Tag Archives: george herbert

Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                 Gulitie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
                 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                 If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
                 Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

Poetry and goodness

I need to start by expressing my gratitude to Michael Peverett, John Stevens and Steffen Hope for their feedback of the ‘Mercian Hymns’ page on arduity which has been invaluable and much appreciated. I’ve just added a longish page on the first four parts of ‘In Parenthesis’, any feedback on this would be much appreciated- either in the comments here or via e-mail- the address is at the bottom of each arduity page.

In his response to my recent thing on David Jones, Tom Dilworth expressed the view that “In IN PARENTHESIS the supreme value is not human life but goodness” which has set me thinking in a number of different directions. The first of these is that poetry is much better at badness than it is on the more positive aspects of the human race. The second is that those great poets who have tried to deal with goodness or virtue have clearly dealt with badness and vice with greater relish. The third thought is that there are those poets who exude goodness in their work and who approach their material with both empathy and compassion for the human condition.

In chronological order, I’m going to have to start with Book I of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ which describes the quest of the Red Cross knight in achieving holiness. I think it is reasonable to observe that the most interesting/absorbing/entertaining characters are irrevocably Bad and that the way in which they do Badness is much more convincing than the good characters who help the knight on his way. Archimago and Duessa are eminently believable and Despair is a brilliant portrayal of what might be described as early nihilism but the virtuous Fidessa and Contemplation have all the realism of cardboard. The knight is so inept that we can’t take his side whilst Una, the object of his love and devotion, has only one scene where she is allowed to display her real emotions, for the rest of the 12 cantos she remains simply a bland paradigm of virtue.

Book III is ostensibly ‘about’ chastity as embodied by Britomart who does act with compassion and generosity, who does appear to be keen on doing the Right Thing and is much more complex and involving than any of the other ‘good’ subjects of the poem.

Spenser doesn’t write with compassion, he writes as a poet who is keen to demonstrate his value and skill. I am and always will be a Spenserian but that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the rampant egotism that runs through the work which really does get in the way of any sense of understanding of the reality of human talents and frailties. This self-regard is most obviously on display in the ‘Amoretti’ sequence but it also runs through the Faerie Queene- Spenser describes a great many fight scenes not because they are essential to his theme but because he’s very good at them even though the reader is weary after the first five or six.

George Herbert’s Love III deals with God’s love for mankind and the way in which salvation might work. I don’t want to re-visit Prynne’s detailed analysis but I do want to suggest that the poets displays a degree of goodness (in the sense of compassion and tenderness) as well as insight in the following lines. The poem uses the analogy of a guest and a meal that is offered:

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack any thing.

A guest, I answered worthy to be here.
Love said, You shall be he.

This is probably an entirely personal response but this strikes me as more than a theological ‘point’ because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that most of us have with the notion of worthiness. I know than a few individuals who have dedicated their lives to some kind of public service as a way of reconciling or dealing with their own sense of unworthiness and the above exchange seems to explore this in a particularly accurate and humane way that is absent from most of the rest of great English verse.

This brings us to John Milton and his God problem. In Paradise Lost, Jesus has compassion for humanity and does all the right/good things from defeating the bad angels to undertaking to sacrifice himself in order to redeem mankind. God, on the other hand, is grumpy and complains a lot about man’s ingratitude and disobedience. Being omniscient, God knows about Adam’s disobedience before it occurs but also knows (because of Free Will) that there is nothing he can do to prevent it. This makes him far more compelling than either Satan or Christ because he confounds our expectation that God must be inherently good and kind and never, ever bad-tampered.

The other bits of goodness turn out to be rather tedious, I find myself becoming irritated by the unalloyed virtue of Adam and Eve in the idyllic garden prior to the Fall. Milton is our greatest poet but he’s also a streetfighter with a number of points to make and this doesn’t leave much space for an empathetic stance.

