Tag Archives: love III

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.

Poetry and the academy (again)

In the early days of this blog I allowed myself the occasional extended rant about the damage that something called the academy does to something we call poetry. The general thrust of this centred around an academic elite having more and more complex discussions with itself and thus locking most ‘serious’ poetry up in a box that excludes the rest of us.

I’d like to be able to report that I’ve mellowed and now appreciate that complex poetry requires complex analysis and that this must be expressed in precise terms which many may consider to be obscure. Unfortunately, recent exposure to academic work continues to confirm the original view although in a slightly modified form.

I read a lot of history and spend many a happy hour arguing in my head with views and perspectives that I don’t agree with. I’d like to be able to read about poets and poetry that interests me, especially work produced between 1580 and 1670 (ish) although I wouldn’t be adverse to reading outside these parameters. The problem is that I can’t finish the vast majority of those that I’ve tried. I start off with the best of intentions but soon get weary and decide not to proceed any further. This weariness is usually due to:

  • the points being made don’t seem to be well-founded;
  • an ideological agenda is being pursued which requires the author to shoehorn the work into a box that doesn’t fit;
  • academic eagerness leading to an ‘over-egging’ of the pudding;
  • increasingly convoluted arguments to make a very small point;
  • an emphasis on the wrong things;

There are some critics that I read with enormous pleasure even though I disagree with almost everything they say, I read and re-read Stanley Fish on anything and I do the same with Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan. I also read Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne on anything but my primary motivation stems from my interest in their poetry.

I do appreciate that there are academic trends and that these develop over time, I also understand that academia is competitive but it does seem that academic success is more likely if authors produce work that questions the prevailing status quo (and is well written).

I do not want to single out particular books but I have started about ten that have been published in the last five years. I’ve been attracted by the subject matter and the thesis that’s set out in the introduction and have started with more than a degree of enthusiasm because all of these books promise to do what I think ought to be done.

The over-egging of the pudding is particularly tiresome, it does seem that there is a tendency to develop entire theories on the flimsiest evidence. Some historians also fall into this particular trap but there is a growing trend which emphasises the things that we don’t actually know rather than those which we can only guess about. I’m not inherently against speculation but I am of the view that authors should make it clear when speculation is taking place.

I have tried to be reasonably broad in my reading, I’ve engaged with works about individual poets, about groups of poets, works with a political bent and those with a theological/philosophical angle and none of these have lived up to the promises set out in the introduction. Some of this can be very dispiriting, I’ve been taken through many pages of context and supporting evidence only to arrive at a ‘point’ that is so small as to be meaningless. I’ve been through pages of ideologically right-on posturing to arrive at a ‘point’ that is laughably wrong (as in factually incorrect).

We now come to specialisms and context. I am familiar with the history of this particular period and am therefore reasonably aware when authors provide only partial or inaccurate context. There may however be many readers who ‘only’ have a background in literature and would often struggle to make a judgement about the context that is provided. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate but too often sweeping generalisations are made in order to prove a (usually speculative) theory. The other side of the coin is represented by J H Prynne who spends many pages in his ‘Love III’ commentary emphasising just how complex and obscure certain theological debates were in the 1620s.

we now come to over-complication which is usually due to putting forward a hypothesis on very, very thin evidence but can also stem from being overly-enamoured with theory. The love of theory is (to say the least) unfortunate because it can often deter the hapless reader (me) who ‘just’ wants to know a bit more about the poems. I could go on for a very long time about how the work of Edmund Spenser has been hijacked and fought over by various theoretical perspectives to such an extent that the poetry has been largely forgotten, looking at recent academic work would lead the neutral observer to conclude that Spenser only ever wrote about Ireland and that this was done in order to promote and strengthen a profoundly dodgy (technical term) imperial project. Needless to say a few critics have attempted to buck this trend but they do tend to get swamped by this kind of errant nonsense.

