Wntr 1998 v77 i1 p41(1)
Unstrung Conversations: Herbert's Negotiations with God.
SUSANNAH B. MINTZ.
Abstract: The religious poetry of George Herbert depicts the struggle individuals face in navigating their way through life, guided by the concepts of heaven and hell. Herbert accepts the premise of a fundamental instability in humankind, with the capacity for both evil and good, and emphasizes the importance of love and trust in continuing a dialogue with God.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Iowa
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).
Harman proposes a less defeatist response to the problematic of self-representation in The Temple. Concentrating on Herbert's proclivity for dialectical clashes--between scriptural and poetic language, between divine and personal authority, between action and belief--Harman takes Fish to task for not acknowledging the "persistence" (34) of the self in the poetry; Harman asserts contra Fish that "Herbert's poems do not--in the ordinary sense of the word--vanish before our eyes" (136). But even
Harman's subtle demonstration of the ways Herbert "represent[s] the self in the very process of losing its access to conventional representation" (136) ends up, finally, echoing more than contesting Fish. Poems may be careful to look after the self's existence, but those same poems "record" the "silencing" of the self (35); Harman's assertion that "the dissolution of a coherent view of self and sense is indeed Herbert's subject ... persistently his subject" (161) sounds very much like Fish
In a different vein, and one most theoretically akin to the argument I will present here, Anna Nardo's The Ludic Self connects dialectic and liminality in seventeenth-century literature with psychoanalytic theories of object-relating.(5) Noting that the "divided world" of the Renaissance "produced an extraordinary array of self-conscious literary players" (1-2), Nardo links the generalized mood of sociopolitical conflict to psychoanalytic and anthropological theories of play, arguing that the
safe frame of the "ludic self" provided "a new stance" whereby writers could "live within the contradictions and conflicts of their experience" (3). Play becomes a mediatory outlook, as much as an actual activity, from which to cope with the resurgence of childhood conflicts, newly triggered by the turbulent landscape of widespread social change.
But while Nardo offers apt descriptions of the threshold space of self-other relations, her account of Herbert manages to smooth over, not only the contestatory or unresolvable elements of the poetry, but also the possibility for renegotiations of identity vis-a-vis God that Herbert is so often concerned to leave open. Nardo argues that Herbert structures his lyrics around the space of "games" in which the contest between speaker and God results in an "expanded" self (86). In opposition with a
"loving, accepting internal other," Herbert's "competing," "various selves--sinful, weary, aging, know-it-all, reluctant" (even a "whining" self )--are "reconcile[d]," and "Herbert wins a sense of wholeness by losing the contest--by allowing his reluctant self to be won by the image of God within" (93). Cast in the role of self-conscious agon, engaging in forms of play in which the self ruptures and God seems always to be victorious, Herbert is paradoxically deprived of any real role in the
relational process out of which selfhood may be said to precipitate. Similarly, lost in statements about "courtly elegance," "poetic order out of internal confusion," and containment "in the play frame" (103) is the sense of variousness in Herbert's emotional relation to God, as well as the important way in which he contrives to preserve a realm of human agency independent from doctrinal decree. Thus Nardo's description of Herbert as a "Christian in a wholly Christian culture" (84) seems too pat
a rendering of Herbert's poetic relation to theology, since what it means to be "Christian" may be the very question The Temple is at pains to consider.
It seems that the only way to resolve the central bind of so many of Herbert's poems--how to reconcile the priority and authority of God with one's desire for self-generated action--is either to take recourse in a theology that commands self-denial or to claim that selfhood is always, inevitably, gained through dissolution of the individual's immature professions of self-determination. Despite the contradictoriness apparent in his poetry, then, Herbert ends up in several critical accounts
seeming unproblematically accepting of the inferior position of the religious self in relation to its most significant primary object. The very need to somehow "rescue" Herbert from what are described as audacious stabs at independence on the one hand and self-abnegation on the other, seems to bespeak a discomfort with the notion that Herbert's poetry might give voice to, and protect, the uncircumscribed agency of the human believer, even when he must resist doctrinal edict to do so. My argument
here is that Herbert is flexible and unpredictable, his conviction in something tender and reciprocal--in being heard and believed in-profound and irrepressible, emerging again and again even in poems that may otherwise measure a state of despair or announce a giving-over of selfhood. The interest in dialogue in Herbert's work, the sense of complex emotional and intellectual negotiation, the dogged seeking-out of the other (suggestive of Donne's relation to women), all these articulate a feeling
of being intertwined with God, but not necessarily, certainly not inevitably, subordinated to him.
