Empire Ballroom, Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers | January 31, 2008
Episode 5: The Poetry of George Herbert: Five Takes by Five Poets
(David Baker, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Stanley Plumly, Ann Townsend.) Why does a self-effacing cleric of the 17th century continue to be so avidly read? Why does he speak to us today? From experimental to formal, from highly rhetorical to lyrical, from devotional to confessional, Herbert contains multitudes. Five poet-critics examine a range of poetry through the lens of the temporal, the formal, the devotional, the architectural, and the erotic. We intend to propose new readings of five poems to open a doorway to the past and reveal his contemporary relevance.
Published Date: August 13, 2009
Welcome to the AWP podcast series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in New York on January 31st, 2008. The event features David Baker, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Stanley Plumly, and Ann Townsend.
Welcome to the intimate gathering that is AWP. My name is David Baker. Eight years ago a group of us, Stan Plumly, Linda Gregerson, Richard Jackson, and myself, stood here or somewhere to give a talk on the distinguishing features of the American Elegy. And over the next six years, as Ann Townsend, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Carl Phillips and Eric Pankey joined in, we undertook a project to examine the fuller rhetoric of the lyric poem, the pastoral and the ode, the erotic poem and the problem of time. Our work culminated several months ago in the publication of a book of essays that grew from these talks.
Our friends at Graywolf Press published a beautiful volume for us entitled Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry. We didn't want to stop working together, so today we launch a different kind of investigation. A group of poets, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Anne Townsend, Stanley Plumly and myself, looking at a single poet. Different poems, different angles of approach, but one poet today, George Herbert, the great metaphysical poet and Anglican minister who lived in Wales and England from 1593 to 1633.
In 1621, William Bradford was elected the first governor of the nascent colony, founded off of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. In a history of Plymouth Plantation, the good governor reasons in behalf of an unadorned style of discourse as the preferable, in fact, the virtuous, the ordained rhetoric of his task to narrate the story of settlement in the New Eden. He reminds his citizen readers that clear language is the language not just of polity but of sanctity as by the scriptures we are plainly told. Yet how strange, at this same historical moment George Herbert, not to mention Milton, Henry Vaughn, John Donne, were all exploiting a style of eloquent richness. These are no slight figures in the Puritan and Anglican churches, as you know. For every point Bradford makes to attest to the rightness of plainness. Herbert makes just as powerful an argument for the opposite. After all, Herbert was not only a country parson, as he humbly subtitled, his famous prose tract, but he also served as the official orator at Cambridge.
He was a man who trained himself to use all the flowers of rhetoric to do his versing. As Lewis Mart says, Herbert's powerful self impelled drama stems from his delight in eloquence and his vocational need to be humble. That's the problem - how to subdue his rhetorical requirements to the service of God, how to display his wide artistry, learning and wit without a show of self-interest. That's the powerful conceit of the poem I'm talking about today, Jordan II, you have that on a page, I'm not going to read it. Conceit is my subject and I've chosen Jordan II as the focal poem, for here we find Herbert's most explicit and sustained presentation of the tension in his rhetorical elections. To remind us of the terms, conceit refers to a method of metaphor that extends beyond, sometimes far beyond any reasonable or conventional usage. Metaphor is the association or juxtaposition of one thing, be it a concrete image or abstract notion to another. My love is like a red, red rose.
Conceit pushes metaphor into a sustained and often over determining pattern. And this complex figuration becomes a primary feature of the class of poetry we've come to call metaphysical. The editors of the OED note that there appears to be no corresponding old French word to the Latin, so it would seem that conceit was formed in English from conceive on the analogy supplied by deceive and deceit. Here the first usage refers to a concept of mind, a manner of thinking, a capacity from meaning-making as the definition of conceit. The Princeton Encyclopedia takes its derivation for conceit from the Italian concerto, a concept adding that all types of conceit share an origin which is specifically intellectual rather than sensuous. What strikes me in Herbert's use is both the sensuous delight and intellectual vigor he portrays in his extension of metaphor.