I’m not in any way adverse to theory but do nevertheless feel that theoretical concerns should be used to inform our understanding of the work and not the other way round. Literary theorists also suffer in the main from a very simplistic view of how things work/worked in the real world. There seems to be a number of straight lines that go from society to any particular poem, so we have a burgeoning economy or a flourishing legal profession or religious controversy having a direct and discernible influence on the way that poems are put together. I shouldn’t really need to point out that life is inherently messy and doesn’t always follow the lines that we draw for it. The refusal of some literary critics (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) to understand and accommodate this unfortunate fact is especially frustrating.

It’s also interesting to note that historians tend to do better on poets than literary critics do on history. Roy Foster has produced the definitive work on Yeats and Edward Thompson’s book on Blake and the Muggletoniansis an absolute delight.

In conclusion, with a few honourable exceptions, the academy continues to produce work about poetry that is incredibly introspective and usually inaccurate. This does enormous disservice to the work and to the interested but non-academic reader.

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.

Doing deals with George Herbert

A while ago I wrote about a disappointing book that attempted to develop ties between the burgeoning world of commerce and the sonnet explosion of the 1590s. This effort was disappointing because it spent too much time hovering over tenuous evidence and not enough time thinking about how day to day reality and mindsets get to be reflected in poetry.

I had therefore decided that any such attempt to impose Bourdieu’s analysis of taste on the far distant past was a bit of a waste of time. I then started to read more and more of Herbert’s poetry which was published forty years after said explosion and it became clear that this might need a bit more thought. I don’t propose to enter into a detailed Prynne style discussion of theology but I do want to think about how Herbert makes deliberate and almost strategic use of commercial and legal terms and the way in which this particular conceit is indicative of the way in which Herbert views the world.

Before we go any further it is probably as well to recall that Herbert came from a privileged background and was (as far as we know) never involved in the commercial and legal milieu of his time so there isn’t an ‘easy’ explanation for his use of this conceit.

I’ve commented on the past on Herbert’s extensive use of ambiguity and how this gives his work a much richer and more satisfying depth. I’m about to argue that Herbert found in commercial and legal terms a rich vein of double and treble meanings which he could exploit, I think this is much more likely to be the case rather than a straightforward reflection of the increase in commercial and mercantile activity.

I’d like to start with the beginning of “The Country Parson” which is Herbert’s prose ‘How to be a vicar’ tract, when setting out the character of the ideal parson, Herbert oberves that he must be true to his word because “country people, as indeed all honest men) do much estem their word, it being the life of buying and selling and dealing in the world”. The chapter ends with “The parson’s yea is yea, and nay, nay: and his apparel plain but reverend and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell; the purity of his mind breaking out, and dilating itself even to his body, clothes and habitation.”

So, I’m not overlooking the tremendous surge in commercial activity after about 1560 and I think that we can see an element of this seeping into cultural activity in a number of different ways but I don’t think that Herbert was unwittingly affected by matters economic – in fact I think it is reasonably obvious to show that he saw this newish activity and its attendant terminology as an extension of his verbal repertoire which he could ply around with to good effect.

This isn’t either startlingly stunning insight nor is it in any way original with regard to Herbert but it doesn’t get stated often enough. In these intellectually confused times we are asked to think about ‘context’ and to try and relate the activity of the poet to his or her external world and in doing this we overlook the strength and power of the poems as poems, as examples of the power of language in extemis. In Herbert’s case it might be academically sound to try and place him within the social and cultural reality of the 1620s but it is mor worthwhile to look at the way he put this context to work. I’m going to use ‘Redemption’ to try and illustrate this-

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold
And make a suit unto him, and to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th'old

In heaven at his manour I him sought.
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied:
Who straight, your suit is granted,said and died.

Of course it can be argued that I’m cheating in that this isn’t representative of the whole and I do concede that not all of the poems are so packed with these terms. In my defence I would like to point out that the poem isn’t ‘simply’ an extended allegory but that it manages to combine the ‘real estate’ conceit with the force and shock of the last line which seems to epitomise the breath-taking qualities that Prynne has referred to.

