Tag Archives: Helen Wilcox

George Herbert and torture.

I’m reading “The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert and Vaughan” by Ceri Sullivan in an attempt to get a bit more context on The George Herbert Problem which is still causing more than a degree of dither. Essentially this is still about how much of the poetry is an honest expression of faith and feeling and how much is done in order to instil a greater degree of faith in his readers.

Sullivan has a chapter on Herbert’s use of torture to describe his relationship with God with a particular focus on ‘Love Unknown’:

Deare Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad; 
And in my faintings I presume your loue
Will more complie, then help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds which may improve,
I hold for two lives and both lives in me.
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day.
And in the middle plac'd my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Lookt on a seruant who did know his eye
Better then you know me, or (which as one)
Then I my self. The servant instantly
Quitting the fruit, seiz'd on my heart alone,
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issu'd from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and di'd
And washt, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. Your heart was foul, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault more than my lease will bear,
Yet still asks pardon, and was not deni'd.
But you shall heare. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one even-tide
(I sigh to tell)
Walkt by my self abroad, I saw a large
And spacious fornace flaming, and thereon
A boyling caldron, round about those verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION.
The greatnesse shew’d the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which I did fear grew cold.
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart, that brought it (do you understand?)
The offerers heart. Your heart was hard, I fear.
Indeed 'tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug, then scalding water
I bath’d it often, ev’n with holy bloud,
Which at a board, while many drunk bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Ev’n taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardnesses. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed.
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Deare, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures ev’n my rest was gone?
Full well I understood, who had been there.
For I had giv’n the key to none, but one:
It must be he. Your heart was dull, I fear.
Indeed a slack and sleepie state of minde
Did oft possesse me, so that when I pray’d,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behinde.
But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took the debt upon him. Truly, Friend,
For ought I heare, our Master shows to you
More favour then you wot1 of. Mark the end.
The Font did onely, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick

As can be seen, this is gloriously complex and serves to move the Herbert Problem a bit further on. Helen Wilcox identifies the italicised ‘friend’ as Christ but also notes that other commentators have suggested that the friend is an “internal spiritual voice” as well as the external image of Christ. The poem would appear to make use of the image of the heart as deployed in emblem books to describe the sufferings of religious shortcomings which are redeemed by grace.

To modern readers the grisly descriptions of what happens to the hear might seem quite bizarre but the early 17th century was a very different place with a criminal justice system that worked on the spectacle of the execution and deployed various forms of torture to extract confessions.

Without getting bogged down by theological niceties, the poem seems to indicate that unadorned faith and praise is what is required rather than offerings or self-sacrifice. We also have the commercial / contractual references that permeate most of Herbert’s work with the punning ‘grounds’ of line 4 (land, reasons, terms of the contract between Herbert and God), ‘lease’ in line 20 and “But all may scores were by another paid / Who took the debt upon him” (60-61)

Whilst this is probably the most grisly of Herbert’s poems, there are three or four others that make use of torture to describe the relationship between Herbert and his God. Before getting on to these I want to try and show how this moves the Problem to a position more in favour of honesty than manipulation. If Stanley Fish is correct and Herbert’s purpose is to catechize his readers then this doesn’t seem to be very effective with its depiction of a violent and sadistic God relentlessly punishing one who believes and the rather weak description of the path to salvation in the last three lines. To my 21st century mind this is more likely to deter readers than to encourage them to “be cheer’d” through their suffering.

Christ’s half-line responses to the described scenes of suffering are not compatible with a poem that’s trying to ‘sell’ the faith and the poet’s readiness to agree with the observation strikes me as more than a little masochistic which doesn’t promote readerly identification.

‘Justice II’ on the other hand is much more direct and can be read as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New. The second verse is-

The dishes of thy balance seemed to gape,
Like two great pits;
The beam and scape
Did like some tort'ring engine show:
Thy hand above did burn and glow,
Danting the proudest hearts the proudest wits.

I could make a case for either side with this, the contrast between Old and New is conventional and doesn’t make too much of what the torturing engine might do (in other poems there are clear references to being stretched on the rack) and I can see that it may be constructed to have an inspiring effect on the reader rather then be an honest expression of Herbert’s experience. The poem ends with- “Why should I justice now decline? / Against me there is none, but for me much.

Of course, there is a middle position which says that some poems can be at the manipulation end of the spectrum and others can be at the honest expression end. There is also the argument that we will never know but I find myself involved in this because I’m not keen on manipulation and I am very impressed by the way that Herbert does poetry. It’s also a useful framework for thinking about the poems in some depth.

