"Betwixt this world and that of grace": George Herbert's potential spaces.
Guernsey, Julia. Essays in Literature v.22. no 2. p196-215. 22.09.1995.
In line two of "Affliction (IV)," George Herbert's speaker begs, "Lord hunt me not," apparently addressing a rather aggressive deity. If the word "hunt" is to be taken literally, God is closing in on the speaker. By line three, without even a single word transition, the speaker claims to be "a thing forgot" - forgotten, one may assume, by a neglectful God. In order to imagine himself from a God's-eye view as a thing, the speaker must fear that God has distanced himself both physically and emotionally. After all, subject-object dualism is contingent on separation. So is God too close, hunting the speaker, or is he too far away, either forgetting the speaker altogether or perceiving him as a mere object? The speaker seems unsure (Schoenfeldt 128). In either case, the speaker concludes the stanza calling himself "a wonder tortured in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace," a diagnosis of problematic interpersonal space which fits both situations (5-6).
Given how rapidly the speaker of "Affliction IV" shifts from one perception of interpersonal space to the next, one may assume that objective space is not the issue; the speaker's sense of relatedness is. Psychoanalytically speaking, the ambivalence the speaker manifests between a desire for distance from an Other and a desire for closeness is essentially the conflict toddlers face as they grapple with their first awareness of separateness from their mothers. This connection makes it possible to identify the relational space in "Affliction IV," and, as I shall argue, in other Herbert poems, as of a particular type which D. W. Winnicott calls potential space.(1) Understanding the concept of potential space and the closely related concept of transitional objects will enable Herbert's readers to appreciate more fully the developmental function of Christianity for some believers of Herbert's day and the deeply human significance of Herbert's utmost art.
Potential space is the precursor not only of later interpersonal spaces but also of later psychic spaces to be populated by introjects - internalized representations of important others (Winnicott, Playing 80; Cf. 96-97). The quality and durability of potential space contribute to the child's formation of boundaries and to his or her capacities to be alone (at first with the aid of the transitional object), to be intimate with others (as with the transitional object and the mother it represents), to play, and later to participate in cultural phenomena like theater, art, and literature (capacities contingent on the survival of the as if attitude first available in potential space).(2)
Potential space is also the space of the sacraments, particularly the eucharist, in which material objects, namely bread and wine, are believed to embody Christ's presence or in radical Protestant interpretations to represent his presence, even though Christ is believed to be physically absent. Whether construed as the extension of Christ's incarnation or as a memento of Christ's former bodily presence, the bread and wine are "transitional objects" as Winnicott interprets them. Whatever their ontological status, they are symbols of the Other which enable believers to retain faith in his continuing existence and eventual return (Winnicott, Maturational Processes 184-85; Playing 14).
Other aspects of Christian belief also parallel transitional phenomena. To facilitate her child's transition from merger to separateness, a mother has an important job to do: she must survive the child's psychic destruction of her, not only tolerating the child's ambivalence, but also continuing to be a good-enough mother through one moment's kicking and the next moment's clinging. In surviving the child's destruction, the mother comes to seem more real to the child, more permanent, less susceptible to alteration by the child's positive or negative wishes or behavior; thus, the child's image of the mother in relation to the self becomes more stable (Winnicott, Playing 90-94; Chodorow 73). Analogously, in conventional Christian belief, Christ survives destruction by his children in his death and resurrection. Brooke Hopkins argues that his survival solidifies for believers his permanence and reliability as the object of their love and worship and firmly establishes his identity as their messiah.
In "The Dawning," Herbert's speaker grieves over Christ's absence not so much because of Christ's
death as because of his resurrection and ascension. The speaker comforts his "sad heart" with a relic
the Other has left behind:
Arise arise;As Debora K. Shuger asserts, "the strips of burial cloth . . . signify both (Christ's) triumph and His absence" (113-14). At the same time they signify an extended sense of Christ's presence. The shroud or handkerchief is a transitional object, a symbol that the Other survives, a piece of evidence that he will return.