The use of ‘redemption’ as a title clearly indicates what it is that Herbert wants us to think about in all of its forms and meanings and points to a very conscious and ‘technical’ exploitation of the opportunities that this vocabulary presents rather than an unconscious replication of the newish economic realities. What Herbert is doing is deliberately using the concepts (lease, rent, taking possession, legal suits etc) that would be familiar to his parishioners and using these to illustrate or point towards a relationship with God.

What is remarkable is just how many of the poems in ‘The Temple’ are interlaced with commercial and legal terms. Some of these are veiled (‘thou art heaven’s Lidger here’) and others are much more direct (‘Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde, / who wert disseized by usurping lust:’) but they do demonstrate a mindset that thinks about God in terms of a reciprocal relationship and what the ‘terms’ of this relationship might mean.

With regard to drawing wider conclusions, it would be tempting to see this particular conceit as indicative of a burgeoning and commercially minded bourgeoisie but the past (much like the present) didn’t always proceed in a linear fashion and the biggest mistake is to impose our current mentality on periods that were fundamentally different and really quite strange.

On a final note, I was drawn to Herbert by Prynne’s recent book on ‘Love III’ and by Rowan Williams brief comments in an interview with David Hare and imagined that I would be looking at the way poetry ‘does’ religion but in fact I’m more and more impressed by the way that Herbert uses ‘plain’ talking to do very, very complex and intelligent things in verse.

Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

Dear Neil,

I’ve spent some time reading your remarkable response to John Stevens with regard to approaching ‘The Oval Window’ and I feel the need to respond here rather than in the thread, mainly because it is more likely to be read by innocent passers-by. When I’d overcome all the initial scepticisms and suspicions and had begun to pay attention to Prynne (as opposed to looking at the words) I wrote a short blog entitled ‘How to read Jeremy Prynne’ which was one of my glib lists which makes the mistake of glossing over the big stumbling block by encouraging interested parties to ‘think laterally’ which is probably the least helpful thing that I could have written. I’ve been thinking a lot about your landscape image/analogy and I want to take it a bit further but first of all I’d like to introduce you to ‘Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light’ by Jessica Stockholder.

You now need to bear with me for a while. Stockholder is a Canadian artist who rearranges our fundamental ideas about space and what space does and can do. ‘Rearranges’ is a polite term for ‘dismantles’ and/or ‘destroys’ and this is achieved with incredibly banal and ordinary materials. The initial effect of a Stockholder installation is one of disorientation and bafflement because of the assault on our many taken-for-granted notions about three dimensional space and about aesthetic judgement/value.

It would be utterly crass to suggest that reading Prynne is like confronting a Stockholder installation but I would like to suggest is that Prynne’s work has this same ‘dimensional’ aspect in that we are encouraged to allow the poems to take us into areas where we need to consider length, breadth and depth at once and take into account the different materials from which these things are made.

As with Stockholder, it is also important to think about isolated aspects quite hard but also to try and relate these to the work as a whole. This is a wider shot from the same installation-

In the first image, I would suggest, our focus is on the neon tubes on the floor primarily because they shouldn’t be there, in the second image our attention shifts to how a range of different elements might relate to each other and the light tubes seem less important (but still part of the piece).

When I’m reading Prynne, I’m conscious that I’m persuading my brain to do things that it doesn’t normally do. This is where it gets difficult for me to make general statements about reading this stuff because I only have my own subjective experience to rely on but the first thing that my brain needs to do is to grab and retain as much as possible of the poem, as in ‘As mouth blindness’, or the sequence as in ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ and then to think about potential ‘connections’ across this rugged terrain. Going a bit further with your ‘lights’ analogy, I’d want to add that some of these connections produce only an intermittent light, others produce a flickering but constant light and very few produce a steady beam and that the ‘important’ element may be in the means by which these connections are made and unmade rather than in the lights that are produced.

