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.