Theory and Theology in George Herbert's Poetry: Divinitie, and Poesie, Met

By Elizabeth Clarke | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION
Poetry, Signification, and Silence

Eventually, all voices in a written dialogic discourse collapse into one rhetorical and typographical surface. Herbert is all too aware that no external voice actually intrudes into his poetry: at least, if it does, it speaks in his own familiar accents. However, he is so committed to the possibility of representation and communication that he is willing to take any risks involved in representing the divine Word in human words. Chapter 7 of The Country Parson, 'The Parson Preaching', silently acknowledges that all the Christian orator has is human language. In the Reformation it was nominalist philosophy that brought this awareness to the fore, as Stephen Ozment suggests:

In the final analysis, words are the connecting link between the mind and reality and between the soul and God. Man must come to grips with the world around him through 'signs voluntarily instituted'; and he must work out his salvation on the basis of 'laws voluntarily and contingently established' by God. In the final analysis, all he has is willed verbal relations.1

'Willed verbal relations' is a perfect description of Herbert's spirituality. He proceeds 'as if' it is the rhetoric that creates the link between God and man: he has no other option. Words are the medium by which God carries on a relationship with human beings, and in a universe where all things are dictated by God's will, that relationship is crucial for the believer's survival.

Written Scripture demands from human beings a stream of loving discourse that includes prayer and song, however problematic this may be in theory or practice: as Herbert affirms in a poem that shows full awareness of the difficulties of composition, 'The Altar':

if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.

____________________
1
S. Ozment, "'Mysticism, Nominalism and Dissent'", in W. Trinkaus and H. Oberman (eds.), The Pursuit of Holiness ( Leiden, 1974), 80.

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