In the discussions that follow, I will focus on the varying quality of relatedness described throughout The Temple,(6) evocative of the shifting quality of a child's interactions with parents--including the hopeful confidence of attachment as well as disintegration for selves whose ability to survive is compromised when attachment fails. In particular, I will be interested in poems in which speakers' desire, striving for, and pleasure in closeness to the other results in relinquishing neither
independent identity nor the possibility of self-representation. It is in such poems that Herbert seems to negotiate his engagement with God in a spirit of confident faith in God's willingness to "heare" and in the vital participation of the human self in this mutual object-relationship. Speakers in "Deniall" and "The Temper (I)," for example, seek contact, but do not wholly give themselves over to that contact; they are eager to express devotion in joyful, even rapturous ways, but not to lose
autonomy by becoming diffused in the demands of doctrine. These speakers appear most exuberant, finally, about the possibility of reciprocal--if asymmetrical--love between believer and God. Even those poems that record failure, where the speaker's calls are not responded to by the other, serve less to unravel the integrity of the self than to document the insufficiency of a doctrine of silent self-repudiation, and suggest by contrast the imperative of interaction between human and God. The
unique space these poems carve out testifies to a relatedness that is not predicated on a capitulation to the other's power, and suggest the degree to which Herbert's vision of faith seems strongest when that faith is defined by the mutual terms of self and other.
In "Praise (II)," Herbert demonstrates his aptitude for (and delight in) a neatly symmetrical form that enacts both wish for and achievement of correspondence between the human speaker and his God. Each of three quatrains in which the speaker announces what he will do ("love thee" , "move thee" , "sing thee" , "praise thee" , and so on) is matched by a quatrain that assures what "thou" has done or will do; the seventh stanza gathers both together in the long promise of an
"eternitie" spent in praise (27). The first pair may be taken as paradigmatic of the exactness of the relation between self and other:
King of Glorie, King of Peace,
I will love thee;
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.
Thou has granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar'd me.
The speaker declares not only his "love" but his determination to have that love make an impact on his "King," who responds in just the way he hopes for. His desire "that love may never cease" is met by the "grant[ing]" of that "request"; moreover, not only are his efforts to "move" the other noticed and "heard" externally, but his internal, individual "working breast" is taken note of and rewarded as well. The value and the pleasure of such an exchange is signaled by the reiteration--the only
one in the poem--of being heard: "thou hast heard me" (6) and "thou didst heare me" (16).(7)
In "Praise (II)," the fact of being "heard" by his primary object, with all the metaphoricity of that interaction, conducts the speaker to a self-reliance that allows him to declare "I will," "I can"; and though "eternitie is too short / To extoll thee" (27-28), one has the impression that the speaker's self-possession is sure enough to fill that space with all the assurance that undergirds his prior affirmations. Here, open-endedness seems not at all frighteningly unknowable, but rather a
welcome expanse of time in which to offer his love and, over and over again, to be heard. In the poem "Longing"--whose length and title seem to tell the whole story(8)--the kind of stable exchange that takes place in "Praise (II)" collapses in irresolution and anguish. It is as if with each successive stanza the speaker redoubles his effort to make an impression on a God who does not, will not, reply:
With sick and famisht eyes,
With doubling knees and weary bones,
To thee my cries,
To thee my grones,
To thee my sighs, my tears ascend:
My throat, my soul is hoarse;
My heart is wither'd like a ground
Which thou dost curse.
My thoughts turn round,
And make me giddie; Lord, I fall,
From thee all pitie flows.
Mothers are kinde, because thou art,
And dost dispose
To them a part:
Their infants, them; and they suck thee
In the progression of these initial stanzas, the speaker sets in motion a tonal fluctuation that manifests his contradictory perceptions of the object. In the first stanza, the double-beats of "to thee" swell the third and fourth lines and accelerate the fifth, seeming to grow louder at each instance, more emphatic with each piling-on of the self's materiality--cries, groans, sighs, tears--as if it is only through substance and insistence that he can rise up to God. The precision of "ascend,"
however, lies not so much in its literal meaning but in the fact that the word contains the very "end" the speaker so strongly desires: an end to the weariness, the hunger, the sorrow of his solitude. Yet the question that "ends" the stanza defers that longed-for end, rather than promising it. And in this question--"No end?"--questions proliferate: Is there to be "no end" of expulsions from the body of the self?. No end to their ascension, because they will never be received? To whom is the
inquiry posed, and, more pointedly, who will reply?
Because there seems no ready answer to these uncertainties, because, in fact, no one does reply, in the second stanza the speaker plunges downward. His body racked with the effort of his appeals (his very soul is "hoarse"), it is as if he has been pushed down from the heights to which the first stanza tried to ascend, and reduced to a "wither'd" ground, "curse[d]" by the God to whom he "call[s]." The effect of such rejection is dizzying; confused and made "giddie," he loses balance and falls.
