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’.

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2 responses to “J H Prynne on George Herbert pt 2

  1. Vance Maverick

    The thought of all this theology gives me pause. Not that I’m unaware of theology in Herbert, but I read it naively, as one man’s meditations within a general space bounded by a few givens. Not sure I’m prepared to think in these more complicated terms, however suitable to the subject.

    • I know what you mean, I’m strangely attracted to some religious verse for reasons that I can’t fully explain. With regard to Herbert, I find the period in which he lived fascinating and religious debate was very much woven into the fabric of daily life.

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