George Herbert

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Please explain "The Agonie" by George Herbert.

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Herbert's "The Agonie" (1633) is a meditation on "Sinne and Love," the two subjects Herbert feels it would "more behove" philosophers to measure than all the other elements—described in the opening two lines—to which they have set their minds. "Few there are that sound them," Herbert laments, and yet both can be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the following two stanzas, Herbert presents two disparate images of Christ, one of which is a representation of Sinne, and the other of Love. In the first, he who "would know Sinne" is invited to repair to Mount Olivet—the Mount of Olives—where he will see "a man . . . wrung with pains." Here, in the garden of Gethsemane, the sin of mankind is like a "press and vice, which forceth pain/to hunt his cruell food through ev'ry vein." Blood appears here, indicative in this instance of the blood shed by Christ in penance for human sin.

The next stanza refers again to Jesus, and to his blood, but this time the blood represents pure love. He who "knows not Love" is invited to "taste that juice, which on the cross a pike did set abroach"—that is, the "juice" of Jesus's blood, which was caused to spurt from his side by a soldier's lance. The blood of Christ on the cross is "sweet and most divine" may be, to Jesus, only blood, but to the believer, it is "wine."

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This poem begins by describing how wise men throughout the ages have tried to measure almost every part of the natural world known to man, including mountains, seas and kingdoms. However, the speaker of this poem makes clear that these achievements are as nothing to the ability to "sound" or measure the two concepts of "Sinne and Love." Sin is best represented, the speaker urges his listeners, in the picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Mount Olivet, where he suffered so tremendously that blood came from his skin because of the intensity of his agony:

Who would know Sinne, let him repair

Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see

A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,

His skinne, his garments bloudie be.

This figure of Jesus in the depth of agony as he contemplates bearing the sin of all mankind is the true measure of sin. The final stanza captures the true measure of love in the figure of the crucified Christ, with Jesus pierced by a spear to yield liquid. This liquid was Christ's blood, but it can be tasted by the speaker and any other person as wine in the communion service, which acts as a remembrance and a celebration of Christ's love for us expressed through his self-giving and total sacrifice on the cross. Philosophers and other wise men may have been successful in measuring all kinds of distances, but if they are not able to measure sin and love, the poet suggests, they are not wise at all.

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