As a lover and occasional writer of poetry, the following words by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) remain emblazoned in my mind, although I first read them years ago: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”
While I suppose unhappiness is not a prerequisite for writing poetry, the fact remains that poets’ lips do indeed form and sound forth lovely music. Leland Ryken’s new edited volume The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems is a great example of this. One such poet whose work I have come to appreciate is George Herbert (1593–1633). Not only was he a “metaphysical poet,” but he was also an ordained priest in the Church of England. Given his vocation as a minister, he would often weave theological truths and Scriptural allusions into his poems that those less familiar with the Bible might not appreciate.
One beautiful example of this is his poem “Aaron.” Drawing upon the imagery of Aaron’s garments as recounted in Exodus 28:2–38, Herbert masterfully and marvelously (not hyperbole in my estimation!), depicts how Christ clothes broken, sinful humanity with his perfect righteousness. Through the “sweet exchange,” the spotless righteousness of our eternal High Priest covers all our imperfections and transgressions: “For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28).
As you read this poem, please pay attention to what Leland Ryken calls the “triumph of organization.” Herbert’s precision and attention to detail are simply exquisite. Finally, you’ll need to read this poem more than once to appreciate the beauty.
Dear reader, bask in the glory of your Redeemer:
Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons dressed.
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I dressed.
Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well dressed.
Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me even dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-dressed.
So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s dressed.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. Alastair Hannay (NY: Penguin, 2004), 43.