Again, the significance of "fall" seems to be less what the word describes about the movement of the self (a physical metaphor for an emotional, spiritual collapse) than what it implies about the failure of the other: to fall is to be let go, not to be held.(10) The struggle to ascend in the first stanza, so precariously supported by "doubling knees and weary bones," seems to beg not just for "cries" and "grones" to be noticed, but for the discontinuity, the disintegration, they represent--both
within the self and between self and other--to be contained, soothed, corrected. The rhymed "fall" and "call" are exactly matched, since calling at once unrolls along and exposes the distance-between that, in turn, is caused by and exacerbates falling. "Yet call" tells what the speaker does and renews his cry to God; indeed, the subtle "Yet" suggests just how persistent those cries will be, "yet" undeterred by the silence they encounter.
The transition between the second and third stanzas is also a telling one. From the first two "stanzas of direct confrontation (or at least attempted confrontation) between the speaker and God," as Louise Schleiner characterizes them (199),(11) the third turns "reflective," and does indeed "direct our attention away from [the] direct confrontation." But something more than a simple withdrawal from confrontation to contemplation happens in the interval between "I fall, / Yet call" and "From thee
all pitie flows." The first stanzas seem to demonstrate precisely the opposite of an outpouring of pity from God; in fact, the first line of stanza 3 suggests that the speaker needs to convince himself of an a priori dictate that present experience is flatly disproving. It would appear, too, in the unexpected introduction of "Mothers" into the poem, that the speaker retreats from the painful chaos of abandonment into a fantasy of a doubled, and specifically maternal, nurturing figure: the
kindness of mothers stems directly from, and is thus magnified by, that of God, who "dispose[s] / To them a part"; the infant's suckling of the mother links that infant, analogically, to the bountiful, flowing, "kinde" pity of God. The sudden abstraction of this stanza, what to Schleiner feels like cool reflection--he had been crying out of a very individual grief (notice the repeated "my cries," "my grones," "my sighs," "my tears"), but now observes "Mothers" and "Their infants"--in fact serves
an important psychical function, distracting the speaker from his own sadness even while attending to and soothing that sadness in fantasy.
But the imaginative departure that eases the speaker's longing must also represent the very need for fantasy, bringing him back to the painful lack of union, as well as to a realization that the "Mothers" who provide comfort do so precisely because they are "More free" to "suck" from God and therefore "more free" from the kind of longing he experiences. Thus the third stanza acts as a curious pivot between the opening stanzas of the poem and the four that follow, in which the speaker fastens on
the injuriousness of not being heard and descends into a state of near-annihilation. In the first two of these stanzas, the sheer number of exclamation points accentuates the misery of getting no response; he must speak louder and louder to turn this "confrontation" from a monologue to a dialogue:
Bowels of pitie, heare!
Lord of my soul, love of my minde,
Bow down thine eare!
Let not the winde
Scatter my words, and in the same
Look on my sorrows round!
Mark well my furnace! O what flames,
What heats abound!
What griefs, what shames!
Consider, Lord; Lord, bow thine eare,
The pitch of these stanzas reveals something about the power of the one that precedes them: indulging in a fantasy that affirms God's accessible kindness and pity seems not to eliminate the pains named at the beginning of the poem but rather to replenish his anguish, which, accordingly, resurges with extreme force in stanzas 4 and 5. The speaker's importuning penetrates to the very "bowels" of the Lord who does not answer, who will not relieve the self from the firey hell into which he has
fallen and from which he calls. Indeed, where the first two stanzas seem almost to languor in weary defeat, even resignation, the tone in the fourth and fifth turns to passionate, frustrated disbelief, as the speaker throws the onus of this grinding isolation onto God. The imperatives punctuating these stanzas--"heare," "Bow down," "Let not," "Look," "Mark well," "Consider," "And heare!"--take the lyrical prayer of Psalm 86 ("Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me") and wrench it into a far more
entangled depiction of the dialectic between helplessness and omnipotence, abjection and pity. Longing, desperate, for contact, the speaker's language nevertheless conveys the extent to which he desires, not simply closeness, but a participating God; "Bow down" maps an interesting spatial relation, as if to measure the distance God must travel to meet the self.
At the same time, of course, "Bow down" reveals an anxiety that the self's voice might not be capable of extending all the way up to God. Indeed, how can he make such noise and still not be heard?(12) How can the parent who gave him this tongue, this voice, yet ignore him? (As he asks explicitly further on, "how can it be / That thou art grown / Thus hard to me?" [62-64].) Such are the agonizing questions:
Lord Jesu, thou didst bow
Thy dying head upon the tree:
O be not now
More dead to me!
