I’d like to start with this-
Here ‘truth’ may be, not what is arrived at when all error shall have been
deleted, but what gets blurted out when the usual defences are down.
What that blurting-out might
mean in poetry could be, for example, a moment at which a loss of
control over a language which it is precisely the poet’s art to master, to
turn into an instrument, appears to testify to some specific emotional or
intellectual (and necessarily and quite trivially material, historical and
particular) pressure which makes that instrumentalism break down.
These are both from the introduction to Jarvis’ “Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song” which is the only part that I’ve actually bothered to read so I may be about to do him a terrible wrong but this ‘blurting’ notion has stuck in my brain for a while and has just come to the fore when dealing with the blurts of George Herbert.
Some poets seem to follow me around. I read Prynne’s recent work on ‘Love III’ because it was Prynne rather because it was about Herbert. I then shelved Herbert away in my brain and got on with other stuff. Some time later I started to be impressed by Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and this caused me to thin about sorrowful gods and kenosis and the early church fathers. Whilst getting annoyed by the book about the late Tudor Sonneteers I came across ‘The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England’ by Gary Kuchar which is very good and quite absorbing for me because it deals with Kenosis in the early 17th century and the way in which Herbert and others dealt with the issues around the crucifixion. This then made me read more of Herbert and then became so intrigued that bought his English Poems edited by Helen Wilcox (this is the one that Prynne uses).
IBefore going any further I think I need to make clear that I’m of the view that the evidence for the existence of God is very weak indeed but I am also impatient with Richard Dawkins’ fervent brand of positivist and strident atheism. So I like to think of myself as a reasonable atheist. This does not stop me being drawn to religious poetry, indeed I’m of the view that God poems are some of the most successful in the language because poetry seems really effective at expressing struggles with faith.
So I begin to pay attention to Herbert and come across what I would describe as a number of ‘blurts’ i.e. points where the poet forgets about making poetic sense and blurts out something felt as well as thought. I then re-read the Jarvis introduction and found that he uses this example from Wordsworth to illustrate what he’s talking about:
Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
And Fragrance in thy footing treads
Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong;
And the most ancient Heavens through Thee are fresh and strong.
Which is apparently from ‘Poems in Two Volumes’ published in 1807. Jarvis points out that similar sentiments had been expressed by Kant and can therefore be thought of as philosophical. Some may consider this to be debatable but he is correct when identifying the last two lines as a blurt par excellence. For a start there’s the sheer oddness of the idea of the stars doing wrong and the heavens being ‘fresh and strong.’ At the time of publication these two lines came in for heavy criticism as being inept and Jarvis points out the metrical damage done by the lenght of the last line. Keston Sutherland has also written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry using two lines from ‘The Thorn as an example.’ I think it is reasonable to suggest that Jarvis’ example could also be seen as ‘wrong’.
George Herbert is different on several points, the most obvious being that he is ‘doing’ theology and his relationship with God rather than philosophy. It can be argued that theology isn’t about absolute or empirical truth in the way that philosophy but this ignores the fact that in the 17th century the existence of God was a universally accepted truth and that religious truth was the subject of very public and rigorous debate.
Herbert did ambiguity and paradox really well and for the most part his poems are consistent in form and theme. I’d like to quote from ‘The Thanksgiving’ because I think it’s where two blurts occur:
Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?
Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?
Was such a grief as cannot be.
This is how the poem ends:
Thy art of love, which I’le turn back on thee,
O my deare Saviour, Victorie!
Then for thy passion–I will do for that–
Alas my God, I know not what.
Neither of these blurts are philosophical truths but they can (should) be thought of as expressions of both personal inadequacy and theological truth. Wilcox glosses the first example as “Implies both the impossibility of such extreme grief and the absolute impossibility of imitating it.” which is entirely reasonable but I’d also like to add the ‘truth’ that some things relating to Christ are impossible for us to comprehend but are nevertheless understood by God. This failure to comprehend or respond is also expressed as a blurt in the final line. Last lines are important because they linger in the memory and serve to underline the ‘point’ of the poem but this line is saying nothing other than that some things cannot even be thought about. So, is this blurt signify a loss of control over language because of some emotional or intellectual pressure as Jarvis suggests? They are both responses to pressure but the statement that they both make about some godly things being beyond our comprehension and expression constitutes a degree of intent that is perhaps missing in Wordsworth.
Incidentally, Wlicox commits the sin of glossing things that I don’t need explaining and glides effortlessly over those that I do. This is annoying as Herbert is one of our finest poets.