Tag Archives: george herbert

Doing deals with George Herbert

A while ago I wrote about a disappointing book that attempted to develop ties between the burgeoning world of commerce and the sonnet explosion of the 1590s. This effort was disappointing because it spent too much time hovering over tenuous evidence and not enough time thinking about how day to day reality and mindsets get to be reflected in poetry.

I had therefore decided that any such attempt to impose Bourdieu’s analysis of taste on the far distant past was a bit of a waste of time. I then started to read more and more of Herbert’s poetry which was published forty years after said explosion and it became clear that this might need a bit more thought. I don’t propose to enter into a detailed Prynne style discussion of theology but I do want to think about how Herbert makes deliberate and almost strategic use of commercial and legal terms and the way in which this particular conceit is indicative of the way in which Herbert views the world.

Before we go any further it is probably as well to recall that Herbert came from a privileged background and was (as far as we know) never involved in the commercial and legal milieu of his time so there isn’t an ‘easy’ explanation for his use of this conceit.

I’ve commented on the past on Herbert’s extensive use of ambiguity and how this gives his work a much richer and more satisfying depth. I’m about to argue that Herbert found in commercial and legal terms a rich vein of double and treble meanings which he could exploit, I think this is much more likely to be the case rather than a straightforward reflection of the increase in commercial and mercantile activity.

I’d like to start with the beginning of “The Country Parson” which is Herbert’s prose ‘How to be a vicar’ tract, when setting out the character of the ideal parson, Herbert oberves that he must be true to his word because “country people, as indeed all honest men) do much estem their word, it being the life of buying and selling and dealing in the world”. The chapter ends with “The parson’s yea is yea, and nay, nay: and his apparel plain but reverend and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell; the purity of his mind breaking out, and dilating itself even to his body, clothes and habitation.”

So, I’m not overlooking the tremendous surge in commercial activity after about 1560 and I think that we can see an element of this seeping into cultural activity in a number of different ways but I don’t think that Herbert was unwittingly affected by matters economic – in fact I think it is reasonably obvious to show that he saw this newish activity and its attendant terminology as an extension of his verbal repertoire which he could ply around with to good effect.

This isn’t either startlingly stunning insight nor is it in any way original with regard to Herbert but it doesn’t get stated often enough. In these intellectually confused times we are asked to think about ‘context’ and to try and relate the activity of the poet to his or her external world and in doing this we overlook the strength and power of the poems as poems, as examples of the power of language in extemis. In Herbert’s case it might be academically sound to try and place him within the social and cultural reality of the 1620s but it is mor worthwhile to look at the way he put this context to work. I’m going to use ‘Redemption’ to try and illustrate this-

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold
And make a suit unto him, and to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th'old

In heaven at his manour I him sought.
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied:
Who straight, your suit is granted,said and died.

Of course it can be argued that I’m cheating in that this isn’t representative of the whole and I do concede that not all of the poems are so packed with these terms. In my defence I would like to point out that the poem isn’t ‘simply’ an extended allegory but that it manages to combine the ‘real estate’ conceit with the force and shock of the last line which seems to epitomise the breath-taking qualities that Prynne has referred to.

The use of ‘redemption’ as a title clearly indicates what it is that Herbert wants us to think about in all of its forms and meanings and points to a very conscious and ‘technical’ exploitation of the opportunities that this vocabulary presents rather than an unconscious replication of the newish economic realities. What Herbert is doing is deliberately using the concepts (lease, rent, taking possession, legal suits etc) that would be familiar to his parishioners and using these to illustrate or point towards a relationship with God.

What is remarkable is just how many of the poems in ‘The Temple’ are interlaced with commercial and legal terms. Some of these are veiled (‘thou art heaven’s Lidger here’) and others are much more direct (‘Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde, / who wert disseized by usurping lust:’) but they do demonstrate a mindset that thinks about God in terms of a reciprocal relationship and what the ‘terms’ of this relationship might mean.

With regard to drawing wider conclusions, it would be tempting to see this particular conceit as indicative of a burgeoning and commercially minded bourgeoisie but the past (much like the present) didn’t always proceed in a linear fashion and the biggest mistake is to impose our current mentality on periods that were fundamentally different and really quite strange.

On a final note, I was drawn to Herbert by Prynne’s recent book on ‘Love III’ and by Rowan Williams brief comments in an interview with David Hare and imagined that I would be looking at the way poetry ‘does’ religion but in fact I’m more and more impressed by the way that Herbert uses ‘plain’ talking to do very, very complex and intelligent things in verse.

Pattern Poems. Why?