Lord heare! Shall he that made the eare,
Behold, thy dust doth stirre,
It moves, it creeps, it aims at thee:
Wilt thou deferre
To succour me,
Thy pile of dust, wherein each crumme
Does God not hear him? Or--and it is difficult to determine which has more drastic consequences for the speaker--does he choose not to respond to the self's entreaties? Is God too preoccupied, or the self too insignificant? Is the speaker heard, but ignored? Is he utterly abandoned and forsaken?(13) The italics of the question "Shall he that made the eare, / Not heare?" indicate the paraphrase of a psalm(14) but also emphasize the felt injustice; the mother-figured Christ has been "gone" too
long and is feared to be "More dead to me!" As Winnicott writes in "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," "when the mother is away ... she is dead from the point of view of the child. That is what dead means."(15) And that experience of loss works to confuse the speaker out of the organized selfhood from which, in the poem's first stanzas, he could produce sighs, groans, and tears and claim possession of them, into the particulated disintegration of a "pile of dust, wherein each
crumme / Sayes, Come" in a chorus of pleading self-parts--a chorus that will break into the cacophony of a heart "broken now so long, / That ev'ry part / Hath got a tongue" (74-76) when the desired response refuses to "Come."(16)
The speaker modulates into an uneasy oscillation between expressions of self-assertion and self-denial. He may indeed be insignificant and inconsequential, but he is not immobilized and far from silent. "Behold," he commands his absent God, "thy dust doth stirre, / It moves, it creeps, it aims at thee." There is something uncannily animated here: a self close to the invisibility and insubstantiality of dust comes to life ("doth stirre"), agitates ("moves," "creeps"), then with purposeful and
concentrated movement "aims" itself at the withholding God. The third-person observation of these lines seems detached and punitive at once--far from "restored" to himself, he seems to demean himself even while disclaiming authority for his own actions. At the same time that tone of objective description is belied by the sinister undertones of "aims at thee"; and "Wilt thou deferre / To succour me" sounds almost like a threat.(17) God may have let "all things to their course" (43), resulting in
the chaotic inexplicability now faced by the speaker, but the self struggles to maintain a sense of agency, possibility, hope.
Finally, however, the cumulative impact of the speaker's desperate callings, which "speak and chide / And in thy bosome poure my tears" (70-71), is not sufficient to draw the contact for which he petitions. The deferral that thwarted him in the first stanza (the "no end?" that ends the stanza but not the longing) now becomes an explicit challenge ("wilt thou deferre ... me?") and a woeful fear. Not at all the assured speaker of "The Holdfast" who declares of God that "he my succour is" (8), the
speaker of "Longing" can only wait, uncertain of anything ("wilt thou deferre / To succour me?"); where the speaker of "The Collar" begins with energetic defiance ("I struck the board, and cry'd, No more" ) and ends by reporting the kind of exchange longed for in "Longing" ("Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child: / And I reply'd, My Lord" [35-36]), this speaker is "humble[d]" before the "board" of God (53) and is only "stil'd / Thy childe" (59-60) "While [he] remain[s] / In bitter grief"
Distress mounts steadily through the poem until the last stanza, where the deprivation, now gone on far too long for the imago to have survived the absence of the object, becomes intolerable, and an "unthinkable anxiety" storms against the speaker's vulnerable self; the self itself seems to expire.(18) There is one last poignant plea--
My love, my sweetnesse, heare!
By these thy feet, at which my heart
Lies all the yeare,
Pluck out thy dart,
And heal my troubled breast which cryes ...
--and through the penultimate line of the pooem it seems the speaker might muster the strength to go on talking, go on saying "Come." But the final two-word line sounds a literal death-cry. Though one expects to hear what it is that the "troubled breast ... cryes," this last "ejaculation"(19) of the self is cut short: "And heal my troubled breast which cryes, / Which dyes" (83-84). Agony has become unspeakable.
This self-abnegating Herbert, and the parent who cannot be impressed toward reunion by the pleas of the child--by its "sighs and groans"--appear with a vengeance in the poem by that name. The speaker of "Sighs and Grones" begs piteously not to be "refuse[d]" (4) by God, not to have his need for contact shunned by the "mightie" (5) other, and experiences being rebuffed in a steady and ever-more intrusive escalation of fears of personal harm:
O do not use me
After my sinnes! look not on my desert,
But on thy glorie! then thou wilt reform
And not refuse me: for thou onely art
The mightie God, but I a sillie worm;
O do not bruise me!
