Academic journal article Cithara

Productive Discord and George Herbert's "Artillerie"

Academic journal article Cithara

Productive Discord and George Herbert's "Artillerie"

Article excerpt

The body of metaphorsGeorge Herbert puts forth in defining the nature of prayerand the shifting complexion of that bodydominate the mood and course of poems in The Temple, a collection Herbert referred to as "a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master" (Walton 110). For Herbert, these poems are prayers and many bear the marks of conflict. Speaking to this conflict is "Prayer" (I), in which Herbert maps out his ideology concerning the full breadth of functions and capacities prayer might have, but in mapping out this ideology Herbert inevitably suggests the range of power his own poems possess. As Herbert's poem defines it, prayer-that is, any exchange between humankind and God, whether liturgical or private, spoken or written, lyrical or other-is not merely "the Churches banquet," or "Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse," it is also an "Engine against th' Almightie, sinners towre, / Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear" ("Prayer [I]" 1, 9, 5-6).1 It is an instrument of combat, a weapon capable of and perhaps most effective when inflicting violence. As a pillar thrusting humankind into the sphere of God, it is a fortress designed to protect and even advance sieges. It is God's own medium used against him.

While the violence of Herbert's language makes clear the effectiveness of prayer, the poem is far more reserved in answering the question, "Effective for what?" The closest it comes to an answer is in its closing enigmatic definition-"something understood"-which Joseph Summers refers to as "both an abandonment of metaphor and its final crowning" (183), whereas E. B. Greenwood considers it "a conclusion in which nothing is concluded" (28).2 In discussing the mystical theology in the poem, Andrew James Harvey has recently added that while this "something understood" gets the last word in the poem, and in that sense "the greatest weight and emphasis, it is also the least assertive of the twenty-seven assertions. It steps back from the heretofore cataphatic program, and, if it can be said to assert anything, it is that language cannot suffice." All previous definitions find themselves "trumped by a non-definition, the only phrase in the poem devoid of metaphor" (135-6).

Of course Herbert is being deliberately evasive, providing the capstone to what Mario Di Cesare calls the poet's finest "raid on the inarticulate" (325). But given the poem's martial metaphors, Herbert is also suggesting that this "something" resists understanding or adequate assimilation in the absence of grappling and sweat, that there is something finally unproductive and flawed about interactions with God characterized by unending amity and accord. As Harvey points out, the earlier definitions are "in no way canceled out or nullified.... The positive theology of the first thirteen-anda-half lines, rather, is paradoxically affirmed; these lines are necessary steps on the ascent toward a greater contemplation beyond language" (136). Contained among those steps, let us not forget, is uncompromising aggression.

The notion of grappling with God finds its precedent most ostensibly, at least in material form, in the Old Testament figure of Jacob. And many poems in The Temple read to a large extent as figurative reenactments of the scene in which Jacob tenaciously holds on to his opponent, insisting, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Gen. 32:26)? Certainly Herbert had this instance in mind throughout much of The Temple, his own verbal grip on and exertions against God recalling Jacob's own physical grips and exertions.

But where Jacob's biblical adversary does not defeat Jacob, or even overpower him enough to abandon the altercation, Herbert's speakers at multiple points acknowledge the superior strength of God, emphasizing the "brittle[ness]" of humanity, the idea that we are mere "crumb[s] of dust," "weak disabled thing[s]," "weed[s]," or, perhaps more optimistically, "flowers that glide" ("The Windows" [2]; "The Temper [I]" [14]; "The Crosse" [17, 30]; "The Flower" [44]). …

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