One might say the same of the Bible in "The H. Scriptures I." In the poem's first lines, the speaker
addresses his Bible: "Oh Book! infinite sweetnesse! let my heart / Suck ev'ry letter, and a hony gain"
(1-2). Although the image is of honey, the lines draw upon a well-established tradition of envisioning
Christ as a nursing mother (Bynum 110-69). But here, the scriptures serve Christ's maternal function
(Wall 250). Later in the poem, the speaker further indicates the Bible's significance as an object which
stands in the place of the Other:
Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasseIn this passage, scriptures not only constitute a mode of God's continuing presence in the world, specifically by being "heav'ns Lidger here"; they also serve the maternal function of mirroring God's children, enabling believers to establish their identities in relation to God even in the absence of the incarnate Other (Cf. Harman 183; Veith 192). Furthermore, the scriptures represent God's caretaking function, specifically emblematized here by washing.
As these examples demonstrate, transitional phenomena in Herbert's poems serve significant functions. They enable the believer to retain faith in a Lord who sometimes seems absent. They also serve in loco parentis after Christ's resurrection - as objects which, occupying the Other's place, further the Other's influence on the believer's development. "The Collar" further illustrates the importance of transitional phenomena in The Temple, showing how they serve to remind Herbert's speaker who he is when he has forgotten.
In "The Collar," Herbert's speaker attempts, like a rebellious child, to free himself from the constraints of
religious life, as emblematized by the collar. Striking the communion table, he vows to abandon his
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?As Jeffrey Hart points out, the speaker refers ironically to a number of eucharistic objects. Believing that, through his tantrum, he will free himself to seize the fruits of "double pleasures," he fails to appreciate the way in which his references to "bloud," to "cordiall fruit," and, in ensuing passages, to "wine," "corn," and the "fruit" of pleasure tie him to the "board" he is attempting to desert (8-11, 17, 1). These images of wine and grain hold the speaker's words inside a metaphorical frame ultimately signifying the body and blood of the Other. Even proclaiming his separateness, the speaker speaks through the Other's languages, and he speaks of objects intrinsic to the potential space between himself and the Other.
Oblivious to this fact, the speaker swears, "He that forbears / To suit and serve his need, / Deserves his load" (30-32). He vows, that is, that the man who remains dependent on another rather than seizing independence suffers pain of his own making. Michael Schoenfeldt argues that "the speaker here imagines a solipsistic and, isolated social economy" (108). If so, the speaker momentarily grasps for the pseudo-autonomy of a false self.(3) No struggle for genuine autonomy can be waged on solipsistic ground; it must be learned and maintained inside a relational context. Hence Christ's continuing intrapsychic presence, as posited, however inadvertently, in the speaker's language, more facilitates than undermines the speaker's aspirations for selfhood.
Prosody in the poem further evidences that the speaker remains under the Other's protection even as
he raves. As is common in Herbert's poems, prosody in "The Collar" both expresses the speaker's affect
and demonstrates an awareness which transcends his point of view. Although formal experimentation
pushes the limits of formal order - at least as they would have been understood in an age in which free
verse was not yet invented - the form nevertheless brings order out of chaos by preserving some
boundaries. While line lengths vary somewhat unpredictably, no line shrinks to fewer than two feet or
swells to more than five, and while rhymes come in no set order, all the lines rhyme.(4) As the speaker
calms down, the last four lines clarify the prosodic boundaries (the full range of line lengths) in which
his words have been contained:
But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wildeIn saying "Me thoughts I heard one calling," the speaker makes no objective assertion about the Lord's presence. Hence, these words place the poem's events more in potential space, where the Other's presence is subjectively real whether the Other is objectively there or not, than in a physical interpersonal space. Schoenfeldt claims that the speaker's "uncertainty about the nature of this voice . . . records a lingering solipsism, where inner and outer, imagination and reality are difficult to distinguish" (108). This comment insightfully summarizes the essence of the transitional-phase - by definition a stage when the distinction between internal and external phenomena is not yet clear - but, here especially, the word solipsism misses the mark. Far from being solipsistic, transitional phenomena are a defense against the threat of separation at a time when the child is unable to cope with it.
