Tag Archives: george herbert

The Scope of Poetry

This might take some time. A couple of months ago I watched a television programme about R S Thomas. (An hour long programme on R S Thomas. On the BBC. Not on Larkin or Hughes or Heaney- surely a once in a lifetime event). It was quite good although I would have preferred more about the poetry and less about the man. Towards the end there was an interview with Rowan Williams who made the point that Thomas’ verse was a kind of working out of what it is like to be within the “scope of God” and also noted that George Herbert’s poetry could be seen in the same way. I didn’t pay too much attention to this notion apart from thinking that Thomas was a much more reluctant Christian than Herbert.
Last week I attended my father-in-law’s funeral, my wife had initially intended to say a few words during the service but her brother suggested that she should read a poem about her father that she had written over twenty years ago. Her brother is not at all a poetry fan, neither was his father but it emerged that this particular poem had assumed a significance in his life.
This realisation that people with little or no interest can somehow find poetry to be important and appropriate set off the following train of thought-
I’m not religious and therefore cannot know what it feels like to be within the scope of God, nor would I wish to equate the way I feel about poetry with some kind of faith but poetry does exert a degree of influence over me. I think Williams meant that both poet’s were aware of God and of the fact that he was aware of them and that ‘scope’ is not the same as either ‘presence’ or ‘reach’.
The precise nature of this influence is difficult to identify. My enthusiasm for poetry is negatively affected by the extent of my depression and there have been times in the recent past when reading poetry demanded too much from me in terms of attention and writing about poetry just seemed (for me) to be utterly foolish. There are other times when I get really enthusiastic about some new discovery and have an absolute need to write about it an to become immersed in it. Fortunately there is a middle ground where I don’t do the manic read-everything-at-once behaviour where I can approach things with a degree of care. It is however poetry that holds both my interest and my attention, in a recent trough I decided to dive into narrative history and catch up on the early Tudors. This is the standard way that I try and keep the demons at bay. On this occasion I became distracted by the work of Stephen Hawes and John Skelton both of whom are endlessly fascinating. I then tried to read a political history of the 1590s but became distracted by the sonnet explosion of 1592/3 which has always struck me as deeply odd.
I like to think that I’m not obsessed by poetry, I am interested in a range of other things and try to take some notice of what’s going on in other fields of creative endeavour but my interest in poetry is radically different from my interest in music or politics and this brings me back to the ‘scope’ metaphor. I’m not one of those that thinks that poetry has any kind of privileged access to the truth but I am prepared to concede that poetry can enhance/transform the language and it is language that we live by. To give a brief example, Hawes and Spenser both used language against itself in the 16th century to great effect and Celan and Prynne have done the same. The ‘scope’ comes from the fact that poets have this particular ability to challenge and undermine the thing that we live by.
I would also argue that it was poetry’s scope that caused my brother-in-law to suggest that a poem rather than a speech should be read at his father’s funeral.
Having written this, I now realise that this view could get quite elitist, along the lines of how only poets can fundamentally change things because of their expertise with words. My hurriedly drawn-up counter argument would be that poetry is quite democratic in that it (mostly) trades in the words that we use every day whereas the vast majority of us don’t use either music or paint as our primary means of communication. Of course poetry can become too poetic for its own good and poets remain the biggest bitches on the planet but the fact remains that it is really rather central in the scheme of things whether we like it or not.