George Herbert and the poem as scripture(?)

In my head, there is a line to be drawn between what the writing of attentive readers and of literary critics. This is an entirely subjective line and would not bear up to too much scrutiny but I do know when I cross it or am in danger of crossing it. This was brought to mind by re-reading Nigel Smith’s gloss on Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and his attempt to ascribe some of the thinking behind it to neat and undiluted Plotinus. Whilst smiling a neoplatonic smile, it occurred to me that a detailed refutation of this would be more of a lit crit and less of a readerly thing to do but I’ll probably do it anyway because I do have a lot more readerly things to say about the poem.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I might be about to dive into lit crit territory with George Herbert but I think I can excuse myself a little because the notion that’s about to be propounded came from reading the poems and not from reading about them.

I intend to show that Herbert made some poems to function in the same way that he saw the bible ‘working’ and that in some poems this imitation works in subtle and complex ways. I readily concede that this assertion comes from my desire to make Herbert more accomplished and modern than he probably is but this is, at least, an honest response to the work. There is also a further thought about the things that we can take from poetry changing as time moves on. For example, the psychological themes that run through the first three books of the Faerie Queen had much more resonance for readers in the period between 1918 and 1939 than they have before or since.

I want to use two poems from ‘The Temple’ sequence. The first is ‘The H. Scriptures II’-

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configuration of their glorie!
Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off:
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destine:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in ev'ry thing
Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring,
and in another make me understood.

Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
This book of starres lights to eternal blisse.

I’m not going to attempt an evaluation of the quality of the above but I do want to draw attention to what might be going on in the second and third stanzas because it appears to me that what is being said about the bible is also being said (to some extent) about ‘The Temple’ sequence and that this is another example of Herbert’s ability to work across several levels.

Helen Wilcox’ notes tell me that many critics and editors have read ‘watch’ as a mistake for ‘match’ but I’m of the view that this amendment makes even less sense than the original.

Stanley Fish is of the view that ‘The Temple’ is mainly about catechising but I’m not convinced= I think there’s too many occasions where a troubled or conflicted voice takes the upper hands and others, like the one above, where Herbert appears to be playing with more than a degree of ambiguity. ‘This verse marks that’ can be taken to be a verse from the bible and can also be a verse from the poem that we are reading which puts the rest of the poem into a different kind of context.

It is also worth bearing in mind than many of the poems in ‘The Temple’ are part of a series on a specific theme, so that the poem above is one of two entitled ‘H Scripture’ and that there are three ‘Love’ and five ‘Affliction’ poems as well as several other series. So, as with scripture, it is possible that ‘ten leaves’ off; there is a second poem that amplifies or contextualises points made in the first.

This perspective also helps me to make more sense of the rather tangled third stanza and perhaps clarifies the use of ‘parallels bring’ given that this is not normally a part of the ‘catechising’ hypothesis.

The second poem is the first ‘Praise’ poem in the sequence-

To write a verse or two, is all the praise,
That I can raise:
Mend my estate in any wayes,
Thou shalt have more.

I go to Church; help me to wings, and I
Will thither flie;
Or, if I mount unto the skie,
I will do more.

Man is all weaknesse; there is no such thing
As Prince or King:
His arm is short, yet with a sling
He may do more.

An herb distill'd, and drunk, may dwell next door,
On the same floore,
To a brave soule: exalte the poor,
They can do more.

O raise me then! poore bees, that work all day,
Sting my delay,
Who have a work, as well as they.
And much, much more.

Wilcox glosses ‘verse’ as “A reference to the speaker’s activity as a poet (a self-consciousness which is an aesthetic characteristic of The Temple) but also likening the poet’s praise to that of the psalmist” but doesn’t expand on the possible motivations for this characteristic. I think that this additional dimension is more strategic and theological than simply aesthetic and that this strategy is making a case for the making of religious poetry as being a furtherance of scripture in that both express a relationship with God.

I also think that Herbert is using this conceit to confront the reader of the poem with the possibility of a similar experience as he or she may have when reading scripture.

As Wilcox notes, ‘Praise’ contains a number of themes that are also present in the Psalms but there’s also a degree of self-consciousness there too. So, do we have here a 17th century re-working of an Old Testament trope or an anticipation of something more ‘modern’? I think I’m coming round to the view that Herbert was essentially developing and re-working the long and multifaceted tradition of religious verse in a way that wasn’t afraid to give voice to his doubts and frustrations, which he knew would also be present in his readers. Of course, this might also be seen as quite a 20th century thing to want to do…