George Herbert and torture.

I’m reading “The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert and Vaughan” by Ceri Sullivan in an attempt to get a bit more context on The George Herbert Problem which is still causing more than a degree of dither. Essentially this is still about how much of the poetry is an honest expression of faith and feeling and how much is done in order to instil a greater degree of faith in his readers.

Sullivan has a chapter on Herbert’s use of torture to describe his relationship with God with a particular focus on ‘Love Unknown’:

Deare Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad; 
And in my faintings I presume your loue
Will more complie, then help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds which may improve,
I hold for two lives and both lives in me.
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day.
And in the middle plac'd my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Lookt on a seruant who did know his eye
Better then you know me, or (which as one)
Then I my self. The servant instantly
Quitting the fruit, seiz'd on my heart alone,
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issu'd from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and di'd
And washt, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. Your heart was foul, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault more than my lease will bear,
Yet still asks pardon, and was not deni'd.
But you shall heare. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one even-tide
(I sigh to tell)
Walkt by my self abroad, I saw a large
And spacious fornace flaming, and thereon
A boyling caldron, round about those verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION.
The greatnesse shew’d the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which I did fear grew cold.
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart, that brought it (do you understand?)
The offerers heart. Your heart was hard, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug, then scalding water
I bath’d it often, ev’n with holy bloud,
Which at a board, while many drunk bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Ev’n taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardnesses. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed.
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Deare, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures ev’n my rest was gone?
Full well I understood, who had been there.
For I had giv’n the key to none, but one:
It must be he. Your heart was dull, I fear.
Indeed a slack and sleepie state of minde
Did oft possesse me, so that when I pray’d,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behinde.
But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took the debt upon him. Truly, Friend,
For ought I heare, our Master shows to you
More favour then you wot1 of. Mark the end.
The Font did onely, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick

As can be seen, this is gloriously complex and serves to move the Herbert Problem a bit further on. Helen Wilcox identifies the italicised ‘friend’ as Christ but also notes that other commentators have suggested that the friend is an “internal spiritual voice” as well as the external image of Christ. The poem would appear to make use of the image of the heart as deployed in emblem books to describe the sufferings of religious shortcomings which are redeemed by grace.

To modern readers the grisly descriptions of what happens to the hear might seem quite bizarre but the early 17th century was a very different place with a criminal justice system that worked on the spectacle of the execution and deployed various forms of torture to extract confessions.

Without getting bogged down by theological niceties, the poem seems to indicate that unadorned faith and praise is what is required rather than offerings or self-sacrifice. We also have the commercial / contractual references that permeate most of Herbert’s work with the punning ‘grounds’ of line 4 (land, reasons, terms of the contract between Herbert and God), ‘lease’ in line 20 and “But all may scores were by another paid / Who took the debt upon him” (60-61)

Whilst this is probably the most grisly of Herbert’s poems, there are three or four others that make use of torture to describe the relationship between Herbert and his God. Before getting on to these I want to try and show how this moves the Problem to a position more in favour of honesty than manipulation. If Stanley Fish is correct and Herbert’s purpose is to catechize his readers then this doesn’t seem to be very effective with its depiction of a violent and sadistic God relentlessly punishing one who believes and the rather weak description of the path to salvation in the last three lines. To my 21st century mind this is more likely to deter readers than to encourage them to “be cheer’d” through their suffering.

Christ’s half-line responses to the described scenes of suffering are not compatible with a poem that’s trying to ‘sell’ the faith and the poet’s readiness to agree with the observation strikes me as more than a little masochistic which doesn’t promote readerly identification.

‘Justice II’ on the other hand is much more direct and can be read as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New. The second verse is-

The dishes of thy balance seemed to gape,
Like two great pits;
The beam and scape
Did like some tort'ring engine show:
Thy hand above did burn and glow,
Danting the proudest hearts the proudest wits.

I could make a case for either side with this, the contrast between Old and New is conventional and doesn’t make too much of what the torturing engine might do (in other poems there are clear references to being stretched on the rack) and I can see that it may be constructed to have an inspiring effect on the reader rather then be an honest expression of Herbert’s experience. The poem ends with- “Why should I justice now decline? / Against me there is none, but for me much.

Of course, there is a middle position which says that some poems can be at the manipulation end of the spectrum and others can be at the honest expression end. There is also the argument that we will never know but I find myself involved in this because I’m not keen on manipulation and I am very impressed by the way that Herbert does poetry. It’s also a useful framework for thinking about the poems in some depth.


4 responses to “George Herbert and torture.

  1. In poetry, as in life, is there a “difference that makes a difference’ between honesty and manipulation? You say you’re not keen on manipulation – I would tentatively suggest that that’s one of the defining characteristics or art. (As long as there’s a both/and connecting honesty and manipulation, as well as an either/or)

    • John,

      I readily accept that there is always a degree of manipulation or striving for effect in all forms of expression. This afternoon I’ve spent some time with Prynne on Herbert’s ‘Love III’ and with Christina Malcolmson both of whom seem to occupy opposite sides of the fence. The question is- how much of this work reflects what Herbert personally felt and thought rather than what was simply appropriate and effective to express. Most of Larkin and the later Lowell fall into this second category. There’s another qualm that’s to do with respect for the reader but I’ll need to think about this.

  2. I mean “of art”, not “or art”. Sorry.

  3. If the question is: “Did Herbert project the faith he felt?” then the poems would be honest, I’d think. If the question is, “Did Herbert project the faith he knew he ought to feel but didn’t?” then the poetry is honest, though the technical means to reach that might be theatrical.

    You say: “The question is- how much of this work reflects what Herbert personally felt and thought rather than what was simply appropriate and effective to express.”

    After spending 15 yrs studying the English 17th century, I came to the conclusion that there were really no atheists. Maybe by the 1690s … but not when Herbert wrote …

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