Tuesday 2 November 2010

Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics

In Atlanta today I presented a paper titled "Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics", as part of a panel responding to Regina Schwartz's book, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford UP 2008). My paper tried to respond to Schwartz's apophatic reading of George Herbert – here's an excerpt:

Now if I asked you, what is George Herbert’s most characteristic way of talking about God, I wonder what you’d immediately think of? Story or narrative? Positive doctrinal statement? Negation? No, surely the first thing that comes to mind is Herbert’s conceits (a technical term for extended, elaborate metaphors). He takes a small, seemingly insignificant item from everyday life – something from around the home – and turns it into a delicate picture of God’s activity, God’s involvement.

In one of his poems, the Sundays of our lives are likened to beads threaded on a string, adorning us and making us beautiful for God. In another poem, Christ’s graveclothes in the empty tomb (he loves writing about clothes) are a handkerchief with which to dry our tears when we’re sad and grieving:

Arise, Arise;
And with his burial-linen dry thine eyes:
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears, or blood, not want an handkerchief.

In ‘Holy Scriptures’ (I), Herbert compares the flat pages of scripture to God’s gracious condescension to the littleness of humanity. He says of scripture:

heav’n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.

Again, a homely picture based on a very simple, childlike observation: God’s word comes to us ‘flat’, and that means we can climb up to God by bending ourselves down low. With even the smallest effort, we can mount up to heaven, since it lies flat in holy scripture. A rather different picture from the mystical ascent of apophatic theology!

In another poem, ‘Jesu’, the human heart is like a children’s word puzzle: the letters are broken apart by affliction and scattered across the floor. When pieced back together, they spell both ‘I ease you’ (when the letters are spelled out individually: I-ES-U), and ‘JESU’ (when the letters are read all together). It’s a playful conceit, a little parable of God’s loving involvement with our lives – and with our language. (There’s a similar word-game in the poem ‘Colossians 3:3’, where the biblical text, my life is hid with Christ in God, is literally hidden in the lines of the poem, just as God’s work is hidden in the ordinary story of our lives.)

For a somewhat weirder conceit, consider ‘The Bag’. Here, the wound in Christ’s side is compared to a postman’s bag – if we want to ‘send or write’ anything to God, we can put our letters in this bag, the hole in Christ’s side, and like a reliable postman Christ will deliver our mail to God. He takes good care of our letters, placing them – here the conceit gets even stranger – placing them close to his heart:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Believe me, it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very near my heart.

Again, this is serious reflection on the way God becomes involved in human language. In Schwartz’s terms, we might even call this ‘language theory’, or poetics. But it takes the form not of positive theology or of negative theology, but of what Herbert himself calls ‘plainness’. Something like parable: a simple, rather humorous observation of daily life in an English village.

I won’t go on multiplying examples, since you can find these kinds of conceits on virtually every page of Herbert. It is his most characteristic speech-act, quite distinct from either apophatic or cataphatic strategies. Like the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels, Herbert can speak about God without so much as mentioning the word ‘God’. His poetry gives the impression that we can find God pretty much anywhere, that we can speak of God in virtually any language, especially the language of ‘plainness’, simplicity, the ordinary. ‘Heaven in ordinary’, as Herbert calls it – that is his language theory.


Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Ben. It constantly amazes me how theologically easy it is to be both more catophatic and more apophatic than the scriptures. Herbert – perhaps like Hamann – seems to get the sacredness of the ordinary, and the profoundly irreducible adequacy of the almost banal tissue of common human existence as the medium of choice on which God writes His love letters to us.

Anonymous said...

Ben's paper was the most constructively and illuminatingly critical contribution on the panel---though Altizer's presentation was notably louder. Well done.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks, Eric. It was a strange and hilarious experience to see Altizer perform. Face to face, he seems sweet and amiable — but then he gave his paper like an old Baptist hellfire sermon (except with more hellfire).

Elizabeth said...

Hi Ben!

This is Elizabeth over at WIT. I liked that you did some work on George Herbert. My favorite of his is "Prayer," whence comes "heaven in ordinarie" (which I am sure you know). The mechanism of that poem isn't quite one of a unitary conceit, but rather, a complex string of images patched together by commas and without the use of any active verbs. I love this poem because these images all somehow manage to invoke the different moments of prayer that range from gentle praise ("Exalted manna, gladnesse of the best") to enraged lament ("Engine against th' Almightie").

I want my husband Andrew, who's also in theology and writes for Memoria Dei, to use some of this poem for chapter titles or something in his dissertation, which is on prayer. Probably won't happen; ah well.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Elizabeth, I agree, "Prayer" is one of my favourites — I talked about it in detail in the paper. I'm really enjoying your new blog too.

Unknown said...

Wish I'd been there; Professor Schwartz delivered a paper on Hebert and Donne about a year ago here at UC; I enjoyed her paper and I'd love to have heard your response.

roger flyer said...

Love (III)
George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Adam Kotsko said...

Sorry I missed your panel as well as our attempt to schedule a meeting -- I had an interview during the former, then had to fly out during the latter. It's a shame to waste those rare times when we're both on the same side of the world.

Pamela said...

Nice poem Roger Flyer.

Ben Myers said...

Adam, yeah I'm really sorry we kept missing each other. Oh well, there's always San Francisco!

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