George Herbert: The elixir

George Herbert: The elixir (1593-1633)


I first read “The elixer” (n.d.) probably by about 2010 and I keep going back to it regularly. It drew my attention because of the author, whose name is well-known as a hymn writer (e.g. “Let all the world in every corner sing”, n.d.), and also because of the somewhat enigmatic title, reminiscent of alchemy and mythical mixtures. Upon reading it repeatedly I was struck by the message (see below) and the powerful way he conveys it. Of course, obvious features as rhythm, rhyme, imagery, the crisp sentences, its relative brevity, all contribute to its strength. Even so, it is not an easy poem, for several reasons. Before discussing these briefly, first the poem itself and an explanatory paraphrase is provided.

The poem and an explanation.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:

Teach me God, as you are also King of your entire creation, that nothing in it stands on its own.

And therefore, teach me that everything what I do should not be done for its own sake (only), but as if it were done for you personally.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
Teach me that I should not just start without thinking, as an animal would be doing.
But teach me to work quietly, so as to impress you [prepossing means: interesting, attractive, or impressive]. And by doing the job in this way make it perfect.
(So then it’s more than just a job – repeating the final line of the first stanza)
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.
An example: if you see a glass, or a window pane, you can see the glass itself. But the glass is meant to look through, not to be looked at. And if you do and look outside, you will see the sky – or heaven rather.
All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
This is true for all things and each of us.
Or: all things are sustained, upheld, by you, God.
There is nothing, no job, so low or unimportant that by doing it for God is not made clear and bright and pure.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
A servant for instance may have to do the same menial task time and again (the drudgerie). By doing it as for God it will get a divine hue, a divine quality.
Even sweeping a room, a dusty job, if it is done in this way both fulfills Gods law (obeying your master, the fifth commandment) and nicely completes the task at hand.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.

This, doing things with God in mind and as for him, is like the mythical philosopher’s stone, which was said to convert worthless metals into precious gold.

In sum, because as God possesses the whole of creation and still touches it continually, it should not be said to be less than that, and/or taken on its own.


As said, The Elixer is not an easy poem, for several reasons. First, one has to grasp what’s behind the metaphors. Second, as all the stanzas refer back to the first one, the reader has to find what links them together. Visually, the lines in the poem could possible be seen as going from the first stanza to the second referring to the first again, the third and the first, the fourth and the first, the fifth and the first and finally the sixth and the first. Also, the last two lines especially relate to the first two lines. Third, The Elixir contains a few key references to alchemy: elixer, tincture, the philosopher’s stone. For contemporary readers this will have evoked ideas of eternal youth (by drinking from this elixer, tincture or potion) and the gold that sparkles and comes when relatively worthless metals as lead are touched by the famous (but of course elusive) philosopher’s stone.

Still, it is a powerful poem in my view for reasons which include the repeated message, the evocative imagery, the examples, the contrasts. It is only a small step then to use the poem to meditate on your own life and work (“Faith of our fathers”, n.d.) or even as an academic prayer, as it ‘captures beautifully the spirit of Colossians 3:17 and 23-4: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. […] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ’, (“Turning George”, 2014).