The entreaty of the first stanza records a familiar dichotomy. "Do not use me" pulls God toward the self in the fear of being consumed by his nearly sexualized wrath ("do not use me up, manipulate me"?); at the same time the punishing God remains austere and forbidding, seeming distantly to profit from possession of that self.(20) Further, "after my sinnes" upholds the distance between (because of his sinfulness, blissful contact is impossible) but also contracts it (the punishment may be as
horrific as his own sin). Thus he tries to cast away the double-edged presence of God, imploring that parent-God not to ignore that he is a barren "desert," but not even to look upon that barrenness at all, as if it cannot be ignored. How can a glorious God be one that might obliterate the self "after"--according to, in the manner of--the lowly self's own, despicable sins? His fear of the possibility of this produces a need to idealize, which in turn demands that the self be emptied of anything
worthy, that the self internalize all that is "bad" in the other. What is wished for so intently is less simple acceptance than radical renewal and restructuring. He wants not only to be corrected, but to be "reformed" as well; only then can he sustain hope of the contact so far from actually occuring here. "Bruise" seems exactly the apt verb in this context--it recalls God's curse on the serpent ("[her seed] shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" [Gen. 3:15]), thereby
underscoring the depth of the speaker's feeling of sinfulness, and conveys a fear of being wounded and battered that is also a profound wish to remain intact in both physical and psychological ways. The bruise raises the self's interiority to the limit of the flesh where it becomes visible, while the boundary of the body remains unbroken.
In the second stanza, it seems, we have some explanation of the sins that render the speaker so base in the first.
O do not urge me!
For what account can thy ill steward make?
I have abus'd thy stock, destroy'd thy woods,
Suckt all thy magazens: my head did ake,
Till it found out how to consume thy goods:
O do not scourge me!
The "sillie worm" is not to be made light of--it is neither inconsequential nor ignorable, just as the biblical serpent was not. The destructiveness only implied in the first stanza leads to the accounts of destruction claimed by the speaker in the second stanza where the biblical serpent's avarice and the infant's greedy appetite combine in a voracious attack on the parent's "goods." The speaker's own aggressive potential--which, calling himself "sillie," he both humbles and minimizes in the
first stanza ("sillie" connotes triviality, weakness, lowliness; but also hints that he might deserve sympathy)(21)--seems to worry him at the start of the second, where his plea for God to "not urge" him nearly suggests that further provocation might impel him toward even greater damage than he has already wreaked. That prior consummation--he has "suckt" and "consume[d]," "abus'd" and "destroy'd"--is unquantifiable, inexplicable, unjustifiable; it cannot be "acount[ed]" for even by the "ill
steward" who is its cause. And that "steward," caretaker of God's creation,(22) becomes even more fallible by his thoughtless insatiability--indeed, he "make[s]" nothing, only abuses, destroys, and consumes in a one-sided exchange that is no exchange at all.(23) The speaker's odd claim that his "head did ake" suggests a "hunger" both visceral and psychical; finding out "how to consume thy goods" relieves the ache and the emptiness, standing in, perhaps, for a contact more desired, and ultimately
more fulfilling. There is a kind of jealousy to this description of blazing through God's "goods" (God's stores, what's good in God), a jealousy about what other things the "parent" takes care of, and which the speaker so selfishly eliminates. "Scourge," then, is again the apt verb, since it addresses the integrity of the body, as does "bruise," and punishes that body for its wilfull, uncontained "eating."(24)
In the third and fourth stanzas, terrible anxiety about wholeness, about whether or not the self will suffer damage from the very real power of the other, manifests in images of the body's boundaries receding, then coming back into focus:
O do not blinde me!
I have deserv'd that an Egyptian night
Should thicken all my powers; because my lust
Hath still sow'd fig-leaves to exclude thy light:
But I am frailtie, and already dust;
O do not grinde me!
O do not fill me
With the turn'd viall of thy bitter wrath!
For thou hast other vessels full of bloud,
A part whereof my Saviour empti'd hath,
Ev'n unto death: since he di'd for my good,
O do not kill me!
From being full of the other's "goods"--so full, there is nothing left to take in--the speaker is now barred from anything good. Lost in a darkness he has created himself out of guilt for the greediness, the "lust" with which he devours "all" the good stuff, he begs not to suffer a more permanent loss of sight that would forever bar him from the "light" he so desires but from which he is already kept away. The "sow'd fig-leaves" that "exclude" God's light are the sign of the speaker's
"frailtie"--that infantile incorporation that "destroy[s]" "stock," "woods," and "magazens"; but as a symbol of that sin they also delimit the kind of transgression of boundary that such consummation entails. Thus in the third stanza the speaker seems excessively bounded, prohibited from interaction with God and God's "good" by blindness, by clothing--a "thicken[ed]" self draped as if in his own solitary embodiment. But the density of this--the bruised flesh, the heaviness of a body having
"suckt" so much into itself, the "powers" "thicken[ed]" by appetite--literally flies apart in the subsequent image: not just frail but "frailtie" itself, he is "already dust" threatened by further grinding, as if his discrete self might be reduced to an invisible powder. When in the following stanza he is reassembled and filled again, that re-embodiment is but momentary--since to be filled not by the self's own greedy incorporation of the other's "goods" but by the other, and with that other's
"bitter wrath," is to be annihilated.(25) Being full this way is to lose continuity of being,(26) to be "kill[ed]."
