Poets' Meeting: George Herbert, R. S. Thomas, and the Argument with God

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Poets' Meeting: George Herbert, R. S. Thomas, and the Argument with God. By William J. McGill. Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland, 2004. vii + 219 pp. $35.00 (paper).

Poets' Meeting is the fruit of William McGill's intention "to arrange an encounter between . . . my two favorite poets, George Herbert and R. S. Thomas" on the principle sketched by Charles Williams: "'to relate the poets to the poets, to explain poetry by poetry.'" In further justification of his interest, McGiIl also cites C. S. Lewis on Herberts excellence "'in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment'" (p. 2).

Bringing George Herbert and R. S. Thomas into dialogue in this way presents peculiar technical challenges. Each wrote prose that frames or even explicates his own poetry; but although Thomas enjoyed the (necessarily unilateral) privilege of editing and writing about Herbert, the heart of a "meeting" between the two must lie in reading the poems as poems on their own terms. Disappointingly, this is not what McGiIl gives us. He has laid out his book thematically: "calling as priests and poets. . . . ministry, the Bible, the Eucharist, and corporate and personal prayer. . . . faith, sin, love, reason and science, and nature. . . . Christmas, Good Friday and Easter" (pp. 10-11).

Although McGiIl candidly (and repeatedly) quotes Thomas's assertion that "religious poetry is poetry, not religion" (p. 3), his analysis includes frustratingly little discussion of the actual poetics or characteristic rhetoric of either poet. McGiII repeatedly locates the essential differences between Herbert and Thomas in the 300 plus years of intellectual history that separate them-the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions, and so on-but underemphasizes more pertinent "divides" of poetic self-understanding. Thomas sounds unlike Herbert not merely because of "the Scientific Revolution, the enlightenment, industrialization, colonialism and post-colonialism, quantum physics, and one could go on" (p. …