Thus, as Richard Strier asserts, "Whether the call to which Herbert presents himself responding is objective or subjective does not matter" (226). The speaker's need for an Other prevails in any case, his own psyche scripting the inevitability of his return to his Lord and itself functioning as the machinery through which the Divine Other intervenes.(5) In threatening to separate from his Lord, the 'speaker terrifies himself, his terror being evidenced by his falling apart. As Roger B. Rollin points out, at the height of his rage the speaker manifests all the symptoms of what Eric Erickson calls "identity confusion - a split of self images in a loss of centrality, a sense of dispersion, and a fear of dissolution" (153). This speaker is simply not ready to stand alone; he must invoke the presence of the Other psychically as the antidote to the loss of self his declaration of independence has entailed. The mere thought of the Lord's voice restores a sense of identity - and of ego integrity - to the speaker by reminding him of an interpersonal order in which he is child to his Lord.
Although it seems fair to say that the child-persona's passing flirtation with solipsism has temporarily undermined his desire to be a self, Barbara Leah Harman overlooks an important half of developmental truth in implying that the speaker gives over the self he has fought for when he submits to the Other's voice (65-90). The return to the Other is as essential to the child's eventual selfhood as the rebellion was. If the Other survives and does not retaliate for the tantrum, the child moves one step closer to understanding that being a self does not entail abandoning or being abandoned by others.
In "The Collar," the speaker's frenzied attempt to achieve separation from the Other is quite characteristic of a child in transition. So is his sudden desire for reunion. In fact, the vacillation between these extremes epitomizes the transitional phase. Also, the poem itself, as a material re-enactment of a relationship in which the actual Other may be absent, may be construed as a sort of transitional object.
Transitional phenomena, then, are intrinsic to Christian beliefs and serve important functions in The Temple. Some difference does exist, of course, in denominational preferences regarding potential spaces. Particularly during the Reformation, radical Protestants assaulted the potential spaces hallowed by sacramentalist religion. They redefined the meaning of the eucharist. They destroyed icons and sacramental objects, deeming them idolatrous (George and George 348 ff., 360-62; Scarisbrick 162-65). They disapproved of a government which permitted theater and other material manifestations of culture. They repudiated England's leaders, also, for allowing certain sorts of recreation, particularly on Sundays (George and George 140 ff.; Christopher Hill 183-202). Games believed to "build character and a spirit of teamwork" displaced more idle toys in their children's play (Ozemont 141). The "Word of God," appreciated more for its "literal" spiritual meaning as preached by ministers than for its objective presence as a Holy Book to be handled with reverence - genuflected to, kissed - gradually, among radical Protestants displaced the sacraments as the most important sign of Christ's presence in the world (Christopher Hill 30-78; George and George 334-41).
It seems metaphorically appropriate at the very least and perhaps psychoanalytically meaningful that, to establish fully their separation from the "Mother church," seventeenth-century Reformers so adamantly condemned orthodox potential spaces. Their condemnation was not without irony, of course. As Stephen Greenblatt has shown, the boundaries between reality and the sort of consensual imagination or group hallucination that makes drama successful may not always have been clear to people of the Renaissance, Puritans included.(6) What looks like a progression from magical to scientific ways of thinking may have been a product as much of fear as of faith. Were the repudiation of priestly "magic" a matter of mere disbelief in inexplicable phenomena, the Puritans in America, for example, would hardly have burned a number of Salem's citizens as "witches." This incapacity to distinguish what is empirically real from what is imagined or believed suggests that even Puritans continued to occupy a somewhat darkened potential space.
Unlike the Puritans, Herbert, I think, wrestles with God within conventional potential spaces: those of religion and those of art. "Herbert's poems generally grapple with the problems that most people first encounter before age two, problems typically worked out inside potential space: how to love someone who makes one angry; how to deal with loss or separation; how to be a self and be pleasing to others at the same time; when and how to submit when what an important Other does is not what one desires or when what an important Other demands is not what one wants to do; how not to be too lonely when physically isolated; how not to be too lonely in a crowd.
These issues are as close to being fundamental human dilemmas as any can be, and their resolution is, for most people, a lifelong project. But the way these first dependency conflicts get resolved, the teleology of potential space, may differ from culture to culture. Whereas one society may value autonomy as an ideal - for men, for women, or for both sexes - another may encourage submissiveness to and dependence on authority. King James's strategy of representing himself as a mother feeding his subjects and sacrificing himself for their welfare was by no means psychologically unsophisticated.(7) Appealing to the anaclitic tendencies of his subjects, to their desire to be fed and protected, was a way of inclining them toward the merger side of the potential space between ruler and subject. Of course, events leading to and culminating in the civil war of 1640 prove that the strategy failed.