We feel the studied working out of an argument as well as a highly effective production. Quickly to the poem, Jordan II is a poem about poems, downright modern in its meta effective self-awareness. Its presiding metaphor relates style, Herbert's lines, Herbert's quaint words, to a very complex figure. His linguistic work has luster and this light nourishes his thoughts until like an organic entity they sprout and swell into poetry. The plants curl until they bedeck the very sense of things. This apparent pride in his substantial skill leads Helen Vendler to characterize Herbert's poem as petulant even belligerent in its attempt to construct an equal footing with God. But look how the trope of sunlight shifts as the center of creative power turns from worldly authorship to divine authority. The outpouring of Herbert's passional devotion outruns his skill and requires him to blot out what he began.
Blot being a figure for ink as well as for shadow, even as the real sun grows brighter outshining and out speaking Herbert's meager flames. Frequently in Herbert's poetry we see this pun on sun, the nurturing star as a visible figure for the son of God. Only in revision, do Herbert's flames manage to weave himself into the sense of his praise, but this point of ascension is also where Herbert's finest capabilities turns self-ironizing. He realizes that nothing he does can adequately or clearly capture the sweetness of God. Notice at this point, another figure in the poem's conceit of style as light, the poem's final lines urge us to retrace the poem just as he must revise to recover the more oblique trope of expense of sales, style as a shining or gilded coin, language as coinage. Yet all of Herbert's skill seems to come to not for what God wants is sweetness, not rich skill.
The simple copying of God's clear grandeur and not Herbert's pretense of artistic self-creation. Of course, we might argue and Herbert might suggest that only through the journey of this complex argument and through the creation of eloquent tropes is he able to understand what God wants or even intends after all of his once trim words grow more burnished and fanciful still they also follow the God-given natural order of things they grow and spread like any other living entity. Art is nature. He seems to say almost in apology but maybe in justification. Likewise, eloquence seems to have arrived at clarity. Conceit comes to sweetness and worldly irony becomes a paradox most holy. I've barely unpacked the elaborate play of metaphor in this poem. It is not just metaphor in fact, but a highly intensified, intricate and sustained pattern of metaphor. Conceit, the great devotion Herbert feels results in his outpouring of richness.
It results also in the intellectual rigor of the rhetoric itself. Conceit may be the Renaissance poet's most vivid addition to lyric poetry. For here, poetry becomes not only sensual song but stylized argument. The kind of sustained and amplified thinking that appealed to TSS Elliot when he wrote his famous essays on the meta physical poets virtually restoring their work to the canon. Conceit is a manner of thinking, not just song and feeling, but a complex system of cognition and argument of rhetoric. Herbert is arguing with himself in public. He wants to craft and guild an art so fine it will please God and be suitable in God's eloquent company. Yet he knows these displays of eloquence smack of pride and self grandeur. He's worried that his use of conceit will show that he is, in point of fact, conceded just so in later usage the application of thinking of having concepts comes to correlate with arrogance and overweening pride.
Is conceit conceited? Pride is the Protestant's most damning sin. Herbert enacts a drama between the poles of rhetorical style. One is humble, plain, the language of virtue and holy humility. The other is dense, eloquent, and studied, the high style we come to identify with metaphysical and later with modernist poetics. This rhetorical argument has raged long and clear. In his history, to return to William Bradford, our good governor recounts the story of Thomas Morton and his infamous maypole at the settlement of Marymount. One of Morton's gravest sins beside the erection of his sturdy pole is his poetry. That is the obvious self elevating pride Morton takes in showing off his poetry. From Bradford, we can trace the piety of plainness to Ben Franklin's aphorisms, Thomas Payne's measured call for revolution in common sense and forward to the naked and deep image poet's banishment of all rhetorical flourish in favor of transparency, the erasure of style.
"I think the object of writing," says Louis Simpson. In his commentary in the new naked poetry, this is 1976. "I think the object of writing is to make words disappear. The trope of erasure nakedness of style as authenticity runs the aesthetic gamut from the great American Puritan Jonathan Edwards extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the ideas shall be left naked." To language poet Susan Howe, in her latest book, Souls of the Labadie Tract, only a few months old, she concurs that, "Words give clothing to hide our nakedness."
My final point this morning is a point of dispute with much of the rhetoric of rhetoric, from Aristotle to Kant, to those naked poets stripping away the decadent clothing of high style, the contest has held that plainness is an absence of stylistic content while eloquence is an indulgence of the same. Gaudy and expensive clothes versus the economical naked body To use Alexander Pope's trope. A secadent wealth versus wholly impoverishment, the obscuring versus the clarifying, but I contend that style plain or highfalutin is always and only style.
