Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II’:

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….


8 responses to “Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

  1. I think many fans of Hill see rhetorical figures as inseparable from his peculiar reconfiguration of elemental energies. This is quite separate from pomposity and vacuity.

    • As a full paid up fan of most things Hill, I am always impressed by his reconfiguring and the ways in which he chooses to make his point. There are some occasions (Bradwardine, Turing) when he seems to reach a bit too far. I still think that ‘Triumph’ is a masterpiece and I’m going to take enormous pleasure in looking through the rhetorical discourse lens.
      Have you got ‘Odi Barbare’? It’s an intriguing change of gear.

  2. This is a bigger discussion, but is making a point the “end” of Hill’s poetics? Your own rhetorical style is a mix of analysis and super-readable talk, a sort of mimesis of rapid fire thought flow. This is one of the few blogs I read, so I say this as a fan. your style IS pointed in that sense, that sententious sense.

    • You’re right, this is a much larger discussion, I’m not entirely sure that his poetics have any solid kind of ‘end’- one of the things that I admire is the sense that I get of improvisation at a very high level- the value is in the various ‘configurings’ more than the point.

  3. I thought I was the only one in this great blog space writing about poetry! I’m so glad that I have found you!


  4. Oh, this is interesting!
    “So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words?”
    Isn’t it neither rhetorical nor straightforward, but painfully self-directed—a surgery to remove the serpent he sees twisted within?

    • I’d like to agree but I continue to waver/dither on this. I think there are some poems that are too odd to be merely rhetorical, but this eloquent renunciation of eloquence is a fairly common theme and needs to be thought about in the context of the prose which advocates plain speaking because of its effectiveness rather than for its integrity/honesty.
      But I am still dithering….

  5. Having been trawling through everything on this site relating to George Herbert I wondered if I might add something to the “Herbert Problem” – no doubt long superseded in your mind by other issues.
    I have over the years attempted to write poetry (with whatever success others may wish to judge) and so feel that I can see this from the inside. From time to time a gobbet of poetic raw material lodges in my brain; this has to be worked on with whatever wit I have to produce a poem. The gobbet may be a phrase, or a rhythm, or a shape on the page: I can give examples of each. But that working is a matter between the words and me. If it’s a Christian poem there will be reference to God. In the end there will be the produced artefact, its quality depending on the quality of the raw material and of my wit. At no time does any supposed audience affect the production of the poem.
    Only once the artefact is complete will the question of an audience arise. There may be none; I may be content to leave it in my notebook. There may be one, probably my wife. Or I may post it to my blog in the hopes that somebody somewhere will read it. But all of this is after the poems exists. My view is that this would have been the case with Herbert; he had no thought of manipulating an audience, or catechising them; he had the more important job on hand of having the poetic gobbet to transmute into an artefact. Once that was done – brother Ferrar could sort out his audience issues.
    Examples of raw material would be the phrase “Drop from above”, or the shape of “Easter Wings”, or the notion of a pulley or a collar. And we can be thankful for the quality of Herbert’s wit.
    Finally, on a different point – I appreciate the commentary on Herbert, etc. and the viewpoints expressed; but I have the feeling that I am looking at a book about food with brilliant photographs and descriptions of the food, far better than photographs or descriptions that I could produce would be. But – I have tasted this food; because George Herbert’s God is my God, and I don’t just know about the banquets – or the afflictions: I know them. And I commend to you, not just to read “Prayer”, but to pray; not just to admire his “Banquet” but to eat it.

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