Charles Olson’s compassion for the people of Gloucester and the way in which he describes existence on the edge of the Atlantic is an example of warmth and his love for the place which is enunciated in detail throughout ‘Maximus’, drawing us in to a similar viewpoint.

As with David Jones, one of Olson’s concerns is the relationship of the past to the present and the following fourteen lines explore this with great personal warmth;

A year that year
was new to men
the place had bred
in the mind of another

John White had seen it
in his eye
but fourteen men
of whom we know eleven

twenty two eyes
and the snow flew
where gulls now paper
the skies

where fishing continues
and my heart lies

I could go on for a very long time about how the archive and archival poetry brings the past into the immediate present a how Jones and Olson are two of our greatest poets (in part) because of this element in their practice. Instead, I just want to point to the love expressed and written in the above which to my mind is also an expression of Olson’s goodness.

Finally, Elizabeth Bishop is one of the very few poets who does goodness really well and I want to produce the closing lines of ‘Filling Station’ as an example of technical brilliance and a very human compassion:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

There is a lot going on here but the ‘point’ is beautifully and expertly made and it is these expressions of compassion and human worth, even in the mundane, that makes Bishop so very, very good. There’s a reported conversation in ‘Moose’ which is technically perfect but is also soaked through with this sense of innate value in the human race.

So, I need to thank Tom Dilworth again for enabling me to think about yet another aspect that I’ve taken too much for granted and will now pay much more attention to.

J H Prynne and “then”.

I’ve written before about Prynne’s recent ‘Discursive Commentary on ‘Love III’ by George Herbert which runs to 92 pages and can only be described as forensically detailed. I’ve also drawn attention to the 11 pages that Prynne devotes to the word ‘then’. In the intervening months I’ve read a lot more of Herbert’s work and used these pages to think aloud about the various difficulties that his life and work present.

Mainly because I’ve had a few days of disenchantment with poetry, I want to give some more attention to what Prynne has to say in those 11 pages and to try to understand how he thinks about poetry. As will hopefully become clear, this commentary is more revealing about Prynne the poet than his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’. This is the full text of the poem-

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Prynne is of the view that ‘then’ on line 16 is pivotal because it signals the moment of grace when the sinner accept’s God’s love and vows to ‘serve’ him. Previously I have complained that Prynne does not give sufficient attention to the very wide spectrum of belief with regard to the workings of grace in the 1620s. Having re-read these 11 pages I have now to concede that this theological breadth is acknowledged as is the (to us) obscurity of some of the ‘points’ of debate.

The salutary lesson for me in this is about the nature and value of attention. I like to think of myself as an attentive reader in that I read and re-read and try to notice as much as possible about a poem. However, I would not have given the above poem anywhere near as much attention as Prynne does and I may have ‘weighted’ my attention more on to line 5 because I think it’s one of the best lines ever to be written. The extensive scrutiny that Prynne that Prynne deploys here shows I think how much his own work is conscious of the significance and complexity of every single word and his focus on ‘then’ shows a willingness to examine all aspects of meaning and intention.

The other point that Prynne makes is that Herbert didn’t write this as a simple account of his own moment of grace, he wrote it primarily to involve the reader in comparing his or her own experience of faith and giving consideration as to when (if at all) the commitment to ‘serve’ might occur.

This leads inevitably on to a question of consistency because this reading would seem to imply that there’s a certain amount of catechizing going on which might be at variance with this from page 7:

Also the consistently modest pitch of the dramatic scenario is set not as a form of entrapment but as an enablement; not as a catechism, in which the questions are formal elucidative prompts to prescribed doctrine, but as clear responses to fears in conscience, that are due to confusion and irrational apprehensiveness.”