Richard Lanham's great book on the history of rhetoric and the renaissance, The Motives of Eloquence, argues throughout that the whole range of ornament from zero to a hundred is equally rhetorical. I think this serves to cancel or blunt or at least reconfigure the long debate between the plain style and an eloquent style. Again, the argument holds that plainness is more honest, more sincere, therefore more worthy of holiness and political verity. "The young poets of New York come to me with their mangled figures of speech," argues James Wright in many of our waters, "But they have little pity for the pure clear word." "Not necessarily so," says Lanham, and perhaps by extrapolation says Herbert. Sincerity is a rhetorical aim just as much as paradox is, and plainness in Bradford's hands or Thomas Payne's or James Wright is equally a set of calculated rhetorical gestures made to influence, to argue, to win or merely to woo an audience just as fully and powerfully as the most intricate trope or eloquent conceit or well-dressed figure in the sight of the Lord. Amen.
I'm really pleased to welcome Linda Gregerson.
In book eight of Paradise Lost, Adam narrates his birth story to the angel Raphael. Having awakened as from asleep, having examined his own body and found that it responds to his every impulse, it rises, it walks, it speaks. He addresses the world around him and asks his fellow creature where their maker is. For knowing neither we nor why he himself has come into consciousness, he knows the one thing he did not make himself. And the maker when he appears is all benevolence. "All the Earth," says the father as recounted by his child, "To thee and to thy race I give as Lord's possessed and all things that therein live, in sign whereof each bird and beast behold, after their kinds. I bring them to receive from thee their names," as thus he spake, "Each bird and beast, behold, approaching two and two, I named them as they passed and understood their nature with such knowledge, God deeded my sudden apprehension." This fantasy of sudden apprehension, this coincidence of word and thing, name and nature called it Edenic language, much haunted the poets of Renaissance England. As did its converse, the tragic estrangement or misalignment that characterized language after the fall.
20th century heirs to this philosophical dilemma would call themselves semiotician and write elaborately about the slippage between reference and sign, about the proliferation of metonymic approximations, forever confessing and forever failing to heal a foundational absence. In a world that has fallen very far indeed from the Edenic model, George Herbert's pattern poems and their first cousins, the anagrams and echo poems and buried inscription poems, the poems that make figures out of orthography, wish to discover the trace of an Edenic perfect fit. A generation earlier than Herbert Gabriel Harvey, he who spent a great deal of energy trying to imagine the restoration of classical meters in English verse expostulated against poems that, "Represent the form and figure of an egg and ape, a wing in such ridiculous and mad gigs and crotchets." But George Putnam, in the art of English Posey, praises such figures for brevity and subtlety of device, tracing their western origins to the Anacreonic poems in the Greek anthology and deducing their prestige among the princes of China and Tartary.
For Putnam, they are a species of proportion in figure, a natural outgrowth and distillation of proportion in meter. "As to meter," writes Pollard [inaudible 00:17:19], "Which manifests the formal concord and number of the heavens and Earth." The beginner of meter was God about poetic figures of secret conceit or ocular representation. Putnam seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, he describes anagrams and poems that depend upon orthographical play as idle toys, meet study for ladies provided they are not imbued with superstition, i.e., as a sort of fortune-telling, revelations of destiny or fatal necessity. On the other hand, he describes his own experiments with anagrams for the Latin name and title of Queen Elizabeth to whom the art of poetry is explicitly addressed. He describes his own experiments with anagrams as yielding felicitous transpositions of good boding, bearing the trace of the very providence that has appointed her majesty for our comforts.
Herbert was a man of sophisticated learning, trained in Latin and in Greek, aware as any multi linguists must be of the variability of words and orthographical symbols, their dependence upon arbitrary assignment and evolved convention. And yet he was a man who believed that God spoke openly to human understanding. According to a renaissance theory known as accommodation, accommodation roughly is based on the apprehension that between humans and the only fit object of their regard, namely the divine, there is an unbridgeable chasm. The apparatus we have for understanding is completely suited to that which it most behooves us to comprehend and therefore God accommodates himself to our understanding. He speaks in the figures of creation, in landscape. He speaks through scripture, he speaks through images that are available to us, that partly falsify but truly represent and benignly convey his spirit. So beneath the very artifice of words, or rather, in the fabric of that artifice itself, in the [inaudible 00:19:55] of the built thing, George Herbert, a poet like George Herbert, could perpetually search for the signature that manifested providence.