I think I’d also like to add that my brain really enjoys these different tasks and perspectives and there have been times when I’ve become a bit addicted and have had to wean myself off from the Prynne Habit because there are other things in life that I need to attend to. If managed correctly, engaging with Prynne is immensely pleasurable and amusing, there are many things about the work that make me smile and the experience informs my reading of other material which is always a good thing.

The other aspect that I’d like to emphasise is that I do get the feeling that I’m in the presence of serious poetry when I’m looking at this stuff. By ‘serious’ I think I mean work that doesn’t compromise and is completely focused on what it does. There’s a degree of absolute concentration that I only experience / am aware of with Prynne and Celan. This extreme refusal to make concessions and to focus exclusively on the making of poetry (which is common to both) is, for me, the marker of lasting value / worth. Reading the poems chronologically, it’s reasonably clear to me that Prynne’s encounter with poetry has become increasingly focused and intense and one of the interesting aspects of the later sequences has been the insistence on the use of traditional verse forms so that the poems look like they belong within the scope of poetry although they operate at its very edge. All of this is a Very Good Thing.

I think I’d also like to say a bit more about the ‘understanding’ issue which was certainly enough to deter me for a number of years. I think that it’s really important to recognise that it is eminently feasible to take serious pleasure from a poem even if we ‘understand’ very little of it. There’s also the vexed question of what it is that we’re trying to understand, is it the ‘message’ of the poem or the poet’s intention in writing it? So, I think I still maintain that it’s okay to be baffled and that working with bafflement is one of the many pleasures of doing Prynne.

You are absolutely correct in placing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between work that we are drawn to and that which repels us, I think this applies to most stuff and not just Prynne. I’m also conscious that there is some of Prynne’s stuff that (at the moment) I can’t be bothered with because it would take too long for me to work out whether I ‘liked’ it.

The other thing that I think might be helpful is to look at the Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Herbert commentaries because they give a reasonably clear account of how Prynne responds to and thinks about poetry. It’s also worthwhile to look at ‘Mental Ears’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and the essay on translating difficult poetry because they do give a fairly clear context for Prynne’s practice. I read and paid attention to some of the poems first however and this gave me more of a starting point.

The last thing I want to say here is that these poems deal with grown-up subject matter and that issues are addressed in a way that gives an account of the complexities involved. Even in the most outraged polemic (Refuse Collection) there is, as well as condemnation, an attempt to depict the various perspectives and contradictions involved.

This is an extended way of thanking you for you insightful and provocative contribution which has brought me back to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. These are currently being applied to ‘To Pollen’ with surprising results…..



(Sorry, couldn't resist)

J H Prynne on George Herbert pt 2

As a reasonably attentive reader of Prynne’s poems, I read his criticism in part to assist/enhance that experience. I read the prose of Hill and Celan with the same kind of motivation. Sometimes this bears fruit and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s always good to read someone who is passionate and articulate about poetry.
In the previous post I referred to the brevity of the poem and the 92 pages that Prynne uses up in writing about it. What I failed to mention is that the section on the word ‘then’ starts halfway down page 62 and ends halfway down page 73. That’s 11 pages for one word which seems like a lot until you read those 11 pages when it doesn’t seem to be enough. Prynne argues that the word marks the pivotal point of the poem where the poet accepts God’s love and indicates that he or she will “serve”. With regard to ‘then’, Prynne complains about the paucity of the definition in the OED and goes on to elaborate a number of possible definitions before fitting each of these into the various theological positions. For those of us who have an interest in this stuff it is wonderful to have something this detailed to think about and argue with. Last week I may have given the impression that Prynne tries to hard to simplify a complex situation. Having now re-read the book, I concede that there are a few occasions when he does refer to this but I still don’t think he does enough to depict the many and varied shades of view between the Calvinist and Arminian positions- which is why the 11 pages on ‘then’ isn’t enough.
The other point that needs to be made is that these 11 pages give us an opportunity to observe the way in which Prynne works with language. ‘Then’ is made subject to the utmost scrutiny and each of its possible functions (above and beyond being the pivot) and this leads me to consider whether, as a reader, I’ve been sufficiently rigorous with words like ‘same’ that crop up in his poetry. If definitions go beyond the OED now at least I’ve got the ‘then’ example of how to do this. I’m not suggesting that this insight suddenly unlocks a whole range of meaning, it may be a blind alley, it simply points in one particular direction which seems worthy of further exploration.
Prynne makes extensive use of Thomas Wilson’s “A Christian Dictionary” which is available in pdf on the web and contains many delightful illustrations of the logical knots that the godly were tying themselves into. He also makes good use of other contemporary writers but on occasion seems to overlook relevant points because they don’t serve his purpose. Prynne justifies the 92 pages with this:

