J H Prynne and “then”.

I’ve written before about Prynne’s recent ‘Discursive Commentary on ‘Love III’ by George Herbert which runs to 92 pages and can only be described as forensically detailed. I’ve also drawn attention to the 11 pages that Prynne devotes to the word ‘then’. In the intervening months I’ve read a lot more of Herbert’s work and used these pages to think aloud about the various difficulties that his life and work present.

Mainly because I’ve had a few days of disenchantment with poetry, I want to give some more attention to what Prynne has to say in those 11 pages and to try to understand how he thinks about poetry. As will hopefully become clear, this commentary is more revealing about Prynne the poet than his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’. This is the full text of the poem-

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Prynne is of the view that ‘then’ on line 16 is pivotal because it signals the moment of grace when the sinner accept’s God’s love and vows to ‘serve’ him. Previously I have complained that Prynne does not give sufficient attention to the very wide spectrum of belief with regard to the workings of grace in the 1620s. Having re-read these 11 pages I have now to concede that this theological breadth is acknowledged as is the (to us) obscurity of some of the ‘points’ of debate.

The salutary lesson for me in this is about the nature and value of attention. I like to think of myself as an attentive reader in that I read and re-read and try to notice as much as possible about a poem. However, I would not have given the above poem anywhere near as much attention as Prynne does and I may have ‘weighted’ my attention more on to line 5 because I think it’s one of the best lines ever to be written. The extensive scrutiny that Prynne that Prynne deploys here shows I think how much his own work is conscious of the significance and complexity of every single word and his focus on ‘then’ shows a willingness to examine all aspects of meaning and intention.

The other point that Prynne makes is that Herbert didn’t write this as a simple account of his own moment of grace, he wrote it primarily to involve the reader in comparing his or her own experience of faith and giving consideration as to when (if at all) the commitment to ‘serve’ might occur.

This leads inevitably on to a question of consistency because this reading would seem to imply that there’s a certain amount of catechizing going on which might be at variance with this from page 7:

Also the consistently modest pitch of the dramatic scenario is set not as a form of entrapment but as an enablement; not as a catechism, in which the questions are formal elucidative prompts to prescribed doctrine, but as clear responses to fears in conscience, that are due to confusion and irrational apprehensiveness.”

I’m of the view that the poem is a great poem because it manages to do several complicated things at once and does so in a way that seems plain and simple. I’m also of the view that the poem’s primary purpose is to describe the workings of grace in a way that ‘ordinary’ readers could understand and identify with the poet as reluctant sinner. As I understand it, a catechism is a form of religious instruction in a question and answer format which appears to be what’s going on here. I’m not denying the possibility that this is an account of Herbert’s own experience, nor am I denying the brilliance of the poem but I still read it as question and answer elucidation. This may of course be due to my absence of faith (Non-Dawkins faction) but I don’t think that this would make me any more sympathetic to Prynne’s view. I’m not willing to take up an extreme position on this, I don’t share Cristina Malcolmson’s view of Herbert as “a poet writing public verse, committed to nationalistic Protestantism, and perhaps seeking promotion to
higher office until the end of his life” but I don’t understand Prynne’s reluctance to see the poem as any more than “responses to fears in conscience”.

This reluctance is odd when it comes from a poet who thrives on ambiguity and sees it as an essential element of modernist verse. This is compounded by the fact that ‘fears in conscience’ isn’t a particularly clear phrase whatever they might be the result of.

The pages on ‘then’ contain many gloriously obscure quotes from preachers of the time as well as from Donne’s poems and sermons, all of which serve to underline the complexities and nuances involved. There’s also a quote from Blair Worden that doesn’t seem to be relevant to the period in question but this may be because I’m not convinced by anything that Worden writes.

There is, of course, the charge of over-reading- that Prynne is reading far more into these 1 lines than they actually contain. I don’t think that this is the case because of the subject matter and the fact that the poem was written at a time that was so very different from ours and both of these elements need the attention that Prynne gives them. I can also concede that the detail may be a bit dense for those readers that don’t have an active interest in 17th century religious thought and practice. For those of us that do, it may be that Prynne doesn’t go far enough, especially when giving consideration to some of the guest’s responses.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that the discussion on ‘then’ begins with pointing out that there is a backward looking use as in ‘in that case’ I will serve and a forward looking use as in ‘now, therefore’ I will serve and that Herbert may well be making use of both- ‘If God has done this for me’ and ‘I now commit myself to a life of service to Him’. The point here being that grace could only function if it was accepted and recognised as entailing a lifetime of service.

