried away by his own passion, turns to bragging about his eventual supremacy in this contest: "Thy art of love, which I'le turn back on Thee: / O my deare Saviour, Victorie!" (47-48). The question is, victory for whom, the speaker or God? And the answer, obviously, is both. Though in the limited sense of the contest the speaker is predicting victory for himself, it is a victory - if it, in fact, comes - that will be earned by an imitation, and complete submission to the will, of his competitor. The speaker's manner of winning, then, to echo St. Paul, will be to defeat himself. More important, the speaker's "victory" would result not only in his spiritual betterment, but in the betterment of the world at large - God's kingdom, so to speak. And any additional measure of holiness brought to the world can only assist God in his strategy for humankind's salvation. Thus the poet would win not only for himself, but for God, so God is really the winner. Yet any victory for God benefits all humanity too, so the victory comes to the poet twice over.

"The Thanksgiving" does not end on a blissfully triumphant note, however. The essential trouble with the contest returns to the poet in a final thought. He remembers Christ's death, the ultimate act of love he cannot match. The presumed victory he has been crowing over, the speaker realizes, is a self-glorifying chimera. He begins to sense that a victory in love cannot be complete, or even genuine, without a victory in suffering as well. Because both were a part of Christ's life, both are necessary parts of the Christian experience - and the competition. So far, he has attempted to limit the terms under which he will submit to God, rather than let God decide those terms, as Christ was finally able to in the Garden.

Not only has he not won the contest, the speaker understands, but he hasn't even been playing. Moreover, by insisting on an individual rather than a mutual victory, he shows that he does not understand the game's beginning principle. Perhaps the speaker is illuminated enough to realize the biggest irony of this contest: that of the two contestants the only one who is playing is the one who does not regard it as competition.

The image of Christ's Passion, then, blunts the speaker's naive giddiness. He is at a loss for a viable strategy with which to enter the contest and seems to doubt the wisdom of declaring one in the first place. The only equivalent to Golgotha would be martyrdom, an unlikely possibility for a speaker who, by his own admission, would rather sniff the flowers in God's "bower." The poem stops suddenly in puzzlement. Though the speaker's spiritual efforts may have value to both himself and God, they cannot, because of the one fact of the Passion, equal Christ's. The speaker is deflated, baffled about what to do: "Alas, my God, I know not what" (50).

- JOHN VANDERSLICE, University of Central Arrkansas


Herbert, George. The Poems of George Herbert. Ed. F. E. Hutchison. London: Oxford UP, 1961.