This seems to have been following me around almost as much as the kenosis question. I think it started with Lachlan Mackinnon’s negative and bad tempered review of ‘Clavics’ and his reference to George Herbert’s ‘The Altar’. Then ‘Dionysus Crucified’ arrived which really does add a new dimension to this pattern business. I then buy The Herbert collection edited by Helen Wilcox and read her gloss on ‘H. Baptisme II’ and the fog began to lift. What follows is a number of examples coupled with questions that I don’t know the answer to.

The broad thrust of this enquiry is ‘why bother’? That is, why bother constructing a poem as an image of something when the words should be doing this job? The second part of this is doesn’t this kind of self-constraint lead to an inevitable decrease in quality? To be fair, I’ve given some consideration for the reverse (ish) process of painters who incorporate lines of verse into their work, both Kiefer and Twombly do this to good effect although with utterly different intent. So, I can see that the use of text can enhance visual images but I’m more than a little mystified by this patterning business in poems.

Then we come to the concrete poem and how this ‘relates’ to the pattern poem. I don’t want to dwell on this too much but in my head with concrete poems the image usually takes precedence over the text. However, the Wikipedia article on the gifted Iain Hamilton Finlay provides this definition: “poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect”. This could well apply to both and most sources cite Herbert as the earliest English ‘model’.

There’s also the nature of the image and how it might be ‘read’. Herbert’s ‘Altar’ is a poem in the shape of an altar, his Easter Wings are two stanzas in the shape of wings. The pattern of lines in ‘H Baptisme II’ is more abstract and therefore more open to interpretation. Here’s the first stanza-

                      Since, Lord, to thee
A narrow way and little gate
Is all passage, on my infancie
Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.

Wilcox quotes two critics who provide different readings as to shape, the first reads left to right and suggests a narrow entrance followed by expansion whereas the other reads to to bottom and suggests the ‘pattern of grace’ from small child to the sinfulness of adulthood and then the ‘renewed grace and humility of childhood in spirit’ Of course it also looks like an arrowhead and a quiver.

In her notes on sources to ‘The Altar’ Wilcox states that pattern poems originated in the Middle East and are also found in Classical poetry, she also points out that Puttenham refers to poems as ‘ocular representation’ in his influential ‘Arte of English Poesie’.

We now leap five hundred years and arrive at the oddness that is ‘Clavics’. There are several good things that can be said about the latest Hill sequence, the first being that it is much better in every way than ‘Oraclau’ which is a major relief for those of us who fretted that he might have completely lost the plot. The second is that it is mostly ‘about’ the 17th century and music, things that Hill does very well. The third good thing is that it has quite an overt mystical tinge.

There are thirty two poems in the ‘Clavics’ sequence and they all follow the same pattern. The second part of this pattern is a straight copy of Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ stanzas. In case there might be any dispute about this the ‘wings’ part of first poem quotes Herbert in the first two lines:

Intensive prayer is intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
As here
But if
Distressed attire
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

I don’t want to go into the meaning of this and I’m trying to ignore the bad jokes. Herbert fans may wish to point out that the stanzas were originally printed on their sides so that they look like wing but Hill knows that they were set out as above in the manuscript. It’s really important to recognise that Hill knows more than anyone else on the planet about English culture in the first half of the seventeenth century – most people seem to focus on his reputation for difficulty and overlook the fact that he is a brilliant critic, which is a pity.

So, this is an undiluted copy of ‘Easter Wings’ but the longer first part doesn’t follow either ‘The Altar’ or any of the other Herbert pattern poems which leaves me with a problem because its either a pattern by someone else that I’m not aware of or it’s of Hill’s own devising and is somehow a further expression of the ‘Clavics’ theme(s). The other more complex question is why would you want to make 32 poems that all have the same shape? If poets use patterns to in some way enhance what the words say, does this mean that all of these poems are saying more or less the same thing? As the answer to this is clearly ‘no’ then what (exactly) might Hill be hoping to achieve?

The first hypothesis is a kind of follow on from ‘Oraclau’, Geoffrey Hill has now reached the stage in his career (and perhaps in his life) where he is no longer concerned about the views of others and now does things because he wants to and because he can. The second is that he’s showing off that he can write 32 decent poems under this sort of constraint. The third is that he’s buying into the underlying Christian imagery deployed by Herbert.

