- Singing the Faith: 668 (CD27 #19)
- George Herbert
- "Sandys” arr Ralph Vaughan Williams
- 66.86. Short Metre
Ideas for use
Perhaps surprisingly, given its medieval references, this hymn might be suitable for exploring with younger people. George Herbert develops images based on physical objects - the alchemist's "philosopher's stone" (vv.3 & 5) and a telescope (v.2). One starting point might be the popular "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (though note below the difference in its properties from the one in Herbert's poem!). The point George Herbert is making is about what transforms our lives and work.
Equally, showing an acutal telescope - an instrument through which we look to something bigger than ourselves - may bring alive the words of verse 2.
Taken from "The Temple", Herbert’s posthumous collection of poems (see King of Glory, King of Peace, StF 56), the original version of this hymn was published under the heading “The Elixir”.
The “elixir” was the philosopher’s stone (“the famous stone”, v.5) which was sought by alchemists during the Middle Ages not because (as in Harry Potter) it conferred long life but because it was supposed to turn base metals into gold. The analogy is continued with the word “touch”, which meant to Herbert “test with a touchstone”. Herbert cleverly adapts the language of alchemy to suggest that tasks undertaken by Christians “for thy sake” (v.3) are similarly transformed.
“This tincture” (also v.3) was a technical term in alchemy: the elixir was sometimes known as the “universal tincture” – so here a tincture labelled “for thy sale” is the secret compound that transforms all work , however humble, into something glorious.
There may be another kind of scientific enterprise evident in the imagery of verse 2. Though the opening of the verse (“For those who look on glass”) may echo 1 Corinthians 13:12, it is possible that Herbert was thinking of an early kind of telescope, rather than a window or mirror. Whatever kind of “glass” he had in mind, the meaning of the verse is clear: the eye can focus on the glass (the earthly work) or on what lies through and beyond it (the heavenly reality that our human endeavours echo).
As a village priest, Herbert clearly thought that how we live out our faith in the community was important. The final long poem of his poetic collection, “The Temple”, is called “The Church Militant” – referring to those who leave church following worship to work in the world. It is an emphasis echoed in his other hymn, “King of glory, King of Peace” (StF 56) in the words, “'Seven whole days, not one in seven, / I will praise thee”. For a modern reflection on this theme, try Ian Worsfold and Paul Wood’s hymn, “Beyond these walls of worship” (StF 547).
In Singing the Faith, Herbert's original third stanza (here verse 2) has been inclusivised (see "Why were changes made to older hymns and songs?" on our Frequently Asked Questions page). The original reads:
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav'n espie.
For more about George Herbert, see “Let all the world in every corner sing” (StF 57).
See George Herbert on CD for details of one recording of this hymn.