The conflict between a desire for closeness and a desire for distance evidenced in poems like "Affliction IV" and "The Collar" is symptomatic not only of fundamental human struggle but also of the tensions of Herbert's day. While Herbert may have distanced himself from the demands of secular authority, proclaiming his intention to "plainly say my God, my king" (either in that order or with God as his sole ruler), he nevertheless found comfort and a sense of identity in the potential spaces sanctioned or allowed by the English church ("Jordan I," 15).(8) Herbert's speaker makes this point most clearly in "The British Church." Addressing his "deare Mother," the Anglican church, the speaker represents the Catholic extreme as a "painted" woman, the radical Protestant extreme as a female "undrest" (1, 11-12). Perhaps the implication is that the speaker feels seduced by other churches. But the maternal comforts offered in the potential spaces of his own church, in ceremonies "neither too mean nor yet too gay," finally seem more attractive (8).
We may now turn specifically to the potential space of art. If, from the speaker's perspective, Herbert's poems function as transitional objects, then the poems do much more than document the self-Other relationship; they further the speaker's growth in relation to the Other, contributing to his capacity to love.(9) This means that "art" in The Temple is a far more poignant endeavor than many critics' operative definitions of Herbert's art imply. Verse is a means for the speaker to become more human as he discovers himself in relation to an Other.(10)
Because The Temple includes so many poems about poetry, many of them raising serious questions about the legitimacy of religious art, debate over Herbert's disposition toward his verse has been a prevalent theme in Herbert criticism for generations. One of the more compelling arguments about whether Herbert's poems manifest a respect for ceremony and art or whether they reflect or even enact a Calvinistic iconoclasm is Joust Daalder's. On surveying both the long term debate and Herbert's poems about poetry, Daalder concludes that Herbert's attitude is inconsistent, varying from one poem to another.
Daalder's solution to a forty-year debate is inevitable and refreshingly honest. And indeed, the question for those who wish to argue for a "Herbert" who respected verse is not whether the speaker sometimes repudiates his verses but why he does so. Even granting the vacillation which Daalder bluntly asserts, I believe that Herbert's author-persona consistently attempts to place his poems in a sacramental frame, one which facilitates the speaker's growth in relation to the Other by demarcating a potential space where the relationship can be worked out. In treating his poetry like a transitional object, Herbert's speaker reveals a profound respect for verse. Destructive turns in his attitude toward his poetry occur only when he fails in his goal of including the Other or when the Other's prolonged absence causes the potential space of the poem to collapse. Thus, as I shall argue, the problem with the poems the speaker rejects is not that they are idolatrously presumptuous in attempting to embody the Other; it is that they fail to include the Other, often despite the speaker's wishes to the contrary. Precisely out of his reverence for the potential space of religious art, Herbert's speaker denounces, even destroys, his more solipsistic verses.
At first glance, the idea that Herbert's poems transpire in the potential space between the believer and God may appear merely tautological. Art by definition occupies an in-between space analogous to that of a small child, where an as if attitude mediates between what is and what is not. For the child, a piece of cloth may come to symbolize the self-Other relation, standing in for the real Other in periods of temporary separation and representing the Other as created by the self, even though the Other in reality operates outside the realm of the child's omnipotence. Analogously, the words of poetry may mediate between presence and absence, standing as material signifiers for absent or imagined Others.
Herbert's poetry is more complicated, however, in that it always involves at least two overlapping potential spaces: that of art and that of religion. More often than not, it combines with these a third: the potential space of a child persona, who relates to God as a primary parent. Ontological assumptions about these potential spaces differ. Most artists understand, at least on a rational level, the difference between representation and embodiment of the represented object. The potential space of religion is considerably more controversial. In sacramentalist religion - including, I think, Herbert's - the Other is believed to participate in the potential space to such a degree that he is really present. The toddler's experience of potential space falls in between the artist's and the communicant's since the very origin of the space is a developmental stage when distinctions between interior and exterior phenomena, between desire and actuality, are still blurred. Is the child's transitional object a genuine embodiment of the self/Other unit and a real emissary of the mother in her absence? Yes and no.