And I'm going to spend the real point of what I'm here for is to point to some of my favorite poems and beginning with that which appears at the very beginning of the church, the central large section in Herbert's The Temple. This is the poem called The Altar and those of you who are listening for meter will know it goes from pentameter to tetrameter to dimeter, dimeter, dimeter and then back to tetrameter, pentameter. "A broken altar Lord thy servant rears made of a heart and cemented with tears, whose parts are as thy handed frame. No workman's tool have touched the same. A heart alone is such a stone as nothing but thy power doth cut. Wherefore each part of my hard heart meets in this frame to praise thy name. That if I chance to hold my peace, these stones to praise thee may not cease. Oh, let thy blessed sacrifice be mine and sanctify this altar to be thine."
The figure of the temple built of undressed stone was an ancient one. The idea being that the worship of God that man's... Very much what David was talking about, that human artifact was unworthy, that the gestures of human praise were necessary but that the received, that which was made by the first maker was superior in that sense to those which are the product of human artifice. Hence, these stones untouched by workman's tool.
The next poem I'd like to look at is Jesu 87 in The Temple. "Jesu is in my heart, his sacred name is deeply carved there: but th'other week a great affliction broke the little frame. Ev'n all to pieces: which I went to seek. And first I found the corner, where was J..." And playing on an orthographic phenomenon characteristic of his period, Herbert uses the J, it was indistinguishable from the capital I, so I and J were interchangeable. "And first I found the corner, where was J. After, where ES and next where U was graved. When I had got these parcels instantly I sat me down to spell them and perceived that to my broken heart he was I ease you and to my whole is Jesu."
The naivete affect, the childlike transparency that is sought in these poems, and the return to the rudiments of spelling of piecing together meaning is very much a deliberate and highly, in fact, sophisticated feature of Herbert's poetry. He railed against the over elaborate parsing of poetry, this sort of scholastic kind of interpretive moves. Some of us in latter days may be guilty of as well, but there was a kind of falling into pieces and putting back together of which he approved and which seemed to him a precious vein and it is the one represented in this poem.
The next is a poem, Paradise, whose device has to do with stripping again the arbitrary orthography of a word down to something that is not arbitrary but feels like a buried kernel. So you will see the progressive narrowing to essence in each stanza here. "Bless thee Lord because I grow, among thy trees, which in a row, to thee both fruit and order ow." Grow row ow. "What open force, or hidden charm, can blast my fruit, or bring me harm, while the inclosure is thine arm. Enclosed me still for fear I start, but to me rather sharp and tart, than let me want thy hand and art. When thou dost greater judgments spare, and with thy knife, but prune and pear, ev'n fruitful trees more fruitful are, such sharpness shows the sweetest friend, such cuttings rather heal than rend, and such beginnings touch their end." The poem also affects a kind of naive mimicry. It talks about paring the good gardener's device, the good orchard grower's device and of course what it does itself is to pare words down and the essence it finds is that which refers the word and refers the speaker to Godhead.
And finally in Heaven, which is famously George Herbert's echo poem, and again the echo, the issue here we return to is the same one as the dressed stone. It's looking in the built world in the poem and the language made by human minds and hands for something that is not the product of human imagination or human longing, but something that authentically speaks from elsewhere.
Echo of course is very paradoxical that way we know it to be subordinate, to be secondary, to be helplessly secondary to that which we first speak and yet the longing is to hear in it something that is primary, something that comes before our own speech as in heaven. "O, who will show me those delights on high? I. Thou echo, thou art mortal, all men know. No. Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves? Leaves. And are there any leaves that still abide? Bide. What leaves are they? Impart the matter wholly. Holy. Are holy leaves the echo then of bliss? Yes. Then tell me what is the supreme delight? Light. Light to the mind. What shall the will enjoy? Joy. But are their cares and business with the pleasure? Leisure. Light, joy and leisure, but shall they perséver? Ever." That's where I'm going to stop.