I’m of the view that the poem is a great poem because it manages to do several complicated things at once and does so in a way that seems plain and simple. I’m also of the view that the poem’s primary purpose is to describe the workings of grace in a way that ‘ordinary’ readers could understand and identify with the poet as reluctant sinner. As I understand it, a catechism is a form of religious instruction in a question and answer format which appears to be what’s going on here. I’m not denying the possibility that this is an account of Herbert’s own experience, nor am I denying the brilliance of the poem but I still read it as question and answer elucidation. This may of course be due to my absence of faith (Non-Dawkins faction) but I don’t think that this would make me any more sympathetic to Prynne’s view. I’m not willing to take up an extreme position on this, I don’t share Cristina Malcolmson’s view of Herbert as “a poet writing public verse, committed to nationalistic Protestantism, and perhaps seeking promotion to
higher office until the end of his life” but I don’t understand Prynne’s reluctance to see the poem as any more than “responses to fears in conscience”.

This reluctance is odd when it comes from a poet who thrives on ambiguity and sees it as an essential element of modernist verse. This is compounded by the fact that ‘fears in conscience’ isn’t a particularly clear phrase whatever they might be the result of.

The pages on ‘then’ contain many gloriously obscure quotes from preachers of the time as well as from Donne’s poems and sermons, all of which serve to underline the complexities and nuances involved. There’s also a quote from Blair Worden that doesn’t seem to be relevant to the period in question but this may be because I’m not convinced by anything that Worden writes.

There is, of course, the charge of over-reading- that Prynne is reading far more into these 1 lines than they actually contain. I don’t think that this is the case because of the subject matter and the fact that the poem was written at a time that was so very different from ours and both of these elements need the attention that Prynne gives them. I can also concede that the detail may be a bit dense for those readers that don’t have an active interest in 17th century religious thought and practice. For those of us that do, it may be that Prynne doesn’t go far enough, especially when giving consideration to some of the guest’s responses.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that the discussion on ‘then’ begins with pointing out that there is a backward looking use as in ‘in that case’ I will serve and a forward looking use as in ‘now, therefore’ I will serve and that Herbert may well be making use of both- ‘If God has done this for me’ and ‘I now commit myself to a life of service to Him’. The point here being that grace could only function if it was accepted and recognised as entailing a lifetime of service.

I think that this confirms what we already knew, that Prynne applies intense attention to the words that make up a poem and that he seems, unlike Geoffrey Hill, to think like the rest of us. He also shares that annoying habit that we all have of letting our eloquence get the better of us- from time to time.

George Herbert and torture.

I’m reading “The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert and Vaughan” by Ceri Sullivan in an attempt to get a bit more context on The George Herbert Problem which is still causing more than a degree of dither. Essentially this is still about how much of the poetry is an honest expression of faith and feeling and how much is done in order to instil a greater degree of faith in his readers.

Sullivan has a chapter on Herbert’s use of torture to describe his relationship with God with a particular focus on ‘Love Unknown':

Deare Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad; 
And in my faintings I presume your loue
Will more complie, then help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds which may improve,
I hold for two lives and both lives in me.
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day.
And in the middle plac'd my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Lookt on a seruant who did know his eye
Better then you know me, or (which as one)
Then I my self. The servant instantly
Quitting the fruit, seiz'd on my heart alone,
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issu'd from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and di'd
And washt, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. Your heart was foul, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault more than my lease will bear,
Yet still asks pardon, and was not deni'd.
But you shall heare. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one even-tide
(I sigh to tell)
Walkt by my self abroad, I saw a large
And spacious fornace flaming, and thereon
A boyling caldron, round about those verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION.
The greatnesse shew’d the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which I did fear grew cold.
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart, that brought it (do you understand?)
The offerers heart. Your heart was hard, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug, then scalding water
I bath’d it often, ev’n with holy bloud,
Which at a board, while many drunk bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Ev’n taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardnesses. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed.
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Deare, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures ev’n my rest was gone?
Full well I understood, who had been there.
For I had giv’n the key to none, but one:
It must be he. Your heart was dull, I fear.
Indeed a slack and sleepie state of minde
Did oft possesse me, so that when I pray’d,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behinde.
But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took the debt upon him. Truly, Friend,
For ought I heare, our Master shows to you
More favour then you wot1 of. Mark the end.
The Font did onely, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick

As can be seen, this is gloriously complex and serves to move the Herbert Problem a bit further on. Helen Wilcox identifies the italicised ‘friend’ as Christ but also notes that other commentators have suggested that the friend is an “internal spiritual voice” as well as the external image of Christ. The poem would appear to make use of the image of the heart as deployed in emblem books to describe the sufferings of religious shortcomings which are redeemed by grace.