Herbert's poems continually challenge critically imposed boundaries between art and enactment. In "Jordan I," for example, the speaker addresses the issue of poetic fictions: "Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair / Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?" (1-2). The speaker implies that he will seek to make his verse becoming by taking as his subject matter the "truth," in which there is inherent "beautie." But he also implies that he will cause "truth" to become a verse. He will seek to write lines which "do their duty" to a "true" rather than "a painted chair" (4-5). The Platonic references to the ontological vacuity of mundane art suggest that "Herbert" hopes to infuse verse with reality, to embody in a new kind of poetry (or to enact through it) an ontologically real relationship.(11)
So what does the speaker reject in poems which critics have called iconoclastic? Does he not critique
the "idolatrous" assumption that God could be present in textual reality, that God would participate in
the potential space of the poem? I think just the opposite is true. In "Jordan (II)," for example,
Herbert's speaker reports on a failed group of poems from his past:
When first my lines of heav'nly joy made mention,Critics have noted how these stanzas enact some of the very mistakes they deride. The phrase "curling with metaphors" is itself metaphorical, for instance, and prosody underscores the joke, mimetically curling through enjambment the last three lines of the first stanza and "decking" lines on top of each other just as the speaker rhetorically decorates the "sense" (Skulsky 137; D. M. Hill 349).
But an even bigger joke is the presumption of a speaker so preoccupied with his gift to God that he
hardly consults God in the process. The "I" in these stanzas is attending not to the mine/thine
relationship so often reflected in The Temple but to his own performance.(12) Thus, the most
frequently recurring words are I and my, and when finally the speaker does mention "the sunne" in line
eleven, the reference is metaphorical, hence indirect (Schoenfeldt 168). It is followed in line twelve by
a third person pronoun (as if Christ were not there). The speaker of these stanzas parodies a former
self who positioned himself outside of a relationship with the God he sought to honor. The speaker
pinpoints this error in the last stanza:
As flames do work and winde when they ascend,In the past the speaker sought to "clothe the sunne" in a verse into which he wove himself. Rather than putting on Christ as the Biblical injunction advises, he "bustled" to make himself the cloak of Christ, obscuring the light of the "sunne" in the false lustre of the selfs creation (Schoenfeldt 170). Instead of seeking to further a genuine relationship (as he does in this poem when he voices his friend's words, which take the form of direct address) he sought to create a false relationship. The idol was not the artifact; the idol was the too self-conscious self cut off from God in the production of the artifact.
The solution to this problem is not to negate art; it is to discover art in the space between self arid Divine Other, the potential space where the self meets the Other psychically by re-membering the Other in and remembering the Other through a transitional object.(13) As the speaker claims in "A true Hymne," the words "my joy, my life, my crowne," words of the self's direct address to God, "If truly said . . . may take part / Among the best in art" (5, 7-8). The point is not to destroy art as a merely external phenomenon; it is to bring "outward and visible signs" into conjunction with "inward and invisible" realities (Gallagher 508): "The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords, / Is, when the soul unto the lines accords" (9-10).
The speaker clarifies his aesthetic in the last half of "A true Hymne":
He who craves all the minde,If a poet's words merely rhyme, God, who commands "Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind," is right to complain (Bloch 60). But also, as Diane McColley points out, if only the words rhyme while the self is in a disharmonious relationship to God and the soul is in a discordant relationship to the lines, the poet is putting the cart before the horse (127). In attending to craft (the outward sign) while neglecting emotion (the inward reality) the poet leaves God "somewhat" behind in making "his" verse. The pronoun reference is equivocal; if God is abandoned as the poet prioritizes art over religion, then poems meant to be God's are in fact only the poet's.
On the other hand, when the poet operates in relation to God, writing out of a real desire to love, God co-authors the poem, manifesting himself in and through it. God supplies a rhyme word which denotes a restored relationship ("Loved") and symbolizes through the fact of the rhyme renewed harmony between self and Other.(14) The outward sign is not displaced; rather it is improved by God's participation.
