Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

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

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 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, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

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