And so the speaker must beg for mercy, for "reprieve."
But O reprieve me!
For thou hast life and death at thy command;
Thou are both judge and Saviour, feast and rod,
Cordiall and Corrosive: put not thy hand
Into the bitter box; but O my God,
My God, relieve me!
The omnipotent other is both prosecutor/persecutor ("judge"), who threatens to undo and obliterate the self, and life-sustaining nurturer ("saviour"); the one collides with the other in the full paradox of religion and parenthood ("thou hast life and death at thy command"). The body of the parent is a bountiful, nourishing "feast," full of "goods," but if the self "suck[s]" and "consume[s]" too much, that parent becomes a murderous, "rod"-wielding avenger. In the apparent irreconcilability of
these highlighted opposites--the "cordiall" from which the self would drink and so be calmed and soothed might just as soon be a burning "corrosive"--the poem grinds to a halt. Even the speaker's final cry--"O my God / My God, relieve me"--sounds more heartrending, more poignant, more aggrieved and hopeless than "do not kill me," since death might at least bring an end to the uncertain status of the self, but the very cry to be relieved contains within it the perpetuation of unbearable doubt,
intolerable solitude. In this poetic crescendo of desperation, the plangency of the final cry lies in its very open-endedness--does anyone reply?
Those moments when Herbert can look within and "find" himself are rarely achieved without struggle. Through deliberate, painstaking negotiation with others, speakers are able to assuage feelings of a racked inner landscape. In "Deniall"--a study in the paradoxicalness of object relations--a self disintegrating in the rejection by and loss of its other manages to pull itself from the verge of dissipation by focusing on--remembering--the significant inclusion of the self's half of a harmonious
The poem begins with a familiar instance of non-communication that breaks the heart, and poetic skill, into disarray:
When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent eares
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
Productions of the self are rendered meaningless by the absence--or is it merely the silence?--of the longed-for other. As in "Longing," the ambiguities of God's reaction and of the self's standing with God are equally confusing: does God not hear at all (his ears are "silent"), or are the speaker's prayers not good enough to be heard? In Winnicottian terms, is he not worthy of being held? The title of the poem indicates that both are operative: "Deniall" suggests that God denies the self's
"devotions," and that the self denies its own worth as well? Far from an inconsequential distinction here, these uncertainties work to multiply the speaker's despair; getting no reply breaks his heart, fractures his poetry out of seamlessness ("pierce"/"verse" is a slant rhyme; the fifth line of each but the last stanza does not rhyme at all), and crams his breast full of fear. And the stanza introduces a verbal resonance to emphasize both cause and effect: "pierce" rhymes more closely with the
"eares" to which the self appeals than the "verse" that breaks apart and fails; "heart," "breast," "fears" all recapitulate the primacy of "eares" and the desire to be--the fact of not being--heard.
At the same time, though, the first stanza reveals the interconnectedness of pleasure and aggressiveness, an intertwining that the second stanza will amplify. The first line--"When my devotions could not pierce"--signals hopeful attachment ("devotions" are quiet prayers; he is devoted to God), but also resentful aggression: "pierce" graphically conveys the energy, the precision, even the desired effect of the speaker's prior efforts to move God. Even so, he has been unsuccessful, and the impact
of that failure takes shape in the next stanza:
My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did flie asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the warres and thunder
A severe fragmentation occurs, as the speaker seems to lose the clarity and singleness of mind that might produce "devotions," and experiences his "thoughts" as "bent," "brittle," and scattered "asunder." But even as a nugatory self whirls in chaos, the same thoughts that seem to disperse, erratically, in every direction, in fact "flie" like weapons and have a deliberateness of purpose: "Each took his way." "Some," the speaker says, appear to fasten on exactly that which eludes him apropos of
God--these "would to pleasures go"; others proclaim the inability to achieve that pleasure--they go "to the warres and thunder / Of alarms" ("would," too, connotes inaccessibility in addition to habit, as if to underscore the unattainability of "pleasure," even in fantasy).(28) So bleak rejection mingles with an explosive discord (dis-chord), a loud and warring refusal to accept the "silen[ce]" that threatens to dissolve the self.
