Tag Archives: The Temple

George Herbert and the Day Job

Two Mollys on Blue - Sarah Small

I’m reading Herbert’s instruction manual for parish priests, ‘Priest to the Temple’ and I feel a bit let down by my own judgement because it’s causing me to reconsider the poetry. I’m going to try quite hard to keep what follows out of the lit crit rigmarole but this may not be easy.

Let’s start with the reasonably obvious, George Herbert was a god poet and his god poems are some of the best we have. They achieve this quality in a number of ways but one of the main attractions is the use of the sudden interjection to express direct and intense emotion.

Although a fully paid-up, non-Dawkins atheist I am attracted to god poems because the best of them are better than anything else (Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy) and because they manage to do many things at once and because god and god-related material has been such an important part of our culture. I’m also fascinated by the religious debates that swirled around the first 150 years of Anglicanism.

This doesn’t apply to all god poets, I really can’t stand either Southwell or Hopkins (and I have tried) and John Donne is currently underwhelming me for all kinds of reasons but I remain a devoted fan of John Milton, Henry Vaughan and R S Thomas.

Last month I wrote about the relationship between Herbert’s poetry and scripture in which I glibly dismissed the view of Stanley Fish that Herbert is catechizing with his poetry. This may have been a mistake. Before explaining why it might be a mistake I need to point out that I haven’t read ‘The Living Temple’ and can only make a reasonably informed guess at the general thrust of the Fish position.

The first thing that struck me on reading ‘The Priest to the Temple’ is the stridency of tone and the absence of nuance. I also have to observe that I would probably given up the ministry if I’d read this as an apprentice vicar in about 1635. There is also a lot of practical stuff about how to inspire rural parishioners and how to deal with overly ardent female members of the congregation but there’s also a (for me) surprising emphasis on liturgy as performance (on the part of the priest) rather than an expression of faith.

There’s also the biographical difficulty referred to by Helen Wilcox which is the fact that Herbert was a member of the nobility and the role of a rural priest isn’t by any means a normal career path for men of his standing- he had previously been appointed as Orator of Cambridge University and elected as member of Parliament for Montgomery. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why he embarked on a much more ordinary life but do need to point out that there was a huge social and cultural gap between Herbert and the vast majority of his parishioners.

I’d like to start with the last stanza of ‘Grace’:</p?

O come! for thou dost know the way.
Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say. Drop from above.

The Rowan Williams / Helen Wilcox line would be that ‘Grace’ is a straightish expression of fairly orthodox thought and that these last four lines are a spontaneous interjection from the poet as a personal expression of the conflicted soul. The Stanley Fish position is (probably) that the personal and exclamatory tone is a deliberate attempt solely to amplify / intensify the faith of Herbert’s readers.

Having read Prynne on ‘Love III’ and Wilcox’ introduction to the ‘English Poems’ I have been firmly on the side of spontaneity and heartfeltness in the manner of what Simon Jarvis describes as a poetic ‘blurt’. I’m now wavering between the two because of this:

THE Country Parfon when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures, which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, First, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himfelf alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation; whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly Altar to be bathed, and waihed in the Sacred Laver of Chrift’s blood. Secondly, as this
is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himfelf, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to reverence,
which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying.Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and flow ; yet not fo flow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

So Herbert appears to be saying that priests should not be afraid to express their personal fervour as this will encourage the same in their flock but he’s also saying that the words shouldn’t flow but have a ‘grave liveliness’ so as to move the congregation to reverence.

Taking aside the wonderful nature of ‘grave liveliness’ as a phrase, I’d like to point out that there is a middle way to read these poems. The first thing that needs to be recognized is that they are intended to catechize but that Herbert’s view is that sincere personal expressions of faith are the most effective way to do this and he therefore has the best of both worlds.

The other modification that needs to be made relates to the nature of the ‘blurt’ because I think that the above demonstrates that the apparently can’t help myself spontaneity is in fact a conceit or device to increase fervour in the reader. I’d also suggest that the apparent inner conflict that Williams so admires is (probably) a device to mirror the doubts that each member of the congregation will have. Skilled demagogues, of course, have been doing this for centuries.

I set great store by honesty in poetry and shy away from anything that ‘feels’ contrived or manipulative. This should therefore give me a bit of a problem but it doesn’t because it hasn’t led me to question the nature of Herbert’s faith and the ‘interjection’ as technique rather than blurt seems entirely reasonable.

I must also mention that I love manuals of this sort and Herbert’s is an absolute delight- and gives a much clearer insight into the cares of the times than most of the religio/political tracts and pamphlets so beloved of historians.

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…

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.

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…