FAITH AND LITERATURE:
“AARON” BY GEORGE HERBERT.
Priests preparing to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries may well feel unworthy of the office entrusted to them. In this, the first of a series of articles examining aspects of Christian faith as expressed in literature, they will perhaps find a consoling subject for meditation, as part of their prayer before Mass, in the following work of the English metaphysical poet George Herbert.
Holinesse on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To leade them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.
Profanenesse in my head,
Defects and darknesse in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest.
Poore priest thus am I drest.
Onely another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another musick, making live not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.
Christ is my onely head,
My alone onely heart and breast,
My onely musick, striking me ev’n dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new drest.
So holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my deare breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ, (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest)
Come people; Aaron’s drest.
– George Herbert (1593-1633), The Temple.
A Commentary on “Aaron”.
“Each verse of Herbert’s poem suggests metrically the swelling and dying sound of a bell; and, like a bell, the rhymes reiterate with the same sound” (Herbert J. C. Grierson, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler (pp. 231-2), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1921). The iambic meter swells from trimeter, to quadrimeter, to pentameter, and then contracts again. In the five verses of five lines apiece (and note that Aaron’s name has five letters) a constant pattern is repeated: the first line of each verse concerns the symbolism of the priest’s head; the second line, that of his breast; the third, that of the bells and of music; the fourth, that of the rest afforded by the same; and the fifth, that of the complete dress of the Lord’s servant, the priest. Each line, then, is a repetition, and as it repeats, conflicts and contrasts arise like reverberations; these develop until the ideal presented in the first stanza is achieved in the last. Further, in each verse, the rhyme-words are the same, as a bell sounds always the same. The poem rings out Herbert’s theme, a godly theme: that of the typic Aaron, the model priest, fulfilled in Christ, in whom alone the Christian priest is made fit to minister.
As is common in this metre, the stress in the first foot of each line is often reversed (it is trochaic); however, less common, and so more noteworthy, is the occasional reversal of other feet. Hence “holiness” and “light” in the first verse, “defects” and “unto” in the second, “onely” in the third, “Christ” in the fourth, and “perfect” in the fifth, all stand at the start of lines, and are emphasised by trochaic feet. Stronger emphasis is created by trochaic feet in medial positions, as occurs for the first word or words in “raising the dead,” “thus am I drest”. More important still is the occurrence of half-stress as well as full stress in the same foot, as in “in whom I,” “ev’n dead,” “new drest,” “deare breast,” “come people” – these emphasise the points being conveyed. Finally, there are four lines in which several elements come into play; two of these lines have defective feet. “Thus are true Aarons drest” and “That to the old man I may rest” each contain both an initial trochee and a subsidiary stress – in the former on “true,” in the latter on “man”. “I am well drest” and “My alone onely” both consist of defective feet - the first two syllables are unstressed, the last two are both stressed, as in some forms of Greek poetry. Noting these accentual emphases helps to comprehend the poem’s conceptual emphases.
Reflection upon the first verse calls to mind St Aaron the First High Priest, who is a premier type of Christ the Eternal High Priest. Upon his head, as we read in Exodus xxviii, is a mitre bearing a golden plate inscribed Sanctum Domino, that is, “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36), and so having “holiness on the head”. Within the ephod “on the breast” repose the mysterious Urim and Thummim, literally “lights and perfections,” according to the Masoretic vocalization, as marginally noted in the Authorized Version so familiar to Herbert; or rendered as Doctrinam et Veritatem, doctrine and truth (Exodus 28:30), as the Vulgate prefers, and to which reference is made in line 23 of the poem.
Round about the hem of Aaron’s vesture were sewn bells, and the similitudes of pomegranates; and the bells would sound as Aaron passed into the Holy of Holies, “that he may not die” (Exodus 28:35). In Christian times it became conventional to allude to the fringe of “harmonious bells below” as representative of mellifluous preaching verily “raising the dead”, and of “the preacher’s duty to lead his people to life and rest through the sounding of his bells” (Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert (p. 155), Faber and Faber, London, 1952) – that is, of his very preaching (kerygma) of none other than Christ’s teaching: “he that heareth you, heareth me” (St Luke 10:16). As the Lord said, “Amen, amen, I say unto you, that the hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live” (St John 5:25).
“Thus are true Aarons drest” – note here how “true” is almost fully stressed – this can be read as a foreshadowing of the true Aaron, Christ, who is later referred to explicitly. The parallel here drawn between Aaron and Christ, and of the fulfilment in Christ of the ideal presaged in Aaron’s splendour, is representative of the fulfilment of the Old and former Testament in the New and eternal one, and of the new covenant of “grace abounding” fulfilling and surpassing the precepts laid down under the old covenant of the Law. Christ is “a priest forever” (Hebrews 5:6; 7:17, 21) of a more exalted kind than Aaron, as St Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Hebrews: “who is not dead” – no, he can ever deliver man from the “place where is no rest”: “I am the First and the Last, and alive, and behold I am living for ever and ever, and have the keys of death and of hell” (Apocalypse 1:17-18). That presaged in the Tabernacle and Temple of old is now made a reality in the new Temple, which is the Church, as many other of Herbert’s poems make clear.
