Of Lent, George Herbert and Grammar Teachers

If Lent is that time of cleansing, here goes: I am a complete George Herbert junkie, thanks to my favorite college English teacher.

In this Sunday’s (Mar. 13) Philippians reading, the apostle Paul describes Lenten cleansing this way:

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Phillippians 3:14)

And George Herbert (1593-1633) describes Lenten cleansing this way:

Though my sinnes against me cried, Thou didst cleare me;
and alone, when they replied, Thou didst heare me.

(“Praise II” from The Temple, 1633)

Of the two required freshman English courses at my alma mater, I was lucky enough to test out of the “literature course.” However, exempting the “grammar course” in my small southern college was much tougher, as making sure every freshman was a good writer from day one was very high on the liberal-arts totem pole.

Each of the 10 English faculty was required to teach one section of this grammar course, spreading the wealth equally in the department, I suppose. As luck would have it, I just happened to land the class taught by the linguistics specialist on the faculty, who also decided that she was going to slip some real literature into her curriculum.

Dr. Ann Wyatt Sharp (1931-2014) was a force of nature whom I loved and revered. As a divorced mother in the turbulent early 1960s, she had taught in the Birmingham (Alabama) public schools, finished her doctorate degree and raised three small children all at once. In my English class with her, not only did she make sure we spoke reverently of the Oxford English Dictionary, she also made sure that we knew the complete historical background of Dudley Randall’s poem "Ballad of Birmingham," through which she personally lived.

When Dr. Sharp assigned topics for the end-of-the-semester term papers, she gave me Herbert’s “Easter Wings” from The Temple (1633). This collection contains a number of Herbert’s patterned or shaped poems, some of which are written in the actual shapes of their subjects. “Easter Wings” is written sideways in the shape of angel wings, while “The Altar” is written in the shape of an altar with a top, pedestal and base.

This Sunday, the Parish Choir sings an anthem setting of “King of glory, King of peace,” titled “Praise II” in Herbert’s The Altar. This beloved text is found as Hymn 382 in The Hymnal 1982. It is a statement of praise and supplication all at once, with vivid images and phrases that lift the spirit and point the mind toward God. May we continue cleansing ourselves and paring away the excesses this Lent, focusing our hearts and minds heavenward.

In 2014 David Ouzts was invited to write about Professor Ann Sharp upon her death.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 10:00