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.


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