J H Prynne on George Herbert pt 2

As a reasonably attentive reader of Prynne’s poems, I read his criticism in part to assist/enhance that experience. I read the prose of Hill and Celan with the same kind of motivation. Sometimes this bears fruit and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s always good to read someone who is passionate and articulate about poetry.
In the previous post I referred to the brevity of the poem and the 92 pages that Prynne uses up in writing about it. What I failed to mention is that the section on the word ‘then’ starts halfway down page 62 and ends halfway down page 73. That’s 11 pages for one word which seems like a lot until you read those 11 pages when it doesn’t seem to be enough. Prynne argues that the word marks the pivotal point of the poem where the poet accepts God’s love and indicates that he or she will “serve”. With regard to ‘then’, Prynne complains about the paucity of the definition in the OED and goes on to elaborate a number of possible definitions before fitting each of these into the various theological positions. For those of us who have an interest in this stuff it is wonderful to have something this detailed to think about and argue with. Last week I may have given the impression that Prynne tries to hard to simplify a complex situation. Having now re-read the book, I concede that there are a few occasions when he does refer to this but I still don’t think he does enough to depict the many and varied shades of view between the Calvinist and Arminian positions- which is why the 11 pages on ‘then’ isn’t enough.
The other point that needs to be made is that these 11 pages give us an opportunity to observe the way in which Prynne works with language. ‘Then’ is made subject to the utmost scrutiny and each of its possible functions (above and beyond being the pivot) and this leads me to consider whether, as a reader, I’ve been sufficiently rigorous with words like ‘same’ that crop up in his poetry. If definitions go beyond the OED now at least I’ve got the ‘then’ example of how to do this. I’m not suggesting that this insight suddenly unlocks a whole range of meaning, it may be a blind alley, it simply points in one particular direction which seems worthy of further exploration.
Prynne makes extensive use of Thomas Wilson’s “A Christian Dictionary” which is available in pdf on the web and contains many delightful illustrations of the logical knots that the godly were tying themselves into. He also makes good use of other contemporary writers but on occasion seems to overlook relevant points because they don’t serve his purpose. Prynne justifies the 92 pages with this:

What is being opened and asked here in this commentary is thus a special and restricted instance of a subset of these general and generic questions: how does ‘Love III’ work as a method to think with, to define and hold within attention its occasion and thematic idea, that can carry through intact its spiritual passion and the crossing paths of encounter without deflection from its own central issues of thought and understanding: without obviousness but equally without loss or blurring of purpose. In particular, may it have been placed last (effectively) in the collection because in Herbert’s own recognition it was his last word, his best shot? May its decisive brevity be a statement that the hardest and most important thought is not extensive but intensive, can be brought decisively to a sovereign point of acknowledgement?
The warrant for extended close scrutiny is that indeed this may be so, that here if anywhere the ‘method’ may reach a self-justifying equilibrium which is true to itself poetically and also true to its spiritual experience and theological ideas, complete with their biblical pedigrees and endorsements from daily life; that this poem works out and performs its ideas poetically in the fullest sense and that its ideas fully and centrally inform the poem’s status and lyrical operation.

I’ve quoted this at length because it seems to be quite important. The claim that is made for ‘Love III’ reads like something akin to perfection- the second paragraph suggests an ideal for what all poetry (not just religious verse) should be capable of, I’m particularly struck by this idea of congruity with regard to the poetic and the idea – although I’m not sure that self-justifying equilibrium is quite what we should be aiming for. I am in full agreement with the assertion that the intensive is a more effective marker of what’s important.
I don’t think ‘Love III’ is a perfect poem, I think it’s a very good poem with one great line but there are bits that are too open ended and vague to merit perfection. In the first line, it is the poet’s soul that draws back rather than the poet himself and this is left unresolved in the poem and its connotations are ignored by Prynne. On two occasions it isn’t immediately obvious exactly who is speaking working this out detracts from the ‘flow’ of the poem. The other quibble is about whether poets really do think of certain poems as their ‘best shots’?
It will be noted that I am ignoring the claims made about the importance of sentence structure, suffice it to say that I have yet to see any supporting evidence for this widely held view.
Coincidentally, I’ve just bought ‘Clavics’ by Geoffrey Hill which is odder than ‘Oraclau’ but not as naff. The 28th poem in this sequence contains a quote from ‘Love III’ and Hill appears to have stolen part of the shape of the poems from Herbert’s ‘Easter’.