But in the middle two stanzas, it becomes clear that the condition that occasions the poem--"When my devotions could not pierce / Thy silent eares"--also occasions a frustration and sense of futility, which, in turn, threaten to render the speaker irrevocably despondent. What good does it do to call for God when God refuses to come? The repetition of several key phrases in these stanzas reveals how unignorable it is, how stinging an affront, not to be heard:
As good go any where, they say,
As to benumme
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To crie to thee,
And then not heare it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
In these two stanzas we hear the speaker's piercing devotions and then witness the very "no hearing" the lines identify. The impact of accumulated prayers to a nonresponsive God numbs the speaker in just those places that try the hardest to impress God: a knee knelt on too long in praying, a heart worn out with the intensity of its longing. But it is a numbness that disguises an insupportable depth of pain, and one wonders if the self must affect such lack of feeling not just to ward off anguish
but also to match, in a nearly competitive way, the baffling numbness of the other. The speaker labors under the many layers of a terrible paradox he cannot, on his own, resolve--that he is as insubstantial and dispensable as dust and yet was given a tongue with which to speak, that he uses that tongue to cry to God and yet receives no audience with God; the timelessness of "crying night and day," "all day long," against the steadily accumulated parts of time; the constancy of the pleader's
actively crying "Come, come," in the face of the passive helplessness of his condition. The legalistic tone of "no hearing" evokes the contractual terms of the old Covenant, now ineffectual; but Herbert echoes and extends scriptural metaphor at once, suggesting not so much that the misguided self receives no response because he operates under the wrong system, as that no suit, no trial, none of the self's arguments will seem meaningful by dint of the other's inexplicable refusal to "hear" him,
and hold him.
In the fifth stanza the speaker does not start up his "day long" crying again, as if by the second "no hearing" he cannot summon the presence to complain, or pray, or plea. Indeed, by this point he has become utterly undone; the musical simile foreshadowed by "bow" in the second stanza becomes explicit, ironically, only when the instrument of the soul is "untun'd" and "unstrung":
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossome, hung
To be "out of sight" is the very opposite of being "restor'd" to oneself (as was the speaker of "Clasping of Hands")--the speaker's soul is "out of sight" even to himself, so disorienting is this experience of being benumbed by grief. The two primary analogies of this stanza portray similar disjunctions: the speaker is an instrument capable of harmonious song, but without a response from the other the very parts of himself hang "unstrung" so that he cannot be played nor even tuned; he is a
flower in bloom, but "nipt" prematurely, so that he hangs limply, his beauty, his delicacy, both unappreciated and uncared for. Both figures suggest potential and fragility at once--the instrument is easily undone, its music unheard; the "blossome" is transitory, easily spoiled. These subtle paradoxes are exhausting; the speaker's spirit, now "feeble," is "unable to look right," by which he seems to mean that he can no longer try to make himself "look" worthy in the eyes of God, but also,
secondarily, that he himself cannot "look" at the state of his relatedness to God in just the right way for that relation to be satisfying. "Discontented," I think, echoes in the negative the confident affirmation that closes "Content," where a self that "by seeking hath himself once found, / Hath ever found a happie fortune." The speaker of "Deniall" may have his supplications denied by God, but he also seems to deny himself in this stanza, making of himself a passive "instrument" of the other,
to be played or disregarded at the will of that other.
But this penultimate stanza also explains--though fulfillment is as yet impossible--what is necessary for the self to become "restored": a relationality whose quality would be determined by the mutual participation of both self and other. So in the final stanza, a renewed sense of cooperation between speaker and God rectifies the poem's many dislocations.
O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
Deferre no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my minde may chime,
And mend my ryme.
Initially, the speaker continues to interact passively, to beg that God "cheer and tune" him; and his "breast" is "heartlesse," recapitulating the "heart broken" metaphor of the first stanza. But a powerful change occurs in the "time" of the next line. "Deferre no time" asks God not to wait any longer, but also that he not hold off time itself; "don't keep me in the terrible stasis of the middle stanzas," the speaker seems to say, where language itself stops changing, but make time move--by
hearing, by responding. And something does happen in the interval between this line and the next--but it is not, I would argue, that "God answers prayers" (Benet 50). The last three lines of the stanza are in the future tense: they describe a possibility, not the arrival of a long-awaited reply. What changes the tone of these lines, then, is the speaker's ability to imagine the simultaneity of God's "granting" (exactly the opposite of the title) and "my request," of God's "favours" and "my
Without this granting, of course, the self unravels in loneliness and despair; thus I agree provisionally with R. V. Young's claim that "it is the love of God that fulfills human nature and makes possible the only complete self available to a human being" (181). Conversely, Young writes, "not to love God is tantamount to forgetting [one]self completely or to being completely forgotten by God" (180), and I am reminded of R. E. Money-Kyrle's mention of "the fear of not being able to give, and so
of not deserving love" (132), characteristic of the child's response to greedy incorporation of good objects and projection of bad.(29) Both the vital importance of reciprocity cited by Young, as well as the devastating implications of not being "able" to love described in different ways by Young and Money-Kyrle, seem evocative of the speaker's dilemma here: how to hold onto a sense of identity even in the brunt of an unresponsive other; how to exist in a space where self and other coincide.