To modern readers the grisly descriptions of what happens to the hear might seem quite bizarre but the early 17th century was a very different place with a criminal justice system that worked on the spectacle of the execution and deployed various forms of torture to extract confessions.

Without getting bogged down by theological niceties, the poem seems to indicate that unadorned faith and praise is what is required rather than offerings or self-sacrifice. We also have the commercial / contractual references that permeate most of Herbert’s work with the punning ‘grounds’ of line 4 (land, reasons, terms of the contract between Herbert and God), ‘lease’ in line 20 and “But all may scores were by another paid / Who took the debt upon him” (60-61)

Whilst this is probably the most grisly of Herbert’s poems, there are three or four others that make use of torture to describe the relationship between Herbert and his God. Before getting on to these I want to try and show how this moves the Problem to a position more in favour of honesty than manipulation. If Stanley Fish is correct and Herbert’s purpose is to catechize his readers then this doesn’t seem to be very effective with its depiction of a violent and sadistic God relentlessly punishing one who believes and the rather weak description of the path to salvation in the last three lines. To my 21st century mind this is more likely to deter readers than to encourage them to “be cheer’d” through their suffering.

Christ’s half-line responses to the described scenes of suffering are not compatible with a poem that’s trying to ‘sell’ the faith and the poet’s readiness to agree with the observation strikes me as more than a little masochistic which doesn’t promote readerly identification.

‘Justice II’ on the other hand is much more direct and can be read as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New. The second verse is-

The dishes of thy balance seemed to gape,
Like two great pits;
The beam and scape
Did like some tort'ring engine show:
Thy hand above did burn and glow,
Danting the proudest hearts the proudest wits.

I could make a case for either side with this, the contrast between Old and New is conventional and doesn’t make too much of what the torturing engine might do (in other poems there are clear references to being stretched on the rack) and I can see that it may be constructed to have an inspiring effect on the reader rather then be an honest expression of Herbert’s experience. The poem ends with- “Why should I justice now decline? / Against me there is none, but for me much.

Of course, there is a middle position which says that some poems can be at the manipulation end of the spectrum and others can be at the honest expression end. There is also the argument that we will never know but I find myself involved in this because I’m not keen on manipulation and I am very impressed by the way that Herbert does poetry. It’s also a useful framework for thinking about the poems in some depth.

Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II':

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….

George Herbert and the Day Job

Two Mollys on Blue - Sarah Small

I’m reading Herbert’s instruction manual for parish priests, ‘Priest to the Temple’ and I feel a bit let down by my own judgement because it’s causing me to reconsider the poetry. I’m going to try quite hard to keep what follows out of the lit crit rigmarole but this may not be easy.

Let’s start with the reasonably obvious, George Herbert was a god poet and his god poems are some of the best we have. They achieve this quality in a number of ways but one of the main attractions is the use of the sudden interjection to express direct and intense emotion.

Although a fully paid-up, non-Dawkins atheist I am attracted to god poems because the best of them are better than anything else (Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy) and because they manage to do many things at once and because god and god-related material has been such an important part of our culture. I’m also fascinated by the religious debates that swirled around the first 150 years of Anglicanism.

This doesn’t apply to all god poets, I really can’t stand either Southwell or Hopkins (and I have tried) and John Donne is currently underwhelming me for all kinds of reasons but I remain a devoted fan of John Milton, Henry Vaughan and R S Thomas.

