Here Is No Water but Only Rock

Giovanni Bellini, "Crucifixion"

Giovanni Bellini, “The Crucifixion”

Good Friday

As today is Good Friday, I’m writing a post on dry rocks, which in Christian poetry often function as images for hardened hearts trapped in spiritual desolation. I’ve chosen poems by George Herbert, Christine Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot, each of whom feels gripped by existential despair. Even though their Christian beliefs inform them that Christ’s Resurrection is on the way, they cannot find it in their hearts to really believe it.

In Herbert’s famous emblem poem  “The Altar,” the poet describes his heart as a broken altar and laments that he himself cannot cut the hardness of his stony heart. (Please excuse the lopsided altar below–I couldn’t get the formatting right.) The poem’s reference to stones praising God is to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sabbath prior to the crucifixion (Luke 19:37-40). Everyone is crying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” and when the Pharisee tell Jesus to rein in his disciples, he replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

As a member of our church choir, I can report that our music in Sunday’s Palm Sunday service was full of hosannas. Herbert, describing himself as a broken altar as well as a hard stone, is frustrated that he does not feel spontaneous hosannas welling within him and asks God for help:

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
         Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
         No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
                  A HEART alone
                  Is such a stone,
                  As nothing but
                  Thy pow’r doth cut.
                  Wherefore each part
                  Of my hard heart
                  Meets in this frame
                  To praise thy name.
         That if I chance to hold my peace,
         These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

Christina Rossetti too thinks of herself as a stone in her poem “Good Friday,” even though she would rather be a living, breathing sheep. Whereas Herbert asks that he be sacrificed on God’s altar, Rossetti asks God to be like Moses in the wilderness, striking her with His stick so that water flows::

Am I a stone, and not a sheep, 
     That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross, 
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss, 
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved 
     Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee; 
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly; 
     Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon 
     Which hid their faces in a starless sky, 
A horror of great darkness at broad noon– 
     I, only I.

Yet give not o’er, 
     But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock; 
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more 
     And smite a rock.

Eliot goes wild with the dry rock imagery in The Waste Land. Two weeks ago I recorded him employing dry bones imagery so it’s pretty clear that Eliot is into dryness as a an image of spiritual death. He also mentions empty shadows and dry dust:

  What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

There is also a reference in the poem to Jesus’ arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane, again featuring rocks:

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water

If you yourself are feeling spiritually dry and stumbling through stony places, hang on. Easter is only two days away.


This entry was posted in Eliot (T.S.), Herbert (George), Rossetti (Christina) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!