In "The Quidditie," Herbert's speaker as author addresses what verse is and how it serves a function of
the relationship between the self and God:
My God, a verse is not a crown,A transitional object is both material and subjective, a thing infused with the presence of an Other. Here the speaker denies both the materiality of his verse (The verse is not a thing - a crown, a sword, a lute) and its subjectivity (The verse cannot do what people can do - vault, dance, play, travel). The very denial suggests that the speaker may have viewed his verse previously as a "subjective object." In either case, even after denying the materiality and subjectivity of his verse, the speaker asserts in stanza three that verse can serve one key transitional function; it can be used to bring the self into contact with God.(15)
"The Forerunners" not only illustrates that the speaker believes his verses facilitate his relationship to God; it also dramatizes how the speaker relates to his poetry as a transitional object per se. In the poem, the speaker grieves over the loss of his "sweet phrases" and "lovely metaphors." Though the words "Thou art still my God" are all his poems can say, "that dittie" is enough to please the Divine Other, and the speaker asserts "if I please him, I write fine and wittie" (6, 11-12). The rhyme itself is "wittie" in being so far from "fine."(16) But the point is that the poetry is not meant to be "fine and wittie" in a worldly sense. The poems are meant to serve as a means of furthering a relationship, not as a way of dazzling the Other with the self's verbal facility.
Of particular relevance to my argument that Herbert's poems transpire in the speaker's transitional space is that poetry in "The Forerunners" serves as the object of the speaker's affectionate address: "Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Hony of roses, whither wilt thou flie?" (19-20). The speaker addresses his language as one might address an object of romantic interest - and as Herbert's speaker sometimes addresses Christ (Schoenfeldt 102; Fish 218). In serving as a means for connecting self to Other, the poems become, like the Other, love objects. Of course, in the same stanza, the speaker rebukes his poetry for abandoning him and treats it like an ungrateful inferior: "Fie, thou wilt soil thy broider'd coat, / And hurt thy self, and him that sings the note" (23-24). This fluctuation between treating the verse as a superior and treating it as an inferior may more prove than disprove the transitional nature of the verse. Transitional objects represent both the Other in relation to the self and the self in relation to the Other. Sometimes, a child treats the object as he or she would treat the parent, appealing to it for soothing. At other times, the child parents the object - caresses it, sings to it, or even gives it instructions - doing for the object what the parent does for the self.(17)
There are, of course, poems in which the speaker rejects his verse not because of any apparent fault of the speaker or poem but only because of a failed attempt at invoking God's participation. Paradoxically the destruction of a transitional object sometimes falls within the province of transitional phenomena. For the toddler, a serious disturbance in the self-Other relationship threatens both the sense of self and the sense of the Other which the transitional object represents. According to Winnicott, if the mother abandons the child, whether deliberately or because of circumstances beyond her control, the transitional object loses its power prematurely (Playing and Reality 15, 96-98; Mother and Child 187). Similarly in Herbert, God's perceived absences disrupt the speaker's ego boundaries, sometimes so much that the speaker tries to destroy the poem because he no longer feels that it unites him to God. When God returns, however, poetry becomes meaningful again.
In a series of four poems beginning with "The Search" and ending with "The Flower," Herbert's speaker goes through several stages of grief over God's absence.(18) At first he uses his poetry to attempt to maintain contact with the Other; next he despairs of the Other's return and attempts to destroy this transitional object; then he attempts to address the Other again, in part by turning to other transitional objects; and finally he rejoices when the Other returns and again takes pleasure in his potential space.
"The Search" opens the sequence, cataloguing, among other problems, the disturbances in the
speaker's sense of self-boundaries and interpersonal space which are intrinsic to his experience of the
My knees pierce th'earth, mine eies the skie;In this, the second stanza, the speaker expresses the magnitude of God's absence by imagining the self as stretched from earth to sky; the stretching and contracting lines underscore the point.
