Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Unstrung Conversations: Herbert's Negotiations with God

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Unstrung Conversations: Herbert's Negotiations with God

Article excerpt

In the fourteen-line catalogue of metaphors that constitutes Herbert's "Prayer (I)," the speaker describes prayer as a "soul in paraphrase" (3) and "something understood" (14).(1) Both render the subtle experience of (and hope for) perfect communication between self and God in the act of praying. Both capture a sense of deep psychological attunement in which the self's own "paraphrase" will be "understood" by the other. "Something" suggests an indeterminacy that is inclusive at the same time that it specifies: whatever "something" is, it will be heard, interpreted, and acknowledged in the intermediary space of psychical connection. Indeed, "something understood" seems to exist in what object-relations psychoanalytic theory has termed the transitional space, created by two minds sharing the "in between" of mutual understanding.(2) A restless effort to find the "something understood," I believe, characterizes the urgency of so many poems throughout The Temple. And it is perhaps that very "something understood" that becomes the site, the medium, for the delicate negotiations involved in Herbert's attempts to retain, in the face of a powerful God, the viability of his human self.

While the terrain of the Herbertian speaker's interactions with God has been formidably surveyed via a range of critical strategies, the preponderance of accounts renders the poet nearly speechless, arguing on both religious and artistic grounds that Herbert disappears as active agent of his own writing. Scholars broadly following Rosemond Tuve's A Reading of George Herbert regard The Temple as an expression of Herbert's Anglican theology. Barbara Lewalski insists in Protestant Poetics that "the new Protestant aesthetics" is "the very foundation" of Herbert's poetry (283), and Richard Strier is similarly adamant about the inseparability of Herbert's verse and theology: the poems only become "intelligible," Strier writes, when read in the context of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, without which we "miss or distort the actual shape and force of many of the poems" (65). Diana Benet's stated purpose in Secretary of Praise is "to elucidate Herbert's poetry by reference to grace and charity as two of the major themes of The Temple ..."(2). Interpretations such as Strier's and Benet's "hold fast" to a sense of the permanence of the individual in relation to God; Benet, for instance, writes that "the `collectivity' that is the Church, or the Christian community, does not deprive the individual self of its experience or of its particular perception of the experience" (50). But by binding that self to the strictures of theology, they also present a vision of Herbert as unexceptionally, even abjectly, submissive to doctrine.(3)

Less concerned with Herbert's work as a documentation of theological principles than as a measure of the ontological persistence of poetry, Stanley Fish in his influential Self-Consuming Artifacts and Barbara Leah Harman (responding to Fish in Costly Monuments: Representations of the Self in George Herbert's Poetry) home in on Herbert's efforts toward self-realization in a way that pays tribute to the drama of self-other dynamics, where nothing less than the poet's claim to an autonomous identity is at stake. Both, however, ultimately diminish Herbert's status as a separate self capable of independent creative production. Fish proposes that Herbert's lyrics "can be viewed as a graduated series of `undoings' and `letting go's': and move and have our (separate) beings ... the undoing of the self as an independent entity ... an undoing of the poem as the product of a mind distinct from the mind of God" (157-58).(4) Fish claims that Herbert "lets his poems go, so that both they and the consciousness whose independence they were supposedly asserting give themselves up to God" (190). "Letting go" signifies "the discarding of those very habits of thought and mind that preserve our dignity by implying our independence" (157). …

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