J H Prynne on Love III by George Herbert

This tome containing an extensive commentary on the above is now available from Barque Press and costs 10 quid plus 2 quid for delivery. it needs to be read by everyone who cares about poetry and what poetry can do. I’ve now completed my first reading and there are a few things that I need to get off my chest.
The first of these is that the early part of the 17th century was a very odd place to be. I have a view that the past is always quite odd but from 1590 until about 1640 has always struck me as being especially different and (because of this) very difficult for us to make sense of this.
The second point is that George Herbert deserves much more attention. This isn’t to say that he should be elevated to the status of Donne in the canon but that we should spend a bit more time thinking about his place and role in the wider cultural scheme of things.
The third point is that Prynne writes with a great deal of perception about ‘Love III’ and has clearly immersed himself in some of the theological debates of the time. For those of us who are keen on religious poetry and the place where verse and faith meet, this is delightful because we have somebody new to argue with.
The fourth point is that ‘Love III’ is a seriously good poem with a couple of lines that achieve greatness for reasons that I will set out below.
The fifth point is only of interest to Spenserians and relates to Prynne’s use of Canto X in Book One of the Faerie Queen to provide some context to ‘Love III’ which actually raises a number of puzzles.
Finally, as with ‘Field Notes’, this commentary provides further insights into the way that Prynne thinks about poetry and language. This is not to say that they provide the ‘key’ to his poetic project but they do put some more flesh on the bone.
With regard to the oddness of the past, this isn’t the extremist position that we can’t say anything about the past but it is to point out that 400 years is a very long time and things might appear similar or recognisable but closer inspection reveals that they weren’t. The 17th century often descends into caricature with tired old debates about the ideological positions taken by various groups occupying much futile effort over the last thirty five years. This kind of thinking leads to generalised conclusions about certain periods that isn’t (in the Rortian sense) at all helpful. The historical past is always lumpy and consistently refuses to place itself in the boxes that we prepare for it. Prynne spends a lot of time discussing the Arminian elements of ‘Love III’ and the reader is left to assume that by the end of the 1620s there was an established Arminian faction within the Church of England whereas there were probably many variations around both the issues of free will and predestination and that this mixed oddly with bits of Catholic theology and hardline Calvinism (which wasn’t particularly coherent either). I think I would have liked more detail on the wider social and political context, some indication of what it ‘meant’ for Herbert to become a country priest may have been helpful as a way of marking him out from others of a similar status. Or simply some acknowledgement that this particular part of our history is fairly complex and consequently difficult to write about.
With regard to Herbert’s status as a kind of lesser Metaphysical, this does need to change. He has attracted detailed criticism from Stanley Fish for catechising but Prynne makes a very strong case for the strength of this kind of religious verse, whether it catechises or not. There’s also a reasonably direct line that goes from Spenser to Herbert and then on to Henry Vaughan and this needs to be given more prominence because it can be argued that this ‘thread’ produced some of the century’s strongest work.
Unlike ‘The Solitary Reaper’, I do actually care about this stuff and have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with what Prynne has to say. It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with his reading but there are a number of omissions that detract from getting more from the poem. When discussing the Arminian tendency, Prynne goes into great detail about free will and about the mutual nature of ‘service’ but doesn’t give any attention to the Arminian view that although we are all free to choose, God knows what those choices will be. If Prynne is correct and the poem is fundamentally Arminian then this adds a more nuanced aspect to the encounter described in the poem.
He does mention the Cambridge School on one occasion but doesn’t draw attention to what some of us would see as a neo-platonic tinge occurring in the first line “yet my soul drew back,” even though other critics have commented on a neo-platonic theme in Herbert’s work. It would seem that 92 pages of densely packed prose is enough for an eighteen line poem but this is not the case, there is a lot more that could have been said.
Needless to say, most of the margins are now filled with exclamation marks and approving comments and there are only one or two places where I think Prynne is trying too hard. There’s also a final point about contradiction that doesn’t need to be made but on the whole this is a remarkably sensitive reading that should do a lot to promote Herbert’s reputation.
I now have to draw attention to the really great line of this poem. Many great poems have some very, very good lines but, in my view, truly great lines are comparatively rare. The line is question is the poet’s initial response to Christ/God and it is “A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:” which I find to be utterly and staggeringly brilliant in that it manages to convey a whole range of complicated responses to a direct question from God.
We now come to Canto X of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen which Prynne uses to show that views about free will pre-dated what Arminius had to say by at least a couple of decades. This would be valid were it not for the fact that Canto X is theological car crash mangling together threads from both sides of the Reformation and shouldn’t really be trusted to depict any kind of belief system in the ‘real’ world.
For those of us who read Prynne in the hope that this may help with a more informed reading of his poetry there is this: “The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front- loaded selfhood.” So, the task for attentive readers would appear to be to identify the ways in which the post-Brass poetry sets out to disrupt the subject/predicate sequence…