What is being opened and asked here in this commentary is thus a special and restricted instance of a subset of these general and generic questions: how does ‘Love III’ work as a method to think with, to define and hold within attention its occasion and thematic idea, that can carry through intact its spiritual passion and the crossing paths of encounter without deflection from its own central issues of thought and understanding: without obviousness but equally without loss or blurring of purpose. In particular, may it have been placed last (effectively) in the collection because in Herbert’s own recognition it was his last word, his best shot? May its decisive brevity be a statement that the hardest and most important thought is not extensive but intensive, can be brought decisively to a sovereign point of acknowledgement?
The warrant for extended close scrutiny is that indeed this may be so, that here if anywhere the ‘method’ may reach a self-justifying equilibrium which is true to itself poetically and also true to its spiritual experience and theological ideas, complete with their biblical pedigrees and endorsements from daily life; that this poem works out and performs its ideas poetically in the fullest sense and that its ideas fully and centrally inform the poem’s status and lyrical operation.

I’ve quoted this at length because it seems to be quite important. The claim that is made for ‘Love III’ reads like something akin to perfection- the second paragraph suggests an ideal for what all poetry (not just religious verse) should be capable of, I’m particularly struck by this idea of congruity with regard to the poetic and the idea – although I’m not sure that self-justifying equilibrium is quite what we should be aiming for. I am in full agreement with the assertion that the intensive is a more effective marker of what’s important.
I don’t think ‘Love III’ is a perfect poem, I think it’s a very good poem with one great line but there are bits that are too open ended and vague to merit perfection. In the first line, it is the poet’s soul that draws back rather than the poet himself and this is left unresolved in the poem and its connotations are ignored by Prynne. On two occasions it isn’t immediately obvious exactly who is speaking working this out detracts from the ‘flow’ of the poem. The other quibble is about whether poets really do think of certain poems as their ‘best shots’?
It will be noted that I am ignoring the claims made about the importance of sentence structure, suffice it to say that I have yet to see any supporting evidence for this widely held view.
Coincidentally, I’ve just bought ‘Clavics’ by Geoffrey Hill which is odder than ‘Oraclau’ but not as naff. The 28th poem in this sequence contains a quote from ‘Love III’ and Hill appears to have stolen part of the shape of the poems from Herbert’s ‘Easter’.

