Let thy choice cask, shed, Lord into my cue
A drop of juice pressed from thy noble vine.
My bowl is but an acorn cup, I sue
But for a drop: this will not empty thine.
Although I’m in an earthen vessel’s place
My vessel make a vessel, Lord, of grace.
Below, I will work through the theological and conceptual structure of this stanza. But first some work play: cask, cue, aCorn, cup – drop. DroP-Pressed-cuP.
There is the repetition of vessel, vessel, vessel. The repetition sounds and words helps to underscore emotional intensity of the situation.
There is an interesting concealment and reveal in these lines. The unsaid subject of the whole is the wine. Look at the images, “juice pressed” it comes from a “vine”, it comes from a “cask.” The wine is to be poured into an “acorn” cup, very small, wooden cup. There is also another contrast between Lord and the poet: one is of grace, one of earth.
The imagery of wine and the Christ goes back to Jacob’s blessing of Judah:
Genesis 49:10–12 (KJV 1900)
10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh come;
And unto him shall the gathering of the people be.
11 Binding his foal unto the vine,
And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine;
He washed his garments in wine,
And his clothes in the blood of grapes:
12 His eyes shall be red with wine,
And his teeth white with milk.
The image of wine is developed further. There are two ways in particular the image of wine and vine work into this stanza. First, the image of vine. This passage comes from the Gospel of John in a conversation of Jesus as he is walking with his disciples onto Mount of Olives where he will be betrayed. The Last Supper and the institution of communion (which will follow) has been made.
This passage from John is particularly relevant to the theme of the poem. In the beginning of the Gospel, John states that Jesus is the source of all grace. In this passage at the end of Jesus’ life, as his life will be poured out in death, he will become the source of life:
John 15:1–5 (KJV 1900)
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. 2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. 3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. 5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
And as Jesus said earlier in John 14:19, “Because I live, you also will live.” Earlier in the John 1, Jesus is light and life and grace. When the poet calls himself “earthen,” this also means that she is subject to death: “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” John 3:6. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul develops at length the concept that the body is “perishable,” sown in weakness. In particular, 1 Corinthians 15:47, “The first man was from earth, a man of dust.” But there is a resurrection, “But thanks be to God who gives us victory through Jesus Christ.”
So to be a vessel of grace is not merely a matter of some sort of psychological benefit. It is the question of “salvation;” which is a matter of life:
John 3:16 (KJV 1900)
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
What is not exactly clear to me in this stanza is whether the “choice cask” has a particular reference.
One further wine reference is necessary. When Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, he gives them the cup (again a reference in the poem: the poet’s cup), “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:27-28.)
Thus, by asking for the cup, the poet is asking to partake of the “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He is calling for grace: which is life, which is salvation from all the effects of the Fall.