I think that this confirms what we already knew, that Prynne applies intense attention to the words that make up a poem and that he seems, unlike Geoffrey Hill, to think like the rest of us. He also shares that annoying habit that we all have of letting our eloquence get the better of us- from time to time.


11 responses to “J H Prynne and “then”.

  1. “This reluctance is odd when it comes from a poet who thrives on ambiguity and sees it as an essential element of modernist verse.” Does Prynne thrive on ambiguity? I don’t know him. It’s one thing to implicate a poem in “ambiguity” and quite another to implicate a human being. It seems from this post that each of the critics you mention is trying to eliminate any ambiguity from Herbert’s person, from his motivations, etc. As if there were such a thing as a unified subject position. As if a poem had a unified single minded author. I am no specialist in Herbert, to put it mildly, but why can’t he have mixed and even unconscious motives vis a vis his career and/or his poetry? And – couldn’t they (the poems and the ambitions) have been at least somewhat at odds? In other words, I prefer your reading, which seems to leave room for ambiguity (undecidability) (differance) of the person and the poet to either Prynne’s or Malcomson’s, at least as you describe them.

    • Okay, I should have said “Prynne’s work” or practice – I was relying on a passage from the “Difficulties in Translation” essay where he approvingly paraphrases and extends Empson. I don’t think there is anything like a unified subject position and I guess the Herbert Problem (which is a very narrow problem) is about intention (motivation) with Wilcox and Prynne at one end of the spectrum, Fish and Malcolmson at the opposite and me dithering about in the middle. I rarely dither in this fashion being normally far too opinionated for my own good but at least it’s given me the opportunity to think about possible alternatives. I hadn’t paid much attention to Herbert until the Prynne book but now I’m of the view that he’s really very good indeed.

  2. I wasn’t picking on your sentence construction, John, it just got me thinking that it’s probably best not to conflate the work and the man. And: I think your dithering as you call it is likelier to be realistic than those with firm positions at either end of the spectrum. Not much happens way out on the ends …

  3. Few can say with conviction what the core experience alluded to in this poem might be said to be. Call it grace and nothing much is accomplished. So, start with the obvious, this is a conversation. In The Future of Love, John Milbank discusses gift and hierarchy, two relevant topics, in terms of conversation.

    • I think that ‘grace’ is used here in the sense to denote the moment when someone is ‘saved’ and enters into a direct relationship with God. ‘Saved’ in this sense usually refers to entry into heaven rather than eternal damnation. The debate in the 1620s revolved around predestination and the role of acceptance and/or repentance and had become exceptionally detailed and varied.

      • I think I’m more engaged by the comments and their assumptions than I am by the poem which has occasioned them. You say acceptance of
        grace as if it were a bid to be accepted or turned down. Did Herbert see it that way? Reading the poem this morning, I hear, in the empty space beyond the final reply/ command, a sense f perhaps fastidious reluctance. Herbert chose the dialogue genre and the genre itself destabilizes reading by raising expectations which the poet and ideally the reader would agree to delimit.

  4. I would suppose the influx of grace coincides with the narrator sitting and eating. I see “My dear, then I will serve” as a last uncomfortable attempt to evade the full implications of being a guest.

    • Prynne reads “I will serve” as primarily a commitment to serve God- ie an acceptance of grace. I’m of the view that the line can be read in a number of different ways and that’s why it ‘works’.

  5. What “implications”? Are these “implied” by the poem? By the speaker of the poem — or is it speakers? By the nature of the case? Don’t these questions require “theory” or is a suppose a recognition of generic dubiety?

  6. The problem with close-reading is that poetry is meaning-making, not meaning-containing

    • Yes, but in this instance the meaning springs from or is made by the way that we read ‘then’ and this incredibly close reading doesn’t feel excessive, unlike some passages of his ‘Field Notes’ on ‘The Solitary Reaper.

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