Last month I wrote about the relationship between Herbert’s poetry and scripture in which I glibly dismissed the view of Stanley Fish that Herbert is catechizing with his poetry. This may have been a mistake. Before explaining why it might be a mistake I need to point out that I haven’t read ‘The Living Temple’ and can only make a reasonably informed guess at the general thrust of the Fish position.

The first thing that struck me on reading ‘The Priest to the Temple’ is the stridency of tone and the absence of nuance. I also have to observe that I would probably given up the ministry if I’d read this as an apprentice vicar in about 1635. There is also a lot of practical stuff about how to inspire rural parishioners and how to deal with overly ardent female members of the congregation but there’s also a (for me) surprising emphasis on liturgy as performance (on the part of the priest) rather than an expression of faith.

There’s also the biographical difficulty referred to by Helen Wilcox which is the fact that Herbert was a member of the nobility and the role of a rural priest isn’t by any means a normal career path for men of his standing- he had previously been appointed as Orator of Cambridge University and elected as member of Parliament for Montgomery. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why he embarked on a much more ordinary life but do need to point out that there was a huge social and cultural gap between Herbert and the vast majority of his parishioners.

I’d like to start with the last stanza of ‘Grace':</p?

O come! for thou dost know the way.
Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say. Drop from above.

The Rowan Williams / Helen Wilcox line would be that ‘Grace’ is a straightish expression of fairly orthodox thought and that these last four lines are a spontaneous interjection from the poet as a personal expression of the conflicted soul. The Stanley Fish position is (probably) that the personal and exclamatory tone is a deliberate attempt solely to amplify / intensify the faith of Herbert’s readers.

Having read Prynne on ‘Love III’ and Wilcox’ introduction to the ‘English Poems’ I have been firmly on the side of spontaneity and heartfeltness in the manner of what Simon Jarvis describes as a poetic ‘blurt’. I’m now wavering between the two because of this:

THE Country Parfon when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures, which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, First, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himfelf alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation; whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly Altar to be bathed, and waihed in the Sacred Laver of Chrift’s blood. Secondly, as this
is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himfelf, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to reverence,
which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying.Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and flow ; yet not fo flow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

So Herbert appears to be saying that priests should not be afraid to express their personal fervour as this will encourage the same in their flock but he’s also saying that the words shouldn’t flow but have a ‘grave liveliness’ so as to move the congregation to reverence.

Taking aside the wonderful nature of ‘grave liveliness’ as a phrase, I’d like to point out that there is a middle way to read these poems. The first thing that needs to be recognized is that they are intended to catechize but that Herbert’s view is that sincere personal expressions of faith are the most effective way to do this and he therefore has the best of both worlds.

The other modification that needs to be made relates to the nature of the ‘blurt’ because I think that the above demonstrates that the apparently can’t help myself spontaneity is in fact a conceit or device to increase fervour in the reader. I’d also suggest that the apparent inner conflict that Williams so admires is (probably) a device to mirror the doubts that each member of the congregation will have. Skilled demagogues, of course, have been doing this for centuries.

I set great store by honesty in poetry and shy away from anything that ‘feels’ contrived or manipulative. This should therefore give me a bit of a problem but it doesn’t because it hasn’t led me to question the nature of Herbert’s faith and the ‘interjection’ as technique rather than blurt seems entirely reasonable.

I must also mention that I love manuals of this sort and Herbert’s is an absolute delight- and gives a much clearer insight into the cares of the times than most of the religio/political tracts and pamphlets so beloved of historians.

George Herbert and the poem as scripture(?)

In my head, there is a line to be drawn between what the writing of attentive readers and of literary critics. This is an entirely subjective line and would not bear up to too much scrutiny but I do know when I cross it or am in danger of crossing it. This was brought to mind by re-reading Nigel Smith’s gloss on Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and his attempt to ascribe some of the thinking behind it to neat and undiluted Plotinus. Whilst smiling a neoplatonic smile, it occurred to me that a detailed refutation of this would be more of a lit crit and less of a readerly thing to do but I’ll probably do it anyway because I do have a lot more readerly things to say about the poem.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I might be about to dive into lit crit territory with George Herbert but I think I can excuse myself a little because the notion that’s about to be propounded came from reading the poems and not from reading about them.