Hi. What is restlessness for? Can't it be a condition of being human and nothing else? Must it have a purpose? Does it? Oh, what a thing is man! How farre from power, from setled peace and rest! He is some twentie sev'rall men at least, each sev'rall houre. One while he counts of heav'n, as of his treasure: but then a thought creeps in, and calls him coward, who for fear of sinne will lose a pleasure." Here in the first two stanzas of his poem, Giddinesse, Herbert not only makes clear that human beings are by their very nature restless, but he also establishes a relationship between sin and pleasure. We would expect pleasure itself to be a sin, to be equivalent to it, and that is partly the implication here subtly reinforced by the shared positions of the words sin and pleasure at the breaks for two consecutive lines, but as well, Herbert suggests that sin has a purpose, namely to generate a fear that will make us avoid those pleasures that it would be a sin to enjoy.
And yet as stanza one suggests, our restless nature is not apparently changeable, even given sin and the fear of it. Herbert spends another four stanzas giving examples of that restless nature. To go back to the poem. Now he will fight it out, and to the warres; now eat his bread in peace, and snudge in quiet: now he scorns increase; now all day spares. He builds a house, which quickly down must go, as if a whirlwinde blew and crusht the building; and it's partly true, his minde is so. O what a sight were Man, if his attires did alter with his minde; and like a Dolphin's skinne, his clothes combin'd with his desires! Surely if each one saw anothers heart, there would be no commerce, no sale or bargain passe: all would disperse, and live apart. Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation will not suffice our turn: except thou make us dayly, we shall spurn our own salvation."
In Giddinesse, Herbert laments our restlessness, hence the prayer for correction by God. When we put that next to the poem The Foil, though we learned that human beings are at the core more often than not, unchanged by correction, seen here in the form of grief. Grief has been established by God as a means of highlighting sin, presumably that we might by seeing it clearly understand more clearly the need to avoid it and yet "God hath made stars the foil to set off virtues; griefs to set off sinning. Yet in this wretched world we toil, as if grief were not foul, nor virtue winning." Our restlessness leads us inevitably to the sinning that we must then turn to God to be brought back from. Not withstanding that we slip inevitably again anyway in spite of God. It is complicated.
All the more so when we remember that, according to Herbert, our restlessness is itself God-given it's purpose is to bring us eventually back to God as a respite from the restlessness of ourselves. Here is The Pulley. "When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by, "Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can. Let the world's riches, which disperséd lie, Contract into a span." So strength first made a way; Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure. When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, Rest in the bottom lay. "For if I should," said he, "Bestow this jewel also on my creature, He would adore my gifts instead of me, And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; So both should losers be. "Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness. Let him be rich and weary, that at least, If goodness lead him not, yet weariness May toss him to my breast.""
Restlessness then, for the Herbertian Christian at least, can be generative eventually of salvation. "Restlessness is divine and necessary," says Herbert. And without sin the fear of it and the temptation toward it, there would be no restlessness. By that logic, doesn't that mean it's at some level reasonable to sin, insofar as to do so is to be actively engaged in the machinery of eventual salvation? It seems a good note to turn to Stanley Plumly now.
When a dying George Herbert entrusted his manuscript of poems entitled The Temple to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, he commented that his friend would find a picture of "the many conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul." Although this self-perception might lead you to believe that Herbert suffered a similar secular believer dichotomy to the one suffered by his poetry senior John Donne, it has never struck me that Herbert was experiencing anything like the Jack and John split. One finds in the great metaphysician instead in Herbert, the worldly and religious conflicts tend to be sublimated into something more subtle, more reconciled, more understated, more symmetrical. All the result I think of his attitude toward form as a controlling yet releasing embodiment of an arrival of thought and feeling rather than an ongoing process of working things out. The processing kind of poetry we admire in Donne. What is it that Elliot says of Donne that for Donne thought is feeling? Well for Herbert, the feeling is the thought brought to resolution, with intensity, but without unnecessary display. The sublime in Herbert is more product than process.
Donne, as we know, is much admired by Herbert's mother whom Donne praises in The Autumnal in such terms as, "No spring nor summer beauty has such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face." Well, she wasn't that autumnal when Donne knew her, so it's even possible that Donne as Herbert's father. The two poets do... Just joking. At least share a biographer. The two poets do share a biographer that complete angler Isaac Walton. Walton in fact relates a story about Herbert that speaks directly, I believe, to the wit and symmetrical side of Herbert's nature. It certainly speaks to his musical nature. Herbert seems is on his way to Salisbury Cathedral to join up with some music friends for their twice a week practice. He's walking from nearby Bemerton, his parish when he sees, "A poor man with a poor horse that was fallen under his load."
