George Herbert and Samuel Menashe; Improvidence and Faith

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George Herbert Samuel Menashe
Very recently I happened upon one of those discoveries (at least such to me) that seems sufficiently obscure to justify being written down, and especially so while it’s still at the frontal area of the old lobe. It is merely a beguiling echo perceived in two poems, written respectively by two poets separated by about 330 years.

Samuel Menashe was born in 1925 in New York City, and died in that same city in 2011. The relevant poem from him is “Improvidence.” I hope no one would come after me for quoting it here in full; Menashe’s poems are so short, and so tightly constructed, that it is not as if one can just quote a verse and say “buy the book and read the rest” (though by all means buy the book and read the other poems). In the great majority of cases the poem is a single stanza, and you need the whole thing to have any sense of it. All the more so “Improvidence,” which possesses careful timing all the way to its quasi-punchline. It is a poem which on its face is about economics, as well as human nature, and indeed Menashe liked to mention that it was once incorporated into a talk by an economist of note.


Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Forget tomorrow
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed

The fact that this pretty much states the official policy of the United States government regarding its debt and its creditors is, I think, merely a happy and topical coincidence.

It being Menashe, however, it’s impossible to avoid weighing a religious reading. And indeed the title makes the suggestion in an exquisitely gentle way. Providence, after all, is one of the many names we give to God; so He is present, impishly, right from the beginning. Read again in this sense the poem is an articulation of one of the most basic insights of religious faith: that everything we are and everything we have is borrowed from God, that we ourselves own nothing, not even ourselves.

This idea can be stated and taught in many ways, and it is often taught in more or less negative terms. For example: “Your body belongs to God, so don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t sleep around,” and so on. Or: “That food comes from God. Don’t waste it!” Many of us would have been told when we were young that choosing to do things of this nature constitutes sin.

However, instead of being told of the terrible responsibility we have to God because our very existence and everything we have is owed to Him, in “Improvidence” we are instead being invited to laugh at the outlandish and reckless charity of God and at our own quite absurd good fortune. It is a delightfully different way of expressing this basic insight of faith, in addition to being a beautifully constructed poem in Menashe’s inimitable style. (I also happen to think that it makes a great table grace.)

“Improvidence” has been a treasured poem to me, and it’s easy to say that I had heard nothing quite like it when I first heard it.

Which brings us to George Herbert, born in 1593, a poet I knew of only glancingly, but who was on some inner mental list to be explored more thoroughly at some stage. For reasons unknown, he popped to the top of that list a couple of weeks ago, and I ordered a used copy of his poetry via the indispensable Abe Books. On looking into his biography after ordering the book, there was cause to laugh out loud. As occasional readers of this website might know, I’ve been erratically pursuing an interest in things Welsh. My perception of George Herbert was that he was an English poet. And indeed, he wrote in English (also Latin and Greek), and spent the great bulk of his life there. But there it is in black and white: George Herbert was actually born in Wales, to a wealthy and landed family. I noticed that it was theorized by some that he picked up his love of music from his beginnings in the Land of Song (although, of-course, even a few non-Welsh people are known to love music).

Herbert’s biography is distinguished by his early and clear path towards worldly honor, success and power, which he abruptly sidestepped in his thirties to become a country vicar. He died at the age of 39, and it was only after his death that his poetry was published. It is a profound and brilliant body of work filled with his spiritual joys and struggles.

The poem that led me to writing this little piece is one titled “Faith.” It is, at least in my reading, a meditation on how faith in God can save and transform everything. Herbert is no Menashe: the poem has eleven stanzas. The eighth one:

A peasant may beleeve as much
As a great clerk, and reach the highest stature:
Thus dost Thou make proud knowledge bend and crouch,
While grace fills up uneven nature.

But it was on reading the fourth stanza that I found another occasion to laugh (which occasions are so precious) at one of those unexpected evidences of the interconnectedness of all good things.

I owèd thousands, and much more;
I did believe that I did nothing owe,
And liv’d accordingly; my creditor
Beleeves so too, and lets me go.

So here, and also with exquisite humor, is the thought so similar to Menashe’s in “Improvidence.” Here both borrower and lender appear foolish. The borrower owes many thousands, but believes that he owes nothing and just carries on regardless; the lender, fortunately, believes the same thing, and allows the borrower to continue.

Menashe knew Herbert, without any doubt, but it is too late to ask him whether he was conscious of the echo of this particular stanza in his own poem.

So, I like the mental image of George Herbert, perhaps in his parsonage under a candle, giving a consumptive cough or two, and Samuel Menashe, in his humble fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, by his windowsill, both arriving at these clever, profound, and cheering ways of framing the debt to the Creator, and making themselves smile, and giving reason to others to do so also, as long as poetry is read.

These kinds of things—random discoveries of relatedness which we all make sometimes—are always encouraging to me, but I think after encountering them I often quite promptly forget them. This one, at least, I know I’ll now remember.