John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

STANLEY E. FISH
Letting Go: The Dialectic
of the Self in Herbert's Poetry

THY WORD IS ALL

In the third stanza of " The Flower," George Herbert gives voice to an article of faith which is itself a description of the action taking place in many of his poems:

We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

(19-21)

The point of doctrine is, of course, a seventeenth-century commonplace: the distinctions—of times, places, objects, persons—we customarily make as we move about in the world are the illusory creations of a limited perspective; if our visions were sufficiently enlarged, we would see that all things visible were not only framed by ( Hebrews 11:3) but are informed by (are manifestations of) the word that is God: "Thy word is all."

Herbert's poems characteristically ask us to experience the full force of this admission in all its humiliating implications. If God is all, the claims of other entities to a separate existence, including the claims of the speakers and readers of these poems, must be relinquished. That is, the insight that God's word is all is self-destructive, since acquiring it involves abandoning the perceptual and conceptual categories within which the self moves and

____________________
From Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. © 1972 by The Regents of the University of California. University of California Press, 1972.

-87-

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