They were both, reports Walton, in distress and needed present help which Mr. Herbert perceiving put off his canonical coat and helped the poor man to unload and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it and he blessed the poor man and was so like the good Samaritan that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse and told him that if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast. Thus, he left the poor man at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury who began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trimmed and clean, came into the company so soiled and discomposed, but he told them the occasion and when one of the company told him he had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment, his answer was that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight, and that the omission of it would've upgraded and made discord in his conscience.
"Whensoever, he should pass by that place for if he be bound to pray for all that be in distress. I am bound so far as it is in my power to practice what I pray for and though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet, let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of any life without comforting a sad soul or showing mercy and I praise God for this occasion. And now let's tune our instruments."
If you picked up a certain biblical tone that is New Testament tone, in this narrative, you would not be mistaken. Walton both elevates and comprehends the occasion at once. Herbert is, in Christian terms, heroic in the scene, but he is also ironic, an appropriate formalist who understands that the valuing of experience is determined by the form in which it is realized. Hence, this particular Samaritan experience recollected in tranquility will become Herbert's music at midnight and once the experience elevates to a story, Herbert retells his escape from any possible self-aggrandizement is to make his exit a typical getting down to business. We must tune our instruments.
Herbert's response to this Samaritan incident exemplifies exactly the tone in his poetry, which registers at a range just beyond piety and simple generosity in order to become the rationalist logic of the need for balance and equanimity in all things, equanimity in all things. Pity for man and beast, of course, humility before one's God, naturally, and yes, a measure of practicality in addressing the moral order. More important though, it seems to me, is the attitude of aesthetics that controls and puts in context, transforms yet represents a synthesis of the tensions that stand for Herbert's emotional experience. Or as Herbert himself defines it, "I am bound so far as it is in my power to practice what I pray for." And practice for Herbert includes the tuning of one's instruments.
It's important I think to remember that Herbert was a poet before he was a pastor, albeit that the genre is sacred poetry, and it's important to remember that he came to his religious calling at the far end of his life, the last three years. In fact, a life of 40 years cut short by consumption the poet's disease. It is also good to recall that Herbert was an aristocrat in life, an artist in fact, and a servant of his faith and spirit. His metaphysics is his meta faith. His poem, The Flower is typical of how he sets up his analogs, his metaphors, his comparisons, or whatever, typical indeed of early romanticism in which as Burns writes, "My love is like a red, red rose," or as Wordsworth postulates, "I wandered lonely as a cloud," which is to say the subject precedes the object, the cause, the effect. Keats, in particular, would be the first major poet to reverse this processing. He would place the object first, whether it is an urn or the goddess of autumn. Thus Herbert in stanzas that are sort of half sonnets dotes on the Lord first, then the flowers of spring. It is a setup if you factor out the wit and beauty of the language that is close to being allegorical.
Not that Herbert tries to represent any sort of good evil matrix, but that God's work and nature's work symbolically, metaphysically are inseparable. A dialectic of the invisible made manifest, made visible. Seasons, too, enter into the equation. Winter is a dark time, a time of grieving right up to the point of intolerance like snow in May, a spring snow that melts away because it is so late a past frost, the flower will not be put off by such a late heavy hand of cold. Indeed, the late spring snow is in service to the sweet and clean returns of the Lord. The wet pure snow enhances the returns that recovered greenness. The addition of Herbert's recovered shriveled heart is more than just another signal of the Lord's spring blessings. It is Herbert's entry into the mix of things here. It's as if God has inspired Herbert to play in every musical sense, the role of Orpheus to the flowers Persephone, recognizing at the same time how small the human mythic element is compared to the Lord's power to kill and bring down into hell and up to heaven in an hour.
Herbert's longing to be past changing in thy paradise is really a desire to be at peace with himself and reconciled with his sins, as Carl calls them. But it is only a wish in and of itself to be reconciled with reality, "Which is that now in age I bud again after so many deaths I live and write." I think the operative word here is write. The complexity of Herbert's argument in this poem transcends its devices and devising of building and exploring an analogy and argument in which God is manifest in the patterns and rescues of nature. The complexity, the complex of Herbert's metaphysical and sublime thinking lies in his relish of versing of making and accepting his place as a devout poet whose writing alone must perform the humility and conscience of practicing what I pray for, there is no room for pride in this performance, only the recognition and celebration of thy wonders.