I intend to show that Herbert made some poems to function in the same way that he saw the bible ‘working’ and that in some poems this imitation works in subtle and complex ways. I readily concede that this assertion comes from my desire to make Herbert more accomplished and modern than he probably is but this is, at least, an honest response to the work. There is also a further thought about the things that we can take from poetry changing as time moves on. For example, the psychological themes that run through the first three books of the Faerie Queen had much more resonance for readers in the period between 1918 and 1939 than they have before or since.

I want to use two poems from ‘The Temple’ sequence. The first is ‘The H. Scriptures II’-

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configuration of their glorie!
Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off:
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destine:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in ev'ry thing
Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring,
and in another make me understood.

Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
This book of starres lights to eternal blisse.

I’m not going to attempt an evaluation of the quality of the above but I do want to draw attention to what might be going on in the second and third stanzas because it appears to me that what is being said about the bible is also being said (to some extent) about ‘The Temple’ sequence and that this is another example of Herbert’s ability to work across several levels.

Helen Wilcox’ notes tell me that many critics and editors have read ‘watch’ as a mistake for ‘match’ but I’m of the view that this amendment makes even less sense than the original.

Stanley Fish is of the view that ‘The Temple’ is mainly about catechising but I’m not convinced= I think there’s too many occasions where a troubled or conflicted voice takes the upper hands and others, like the one above, where Herbert appears to be playing with more than a degree of ambiguity. ‘This verse marks that’ can be taken to be a verse from the bible and can also be a verse from the poem that we are reading which puts the rest of the poem into a different kind of context.

It is also worth bearing in mind than many of the poems in ‘The Temple’ are part of a series on a specific theme, so that the poem above is one of two entitled ‘H Scripture’ and that there are three ‘Love’ and five ‘Affliction’ poems as well as several other series. So, as with scripture, it is possible that ‘ten leaves’ off; there is a second poem that amplifies or contextualises points made in the first.

This perspective also helps me to make more sense of the rather tangled third stanza and perhaps clarifies the use of ‘parallels bring’ given that this is not normally a part of the ‘catechising’ hypothesis.

The second poem is the first ‘Praise’ poem in the sequence-

To write a verse or two, is all the praise,
That I can raise:
Mend my estate in any wayes,
Thou shalt have more.

I go to Church; help me to wings, and I
Will thither flie;
Or, if I mount unto the skie,
I will do more.

Man is all weaknesse; there is no such thing
As Prince or King:
His arm is short, yet with a sling
He may do more.

An herb distill'd, and drunk, may dwell next door,
On the same floore,
To a brave soule: exalte the poor,
They can do more.

O raise me then! poore bees, that work all day,
Sting my delay,
Who have a work, as well as they.
And much, much more.

Wilcox glosses ‘verse’ as “A reference to the speaker’s activity as a poet (a self-consciousness which is an aesthetic characteristic of The Temple) but also likening the poet’s praise to that of the psalmist” but doesn’t expand on the possible motivations for this characteristic. I think that this additional dimension is more strategic and theological than simply aesthetic and that this strategy is making a case for the making of religious poetry as being a furtherance of scripture in that both express a relationship with God.

I also think that Herbert is using this conceit to confront the reader of the poem with the possibility of a similar experience as he or she may have when reading scripture.

As Wilcox notes, ‘Praise’ contains a number of themes that are also present in the Psalms but there’s also a degree of self-consciousness there too. So, do we have here a 17th century re-working of an Old Testament trope or an anticipation of something more ‘modern’? I think I’m coming round to the view that Herbert was essentially developing and re-working the long and multifaceted tradition of religious verse in a way that wasn’t afraid to give voice to his doubts and frustrations, which he knew would also be present in his readers. Of course, this might also be seen as quite a 20th century thing to want to do…