In the Church, the mystical body of Christ, Christ the Head thereof ministers to his very members by way of his ministers, the priests, who act in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head: see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1548). And so “another head / I have,” and again it is reiterated more strongly “Christ is my onely head,” and thus the priest is made “holy in my head”. Here the poem’s tripartite structure comes to the fore: first given is an image of the prophetic type of priesthood; then comes a confession of the sad present state of a member thereof; then Herbert tells how the all-too-evident “profaneness... defects and darknesse” may be made, in Christ, into joyous “light and perfections”. So Aaron and Christ are presented as relating to a Christian priest – the first gives him a biblical exemplar, which by his own works he cannot fully imitate; the second gives him the divine grace and character to be what he needs must be. As St Thomas Aquinas writes, “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ” (Summa Theologiae III, 22, 4c).
In “the more particular of the present case,” the “poore priest” contemplates how he is engrafted into these august mysteries. How can he, sinful son of Adam, in badness “thus am I drest” (note the plaintive “thus,” so stressed), minister in the sanctuary, in the holy place? So in line 8, “noise” is likely used in the sense of a band of musicians, in this case representing the tumult of ungodly passions, threateningly tolling the passing-bell of fearful living-death-in-sin, and of the second death, “where their worm dieth not” (St Mark 9:43) and “where there is no rest”; this nicely contrasts with the “onely musick” of line 18, which is Christ, who acts “striking me ev’n dead” – that is, as a clapper strikes in a bell, and with power, “ev’n dead”. “Without whom I could have no rest” – only by dying to sin and rising with Christ can he hope to minister fittingly. Dying to the “old man” so strongly imaged, dying to the first and sinful Adam, and living anew in Christ, the second and last Adam, is a central Pauline theme: “For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3); and again, “stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds and putting on the new” (Colossians 3:9-10). “He must die, that, thereby, Christ may increase in him” (Sr Thekla, George Herbert: Idea and Image (p. 292), Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption, Newport Pagnell, England, 1974; cf. St John 3:30).
By holy baptism, as is stated in Romans chapter 6, he must have already died indeed with Christ, to be regenerated and born again in him “making live not dead”, as do all Christians, who thereby share in the common or baptismal priesthood; so what more is here asked? As he is a priest, it is implied that he must share in something more of Christ’s priesthood, of a higher degree and kind, even though the language is baptismal. The Christian priest, as far as his own self goes, “does not measure up... But then he remembers the indelible character of his priesthood and the grace of orders, the grace of the Christ whose power is made perfect in human weakness” (John Saward, Christ is the Answer (p. 131), T. and T. Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1995). The ministerial priesthood is that special character which fits the priest for his sacred office, to “be in him new drest”, definitively newly attired in Christ, to share in the priestly office of Christ. The priesthood, that most holy of all offices on earth, is necessarily most Christocentric.
In lines 12 and 17, Christ is called “another heart”, and more strongly still “my alone only heart,” referring to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, inseparably part of his sacred Humanity and so still within Christ’s verily “deare breast”, worthy of adoration, symbol of love and of the animation by Christ’s grace and love of all of who “have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27) – and so, emphatically, “In him I am well drest”. It reinforces the truth of being “alive in Christ Jesus,” living by and in him alone. Indeed, as Pope John Paul II has said, “The priest always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the priest” (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests (1986), n. 10). For the Church, for the plebs sancta Dei (holy people of God) the priest, their very servant, pours forth preaching and “doctrine tun’d by Christ” who “lives in me while I do rest”; he serves them by ministering in the sanctuary, and may truly say with vigour “Come people; Aaron’s drest.”
Patristic Postscript: the True Aaron.
“Like ointment on the head, which ran down upon the beard, upon the beard of that Aaron.” By the priest Aaron, that Priest is indicated who alone fulfills the sacrament of the true High Priest (veri pontificis sacramentum), not with a victim of another kind, but in the oblation of His own body and blood: same Priest, same Victim, Propitiator and Propitiation, the One who effects all the mysteries for which He was announced. Who died, and was buried, and rose again, He ascended into heaven, exalting human nature above every other name, and sending the Holy Spirit, whose unction would penetrate every Church (cujus unctio omnem ecclesiam penetraret).
— St Prosper of Aquitaine, Expositio psalmorum (Explanation of the Psalms), on Ps 132(133):2; cited in Jurgens, W. A. The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 194, §2040.