Commentary on George Herbert’s “Holy Baptism (1)”

What ever future sinnes should me miscall, / Your first acquaintance might discredit all.

AS he that sees a dark and shadie grove,
     Stays not, but looks beyond it on the skie;
     So when I view my sinnes, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water flie,

Which is above the heav’ns, whose spring and vent
     Is in my deare Redeemers pierced side.
     O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sinnes from growing thick and wide,

Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
     In you Redemption measures all my time,
     And spreads the plaister equall to the crime.
You taught the Book of Life my name, that so

     What ever future sinnes should me miscall,
     Your first acquaintance might discredit all.

George Herbert was a Welsh-born poet and a priest in the Church of England. His poetry is associated with the writings of the metaphysical poets, like John Donne. His collection of poems, called The Temple, employs the space, the time, and the furniture of the church as the basis of his poems.

“Holy Baptism (I)” is placed after the poem “Easter Wings.” This pattern poem leads us from our Lord’s resurrection to the means, Holy Baptism, by which we partake in Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are two Baptism poems, but this commentary will only address the first poem.

Herbert first creates a mind picture of a “dark and shadie grove.” This is not a place for men to be. They do not stay in that evil and forbidding place, but they leave by fixing their eyes “on the skie.” Herbert then makes the application: the grove is our sin, and we ought not remain there. We would assume that Herbert would look up to heaven for deliverance. But Herbert doesn’t. He employs a very beautiful disjunction. Rather than drawing our eyes to the sky, we are to draw our eyes “More backward still, and to that water flie.” The disconnect between the sky and baptism is not only beautiful, but it is also theologically incisive. Our eyes do not rise to heaven, but they focus on the means of grace.

The humble baptismal water is better than the sky. In fact, it is “above the heav’ns, whose spring and vent / Is in my deare Redeemers pierced side.” Baptism is no mere sign for Herbert; it is a holy stream which flows from our Savior and is given for our good.

Finally, we see the powerful and lasting effects of Holy Baptism: “either ye do prevent / And stop our sinnes from growing thick and wide, / Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.” Baptism both prevents sin and it drowns sin. “Plaister” is another wonderful metaphor for Holy Baptism, which is able to cover up all of our crimes. Baptism is so powerful in its effect that Herbert finishes with these words: “What ever future sinnes should me miscall, / Your first acquaintance might discredit all.” Christ’s first acquaintance with us is through Holy Baptism. And that first acquaintance is powerful enough to discredit every sin which would discredit us before our Father in heaven.

In short, George Herbert’s “Holy Baptism (I)” is an excellent baptismal poem for Christians of all ages to memorize.

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Travis Berg

Rev. Travis Berg is Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Latimer, IA.

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