Consider this:

As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
Be laws. Again
Swift and neat hand
Notate the viols
Flexures of styles
Extravagant command
Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
Narcissus then
Crowns fantasy
Feasts what feasts brings
Consort like winter sky
Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

I’ve turned this on its side, I’ve imagined two stanzas with the break at ‘pen’, I’ve utilised my very limited knowledge of musical notation, I’ve tried to ‘see’ a type of door key, I’ve struggled with the sequence’s epigraphs in English, Middle English and Latin but none of these offer me a way into the rationale for this kind of obsessive patterning. I’d really like there to be a rationale to do with music because this would fit with the title (as relating to musical keys) and to the reappearance of the Lawes brothers. The above, which is the third part of poem 3, holds out some hope with ‘punched semibreve’ and ‘Notate the viols / flexures of styles’ but neither of these lead in any obvious way to the singular shape that the words make.

It isn’t that there aren’t further veiled hints, this is from poem 12:

                Leave as coda
Some form of code
Like sonnets of Spanish

This is again infuriating in that it appears to say something crucial when in fact it’s not saying very much at all. At this point I am ready to give up because the effort is proving to be greater than the expected reward.

We now come to Simon Jarvis and several different patterns. Lets start with the obvious, metrical regularity over a number of pages with no typographical variations produces a very regular pattern. Most of ‘The Unconditional’ can be thought of as a very long regular pattern. This pattern of itself says ‘poem’ as do Prynne’s quatrains in the ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’. In both cases the pattern on the page conforms closely to what people think poetry should look like. It is only when the words are read that this vision of conformity is undermined. In Jarvis’ case the same can be said for the ‘poemness’ of ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’ in that the pattern is the pattern of poetry. e now come to the patterning in ‘F subscript zero’ some of which I’m tempted to describe as mannered:

                                        That's how you paint me
Left Summa of the war effort
Which from within
{I just decline
{ To break
{I just fail
Or to unmake
Or smash
More than a line
Could ever slake
Thirst not thirst for the Absolute by now as though known or imaginable only under the covering cherub of radical evil
| thirst for a drink

Without dwelling on the meaning, can there said to be a pattern in this? If there is I think we need to ask what it is hoping to achieve (if anything). I also need to make an irrational bias confession. When I was fifteen I had a friend who would write poems that had unfinished brackets strewn amongst them. When asked, he explained that this was because his life was like an open bracket. We thought this was really deep and it took me about three months to realise that it wasn’t. So, I’m starting with the hackles of suspicion already raised. It will also be noted that these are not ordinary brackets, the only time I’ve had cause to use these is when writing CSS style sheets but I very much doubt that a point is being made about page formatting. I’ve had a look at how this things are used when doing big sums and (as expected) I don’t understand the explanation and I fully accept that this is my problem rather than his. As far as I am able to ascertain (after three minutes of research) a single bracket by itself doesn’t signify anything.

I am assuming that ‘Summa’ and ‘Absolute’ point to an overt philosophical/theological context but I’m still having to guess where there’s this wide gap running down the middle part of this extract. I do however feel that we’re at the more abstract (as in ‘H Baptisme II’) end of the spectrum.

‘Dionysus Crucified’ does pattern in a number of extreme ways. Neither WordPress nor I have sufficient flexibility / skill to reproduce the patterns with any degree of accuracy but I will try and describe what might be going on. The first important fact is that these pages are very very big which allows for the extraordinary line length but also for the patterns to be displayed as intended.

One one page there is an outline of a cross with a number of letters and words arranged around these. There isn’t any immediately visual pattern to the words and they don’t ‘follow’ or mimic the shape of the cross.Some of the text in the first third of the page doesn’t follow a ‘normal’ left to right reading, there is this:


This isn’t exact but it is reasonably close. On each of these lines there are other words and letters and parts of words so that we’re not sure what it is we’re supposed to be reading and in what order. Once we get below the arms of the cross this is no longer a problem and a left to right reading becomes (sort of) feasible.

The last page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and has a shape in that the way that the lines are arranged make a discernible shape. I’ve spent the last ten minutes looking at this shape and have only managed to come up with either flying saucer or luxury yacht. Neither of these is likely to be in any way accurate in that we’re very much in God / prayer / hymn territory and a left to right reading doesn’t work.

In conclusion I think I’m beginning to see the sense of using shape or pattern to enhance or underline different aspects of meaning or intent. I think ‘Holy Baptisme II’ functions more effectively than the better known ‘Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ because there’s less evidence of self-constraint detracting from the poem. I’m going to become much more familiar with ‘Clavics’ if I’m going to discover Hill’s rationale and life may be just too short. Simon Jarvis continues to set me a whole set of different challenges but I am interested (and impressed) enough to rise to the bait. This may not be A Good Thing.

Dionysus Crucified is still available from Grasp Press for only 11 quid. There is no excuse. Clavics and the Collected Herbert tome are both available on Amazon.

George Herbert, Simon Jarvis and the Poetic Blurt.

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.

and this-

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.

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…