In stanzas five and six, the speaker seeks God by sending a sigh "Wing'd like an arrow" and another "tun'd . . . / Into a grone" (19, 21-22). Grief, externalized as a sigh, becomes an arrow - a standard metaphorical transformation to be sure, but also a progression characteristic of a child's potential space, where distinctions between internal and external phenomena are unclear. Here the magical transformation of one kind of thing (a sigh) into another (an arrow) seems as possible as the transformation of felt emotion (grief) into expressed emotion (the sigh). Also characteristic is the aggressiveness suggested by the arrow image. Although he does not say it directly, the speaker is angry that God is gone.
Determining that it is God's will to be absent, the speaker offers in the last stanzas a detailed picture of
the disturbance in intra-psychic and interpersonal space which results:
Thy will such a strange distance is,The absence of a deeply loved Other is quite traumatic for a small child. Perhaps it is even more so for Herbert's speaker, whose Other cannot be absent except by choice. God is everywhere, yet in this poem he is nowhere to be found. God's will itself seems here to be the epicenter of a spatial rupture. The speaker figures God's will as a "strange distance" where the geometrically impossible meeting of East and West, of parallels, expresses what Lacan calls "the impossible Real," the child's unspeakable sense of helplessness and of complete collapse of the self in the Other's absence.
The speaker attempts to fill the space between himself and God in two ways. Negatively, as he claims, his grief grows large enough to fill the gap created by God's immeasurable distance. Positively, though more implicitly, the poem itself fills the gap between self and Other, constituting a mode of imagined contact, "Making two one," through entertaining the possibility that God is near enough to hear the complaint.
But the transitional object cannot survive too long in the Other's absence. In "Grief," the speaker, no
longer trying to address God, addresses the poem, and does so in an attempt to silence it:
Verses, ye are too fine a thing, too wiseIn the earlier two thirds of the poem, the speaker has grieved over the absence not of the Other (who is not even mentioned until the last line) but of tears. Here, the speaker personifies his verses not only by addressing them but also by claiming the verses have "feet" which are capable of running. The speaker requests that the verse give this capacity of running to the speaker's eyes, which could then, ostensibly, run with tears.
Unless the reader looks to the previous poem, the cause of the speaker's grief will remain obscure. In the context of the sequence, the poem continues discussion of a grieving process over the Other's absence. The pain has become so severe that, to indicate how the speaker's heart is breaking, the verse breaks, as signified in the last line by an abrupt departure from a line length which has not varied for sixteen lines and by an abandonment of rhyme. Of course, the poem is not literally destroyed; the prosodic breakdown expresses the grief which "excludes both measure, tune and time."(19) Although the verse as transitional object, a thing, gets broken, the poetry transcends ordinary linguistic limitation.
And even the collapse of the speaker's potential space is temporary. In "The Crosse," the speaker turns to another sort of transitional object, a "strange and uncouth thing," specifically a cross (1). In stanza one the cross is a literal thing. In later stanzas it also becomes a symbol for the speaker's suffering. Thus, the cross is a material object which binds the self to the Other whom it typically represents.
Perhaps because this transitional object enables him to do so, the speaker again addresses God directly, in order to argue with him. The speaker complains that he has entered himself and his family into God's service after "much delay, / Much wrastling, many a combate" and now "this deare end, / So much desir'd, is giv'n, to take away / My power to serve thee" (7-8, 8-10). Even having surrendered to the will of the Other at the b
ehavioral level, the speaker continues to resist accepting the Other's will
Thus the poem continues the theme of grief developed in the previous two poems and returns to the
conflict between God's will and the speaker's, a theme developed especially in "The Search." However,
the issue has changed somewhat. Here the conflict seems to be less over God's absence per se, than
over God's refusal to ease the speaker's suffering. The speaker implies that, were it not for his bodily
suffering, he could serve his lord better. A second "ague" is the speaker's memory of former beneficent
intentions toward God which he now lacks the capacity to carry out (13-14). Except in the "sight
thereof, where strength does sting," in the "sight" of the cross and the presence of Christ which it
represents, the speaker feels "weak" and "disabled" (18, 17). Yet the Christian imperative, "Take up thy
cross and follow," demands that the speaker surrender his strength in order to gain Christ's, moving
backwards through potential space to a position of absolute dependence on an Other whose will seems,
at times, inexplicable, even cruel. The speaker vocalizes his sense of God's cruelty in stanza four:
Besides, things sort not to my will,This struggle against an Other's will is precisely the struggle of a small child. The child's submission, while perhaps necessary from the parent's perspective, is likely to involve, from the child's perspective, the loss of a newly discovered sense of self. At the same time, the refusal to submit risks, from the child's point of view, the loss of an Other who is the self's foundation. A toddler's tantrum thus expresses not merely rage but the terrified confusion of a double bind. In a Christian frame of reference, the imperative to be "crucified with Christ" makes the loss of self through submission an even more explicit demand on the Other's part. Herbert's speaker manifests the small child's perplexity when what an Other requires seems not only in conflict with the child's desires but manifestly painful. As Stanley Fish points out, "The only recourse is to turn to the very person whose action is the problem's cause" (186).