It is not so much that Herbert's writing is the word of God, nor even the word from God. It is to God as a direct address of poet to muse. Good poems therefore are the pleading of good deeds, and both words and deeds require a certain attitude toward perfection, balance, symmetry, form. They require, as poems, a certain sense of shapeliness combined with the intensity of conviction. They require a sustaining music to both embody and carry the experience, but not to simply imitate the experience, but to write it, reform it, discover its godliness, its greatness, and its smallness, its prayerfulness. That way in the dark midnight winter hours what is meaningful in our experience can play in our memory like music.
The Flower may be Herbert's least anxiety driven poem. Whatever shape it's in, it's neither a collar nor altar nor an abstraction such as grace or love or redemption, nor is it a poem of occasion such as Christmas or a Sunday. It is instead an object from nature, subject to the laws and blessings of the Lord, yes, but also in every detail subject to itself. That is, subject to its own symmetries, imbalances, rituals, and returns, if given to shadings ever so much of the self. That for me is Herbert's relevance as it is for any great poet, which is that in spite of ourselves in conflict, if because of ourselves in conflict, we sublimate the lesser issue of who we are to the far greater possibility of what we can make of it. Thank you.
Ann Townsend is going to talk about bondage in Herbert.
Yeah, don't I always? Actually, before I talk about that, there's just a little tiny... Oh, I don't know, a bit of poetry gossip that I love that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I'm going to talk about today, and I couldn't find any way to fit it in to my conversation. Yeah, it's besides the fact that John Donne was Herbert's father, the rectory at Bemerton, the Anglican church about 25 years ago decided to sell off that rectory to a private owner and it was sold and a few years ago that house came back up for sale. I love this. It's now occupied by a poet. The poet Vikram Seth lives in George Herbert's house. Isn't that great? I think that's quite wonderful. The poem I'm going to talk about today is his poem, Denial, which you ought to have in a handout. Stanley's right when I talk about George Herbert, I always end up talking about bondage.
It's true. He makes me think about what it means to dominate, to submit. Why? Because Herbert is anxious about the uses of power. His poems enact, always, a passionate struggle between obedience and rebellion, and they attempt to resolve what TS Eliot calls one of the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry. That is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel. He goes on to say, "That verse, which represents only good intentions, is worthless - on that plane, indeed, a betrayal."
Elliot suggests Herbert's sense of order and a form emerges from just the struggle he describes above that struggle between saying the right thing and saying the real thing. Religion offers a lot of models to express the relationship between the human and the divine. It's like parent and child, husband and wife, ruler and subject. Each of these is a model of inequality. That's one problem, but Herbert recognizes another problem with these common models of human connection. To be bound to a God is to be bound to what's bodiless, invisible and mute. The relationship between master and slave dominant and submissive arises not out of fate or accident or through love entirely, but through a conscious and premeditated choice, to be bound, willingly enslaved, to give overpower means to step outside of common human intercourse.
In Herbert's case, the relationship exists not only beyond common human bonds, but beyond the realm of human relationships altogether. He wants to find shelter in pure absence. In The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden asks three questions about human law and the relation between servant and master. First, "Is it just?" This, he says, is an ethical question. Then he asks, "Is it enforceable?" This, he says, is an aesthetic question. But of a contract, he says, we can only ask the historical question. "Did both parties pledge their word to do it?" Its justice and its enforceability are secondary to the historical fact of mutual personal commitment. In the case of a relationship between a man and his imagined deity, these categories become much more troublesome, human law doesn't apply here. So how do you submit to the unseen the unseeable? In his poem, The Search, Herbert talks about trying to bridge a distance "Which doth excel all distance known." The ordinary recourse for the faithful of course is faith, but for Herbert, that's not quite a simple proposition. In Affliction IV, Herbert cries, "My thoughts are all a case of knives." Herbert's, biographer Stanley talked about Isaac Walton reports that Herbert would often say, "He had a wit like a pen knife in a narrow sheath, too sharp for his body."
Denial on your handout, like so many of Herbert's poems, records that sharp pain as he strives with that wit to bridge the impossible distance between himself and his God. So the first stanza in that poem reads, "When my devotions could not pierce thy silent ears, then was my heart broken, as was my verse, my breast was full of fears and disorder." You can see how the verse is broken in that first stanza. The last line ought to be doing something that it's not doing. It ought to be rhyming with fears in the second to the last line. Herbert asks for acknowledgement in that stanza. He receives silence. He looks for connection and grace and comes away with anxiety and the sense that he's just a bad poet completely, as he says, out of tune. Elliot, you remember remarks upon the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel.
