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…


2 responses to “George Herbert and the poem as scripture(?)

  1. This is very welcome. I don’t think your apologetics are necessary. Post-modernism will never support the kind of dense allusiveness that Herbert lived and breathed in his Biblical ethos. This ethos was not limited to The Bible; it was rooted in the “analogical-participatory world-view” (as Milbank phrases it) that goes back to Plato and into prehistory. I believe one sees this in China, too. (The Zhuangzi is part of the “axis time” shared by the Greeks and “Old Testament” editors, I believe.) But it’s true that today “metaphysics” is more likely to be discussed without scare quotes of the kind used here as an epistemological condom. Philosophers contributing to “metaxological” science may be arriving at ways of rebuilding an “analogical-participatory world-view.” I apologize for all the quotes, scary or not.

  2. Pingback: George Herbert and the Day Job | Bebrowed’s Blog

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