In "The Crosse" resolution comes only when the speaker appropriates the Other's words as his own, "With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done" surrendering entirely to the will of the Father (36). Another's words appropriated in such a way may constitute yet another sort of transitional phenomenon, one Herbert frequently exploits in the context of his verses.(20)
How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and cleanThough here the speaker compares his Lord's returns to spring flowers, in the next stanza, it is his own "shrivel'd heart" which has "recover'd greennesse," having "gone / Quite under ground; as flowers depart / To see their mother-root" (8-9, 9-11). Thus, self and a maternal Other (Christ as the mother-root) momentarily share an identity as flowers. The speaker's rebirth when his God returns parallels Christ's resurrection, a fact which suggests that the loss of self required in "The Crosse" is compensated for by the gain of a new self in "The Flower." (Vendler 53; Freer 224). For the rest of the poem, the speaker remains the flower; God (the Father) is both the gardener, his garden being Paradise, and, at times, the cause of his flowers' decline.
In stanza three, the speaker expresses God's wonders in spatial terms, attributing to the "Lord of
power" the acts of "Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell / And up to heaven in an houre / Making
a chiming of a passing bell" (15, 16-18). God's "word," synonymous with God's will or power, holds all
things together, uniting opposites: "We say amisse / This or that is. / Thy word is all, if we could spell"
(19-21). The boundaries between things here collapse (Fish 156; Cf. Skulsky 82). But though all things
merge as part of the One will, the speaker is not yet "past changing" and therefore not yet past the
experience of separation from God. Thus he remains vulnerable to God's anger:
But while I grow in a straight line,God's anger alters the speaker's space, regardless of where the speaker is located. Even the poles burn, becoming hell-like, when God turns away. The speaker suggests that hell is less a place than a state of relation, or lack of relation, to God (Cf. Strier 247). When the potential space between the believer and God collapses, the speaker believes himself to be in a type of hell.
Once the relationship is restored, the space of celebrated presence, the space of writing, becomes viable again:
And now in age I bud again,The speaker's sense of renewal is so strong when God returns that he feels as if he cannot be the same man who suffered so severely in God's absence. The speaker's renewed relationship with the Other renews his relationship with "versing," a claim which suggests that the speaker's occasional temptation to destroy his verses does not signify an iconoclastic bent; rather, it is a sign of his total participation in the potential space of religious art and his complete dependence on God to make that participation meaningful.
The fact that Herbert's poems serve as potential space for Herbert's speaker suggests that the poetry functions not merely to represent the self-Other relationship but to further it. The ultimate purpose of these potential spaces is not self-indulgence, not even worship only, but the transformation of the believer in relation to his God. While art for art's sake may be devalued as an exercise in vanity, and while art for the sake of impressing an Other may be deemed presumptuous - especially when that Other is the creator of all things - art for the sake of rehumanizing the self in relation to an Other, for the sake of discovering and practicing the capacity to love, must be understood as an eminently ethical and courageous enterprise.
1 See, for example, Playing 41, 64, 100, 107-110; and Psycho-Analytic Explorations 57-58. On potential space in Renaissance texts, see, for example, Willbern; Dauber; and Nardo 49-77, esp. 53.WORKS CITED
Asals, Heather A. R. Equivocal Predication: George Herbert's Way to God. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1981.
Julia Guernsey is completing a dissertation on George Herbert at the University of Arkansas.
The essay published in this issue is a modified version of the third chapter of the dissertation.
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