J H Prynne on Love III by George Herbert

This tome containing an extensive commentary on the above is now available from Barque Press and costs 10 quid plus 2 quid for delivery. it needs to be read by everyone who cares about poetry and what poetry can do. I’ve now completed my first reading and there are a few things that I need to get off my chest.
The first of these is that the early part of the 17th century was a very odd place to be. I have a view that the past is always quite odd but from 1590 until about 1640 has always struck me as being especially different and (because of this) very difficult for us to make sense of this.
The second point is that George Herbert deserves much more attention. This isn’t to say that he should be elevated to the status of Donne in the canon but that we should spend a bit more time thinking about his place and role in the wider cultural scheme of things.
The third point is that Prynne writes with a great deal of perception about ‘Love III’ and has clearly immersed himself in some of the theological debates of the time. For those of us who are keen on religious poetry and the place where verse and faith meet, this is delightful because we have somebody new to argue with.
The fourth point is that ‘Love III’ is a seriously good poem with a couple of lines that achieve greatness for reasons that I will set out below.
The fifth point is only of interest to Spenserians and relates to Prynne’s use of Canto X in Book One of the Faerie Queen to provide some context to ‘Love III’ which actually raises a number of puzzles.
Finally, as with ‘Field Notes’, this commentary provides further insights into the way that Prynne thinks about poetry and language. This is not to say that they provide the ‘key’ to his poetic project but they do put some more flesh on the bone.
With regard to the oddness of the past, this isn’t the extremist position that we can’t say anything about the past but it is to point out that 400 years is a very long time and things might appear similar or recognisable but closer inspection reveals that they weren’t. The 17th century often descends into caricature with tired old debates about the ideological positions taken by various groups occupying much futile effort over the last thirty five years. This kind of thinking leads to generalised conclusions about certain periods that isn’t (in the Rortian sense) at all helpful. The historical past is always lumpy and consistently refuses to place itself in the boxes that we prepare for it. Prynne spends a lot of time discussing the Arminian elements of ‘Love III’ and the reader is left to assume that by the end of the 1620s there was an established Arminian faction within the Church of England whereas there were probably many variations around both the issues of free will and predestination and that this mixed oddly with bits of Catholic theology and hardline Calvinism (which wasn’t particularly coherent either). I think I would have liked more detail on the wider social and political context, some indication of what it ‘meant’ for Herbert to become a country priest may have been helpful as a way of marking him out from others of a similar status. Or simply some acknowledgement that this particular part of our history is fairly complex and consequently difficult to write about.
With regard to Herbert’s status as a kind of lesser Metaphysical, this does need to change. He has attracted detailed criticism from Stanley Fish for catechising but Prynne makes a very strong case for the strength of this kind of religious verse, whether it catechises or not. There’s also a reasonably direct line that goes from Spenser to Herbert and then on to Henry Vaughan and this needs to be given more prominence because it can be argued that this ‘thread’ produced some of the century’s strongest work.
Unlike ‘The Solitary Reaper’, I do actually care about this stuff and have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with what Prynne has to say. It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with his reading but there are a number of omissions that detract from getting more from the poem. When discussing the Arminian tendency, Prynne goes into great detail about free will and about the mutual nature of ‘service’ but doesn’t give any attention to the Arminian view that although we are all free to choose, God knows what those choices will be. If Prynne is correct and the poem is fundamentally Arminian then this adds a more nuanced aspect to the encounter described in the poem.
He does mention the Cambridge School on one occasion but doesn’t draw attention to what some of us would see as a neo-platonic tinge occurring in the first line “yet my soul drew back,” even though other critics have commented on a neo-platonic theme in Herbert’s work. It would seem that 92 pages of densely packed prose is enough for an eighteen line poem but this is not the case, there is a lot more that could have been said.
Needless to say, most of the margins are now filled with exclamation marks and approving comments and there are only one or two places where I think Prynne is trying too hard. There’s also a final point about contradiction that doesn’t need to be made but on the whole this is a remarkably sensitive reading that should do a lot to promote Herbert’s reputation.
I now have to draw attention to the really great line of this poem. Many great poems have some very, very good lines but, in my view, truly great lines are comparatively rare. The line is question is the poet’s initial response to Christ/God and it is “A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:” which I find to be utterly and staggeringly brilliant in that it manages to convey a whole range of complicated responses to a direct question from God.
We now come to Canto X of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen which Prynne uses to show that views about free will pre-dated what Arminius had to say by at least a couple of decades. This would be valid were it not for the fact that Canto X is theological car crash mangling together threads from both sides of the Reformation and shouldn’t really be trusted to depict any kind of belief system in the ‘real’ world.
For those of us who read Prynne in the hope that this may help with a more informed reading of his poetry there is this: “The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front- loaded selfhood.” So, the task for attentive readers would appear to be to identify the ways in which the post-Brass poetry sets out to disrupt the subject/predicate sequence…