George Herbert’s “The Hold-Fast”: What IS a Hold-Fast?

George Herbert, seventeenth-century English poet

One of my favorite poets both to read and to teach is the seventeenth-century Anglican priest George Herbert.  Recently I had my students read his poem “The Hold-Fast,” which is a sonnet about total reliance on God for one’s salvation.  The poem ends by asserting “What Adam had, and forfeited for all, / Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.”

One of the curiosities of Herbert’s work is his habit of giving his poems titles that introduce a concrete image found nowhere else in the poem.  So, there is no pulley in “The Pulley,” and it is hard to find the collar in “The Collar.”  (There is definitely “choler,” as well as a “caller,” but that’s beside the present point.)  Likewise, there is no “hold-fast” in “The Hold Fast.”

But what IS a “hold-fast”?  The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions of “holdfast” (no hyphen), one of which is “a staple, hook, clamp, or bolt securing a part of a building or other structure.”

Examples of seventeenth-century usage indicate that the word was used both to describe hooks and pins used in architecture and to denote a simple clamping devise used on workbenches.

So which one does Herbert have in mind when he titled his poem “The Hold-Fast?”  Are we as readers to imagine Christ securing our salvation to a wall with a bolt or staple?  Or are we to imagine him securing it to a benchtop with an iron clamp?  Both images are rich with implications, and Herbert may have intentionally affixed an ambiguous title to the poem.  I am inclined, however, to think that he had the benchtop clamp in mind, since he would have seen them in use in many artisans’ shops.   As far as I can tell, this use of the word was the more common, as attested by the two seventeenth-century books, Joseph Moxon’s  Mechanick Exercises and Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory.

The last time I taught “The Hold-Fast,” I brought an example to class:

Gramercy holdfasts securing a workpiece to a benchtop

These commercially-made hold-fasts (sometimes also called “hold-downs”) simply drop into a hole in the benchtop.  A firm rap on the top with a hammer or mallet cocks the shaft in the hole, wedging it securely and squeezing the workpiece between the pad and the benchtop.  Which, according to George Herbert, should remind us all of the grace of God.

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2 Responses to George Herbert’s “The Hold-Fast”: What IS a Hold-Fast?

  1. Tim W. says:

    Thanks for introducing us to George Herbert. I haven’t heard of him until your article. I really enjoy the literary angle and traditional woodworking. I need to read Herbert’s words several more times to really hear him, but I like what he’s saying.

    Take care, Tim.

  2. Thanks, Tim. Herbert is one of my favorite poets, and even though his poems are often densely theological, they are also full of surprisingly concrete images. More poems by Herbert are available here: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poet/159.html

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