What Herbert knows he ought to do, if he's good, is wait and hope. What he actually does, he complains bitterly struggling with that absent God, wrestling with the dictates of and demands of his own recalcitrant poetry and its careful rhyme scheme, which as you can see is failing him in the final line of the stanza. He laments, he complains, he gripes, he bitches, he approaches outright insubordination. It's one of the things I like the best about him. And more, he suffers, he pleads, eventually, he panics when his devotions could not pierce God's silent ears, when prayer goes unanswered. Herbert describes the result, his own body becomes unstable. His heart is full of fears and disorder. His thoughts are bent like a brittle bow. They wander, they circle, their aim is untrue. If we didn't know better, we might say that Herbert's prayers to his God are much like the hopeless and even hapless pleas of a courtly lover to his distant and unattainable love.
Love at a distance, amour long in the French medieval tradition, puts the knight in a completely submissive position. He submits to his lady who is cruel, cold, distant, and in fact married. Love under these impossible and masochistic conditions can lead a poet to make wild promises, bargains to offer bribes. In the poetry of the troubadours, we read the record of the artful and passionate request, but we never hear the answer.
To the fourth stanza, "O that thou shouldst give dust, a tongue to cry to thee. And then not hear it crying! All day long, my heart was in my knee, but no hearing." This is so beautiful. O, that thou should give dust a tongue. I love that. His life-giving language, giving God. A God who gives dust a tongue, gives nothing more, and Herbert's heart has broken, become numb, so deranged and disordered that it has really weirdly traveled to his knee. The broken body is a map of how love leads to suffering because God is absent, because Herbert can't cross what Linda called that unbridgeable chasm.
His soul is out of tune. What consistently transcends or solves the emotional pickle that Herbert finds himself in? What resolves that tangle of contrary states of mind in poem after poem, is grace or love. Herbert's poem cease their rebellion. They submit whenever grace enters in. As Linda says, "The apparatus we have for apprehending God is insufficient." At the end of denial, Herbert pleads for grace, for repair, for a return to health. Once he himself is in tune, his rhyme will naturally follow. He wants to have his heart back where it belongs out of his knee so that he can properly write his song of praise. He says, "O, cheer and tune my heartless breast. Defer no time that so thy favors granting my request. They and my mind may chime and mend my rhyme."
God accommodates our insufficiency through signs. In Herbert's case, the sign of grace appears in the poem itself. The poem enacts the wished for cure the rhyme. Act out what the poem seeks. So we get the sound of grace at the end of the poem, if not, perhaps the grace itself. Struggle is Herbert's watch word. The psychological complexity of his poems makes him attractive to modern readers, attractive to me. We hear and see these contradictions at war all the time consistently in his poems. But remember this, Herbert was trained as a rhetorician. Before taking clerical orders, he excelled, as David said, at public oration. He taught courses in rhetoric. He earned the prize position of principal order at Cambridge University. He knew what he was doing every minute. I love that. Only in the last three years of his life was he the simple parson of Bemerton.
So it should be no surprise that these poems actively and carefully argue their way down the page. As Linda discussed, their artistry extends to the architecture of the poems themselves as well as to their internal and metrical shaping strategies. Just think of the amazing variety he displays. His 169 poems have something like 140 different stanza patterns, probably about 114 of those stanza patterns appear only once. Artistry lies beneath that simplicity. I like this and I like his appearance of spontaneity, his outbursts, his tonal disorderliness, his ingenious prosodic shapes and strategies, his childlike wishes, his balancing of oppositions, his doubt, and his fidelity.
I would argue that these strategies of erotic engagement, architectural playfulness, didactic and political argumentation all really address the same thing. A body held in bondage must waver between struggling to escape and trusting enough to submit. The five of us have spoken today about how very different readers might approach a single poet. We've looked at Herbert's temporal, formal devotional, architectural, and erotic inclinations. We read Herbert as we see him. What do I see? Contrary states held barely in balance. He says so himself in a tiny poem called Bittersweet, which I'll end with. "I will complain yet praise. I will bewail, approve, and all my sour sweet days I will lament and love." Auden says, "Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings." There's no better example of that than in the works of George Herbert. Thank you very much for listening to all of us today.
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