God's answer, then, by itself, does not seem sufficient to "enabl[e] the self to exist" (Young 181). The crux, as I understand it, is the penultimate line--"They and my minde may chime"--in which the speaker recovers a crucial sense of his own value. R. V. Young seems exactly wrong in naming "submission of the mind and will to God" as paradigmatic of Herbert's poetic spirit (181): no longer a passive object to be played or plucked at will, the speaker now figures himself in terms of his own
consciousness, the "minde" that desires, prays, believes, writes. Diana Benet argues that the "finally regularized rhyme in `Deniall' is an indication of God's presence" (48), but I would argue instead that the symmetry that eases the poem out of its jarring dissonance represents mutuality, a reciprocity that is not similitude but correspondence, not equality but resonance, compatibility, shared significance. The harmonious synchronicity of "chime" and "ryme" requires "thy favours" and "my
minde," a granting of "my request" to mend "my ryme." This is true potential space, where the speaker, trusting in the reliable presence of the other, can experience himself as present (not "out of sight"), creative, and necessary.
If the final stanza of "Deniall" gestures only toward the potential of such a compelling self-other relation, "The Temper (I)" records its success. While the speaker of "The Temper" seems initially in danger of total disappearance, so precariously does he inhabit space, his dizzying oscillations of mood finally rest in reciprocity with God. The poem begins with a wish for stability that finds expression in a Donnean metaphor of engraving:
How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!
The first sentence works quickly to equivocate what sounds initially like an enthusiastic tribute to God. The speaker's exuberant "praise" is in fact only a condition of a constancy he cannot muster: he would praise, if only he "might ever feel" that which his soul "doth feel sometimes." And yet the very rhymes the speaker uses--whose firm repetition in this poem seems intended to counteract his confession of inconstancy--are imagined as containing God's love, impressing it into "steel" (in the
manner of Donne's "A Valediction of my name," whose speaker scratches his name "in a window" to hold himself in place against his lover's face). It is not so much the wayward feelings of the human soul, then, that the hard metal stabilizes, but the love of the very God who would be celebrated: "how should my rymes / Gladly engrave thy love in steel." Thus while the stanza ostensibly records a self's inability to maintain a constant degree of faith (a faith as anticipated and regular as rhyme),
the metaphor of engraving implies the opposite--as if that self would accuse the praiseworthy "Lord" of inconstancy, as if God's love wavers frighteningly and so requires securing.
The Herbertian speaker is all too aware of the distances between himself and his God, and the spatial fluctuations of the second stanza, whereby the speaker travels from self-appraisal to self-annihilation, seem to respond to a dramatic failure to find or maintain contact with that powerful other.
Although there were some fourtie heav'ns, or more
Sometimes I peere above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score,
Sometimes to hell I fall.
Indeed, this stanza rescinds the first stanza's assurance--that a stable engraving would be forthcoming were it not for the speaker's and God's variances of feeling and attention--and sinks into indeterminacy. The many repetitions of "sometimes" combine with speculative counting ("some fourtie heav'ns, or more," "a score") and shifting locality ("peere above," "hardly reach," "fall") to create a sense of maximum disparity. The imprecision of the first line ("some fourtie heav'ns, or more")
sounds, with each successive line of the stanza, off-handed and cocksure ("I peere above them all"); then unsure, even apologetic ("I hardly reach a score"); then outright dejected ("to hell I fall"). Moreover, what in the first stanza was relegated to the soul, a possession of the conscious, writing self ("If what my soul doth feel sometimes, / My soul ..."), becomes in the second stanza connected to the "I" and thus descriptive of that "I"'s very selfhood ("I peere," etc.). Barbara Harman
finds in this stanza a "plurality of selves, driven to multiplication by God's punishing changefulness," "geographically distinct from each other and identified by wholly disparate sets of feelings," selves who "barely recognize one another" (152). But it seems to me that it is not so much the "I" that shifts from line to line as the quality of that "I" 's self-state and the nature of its relation to the God who presides over those innumerable heavens.
By the third stanza, the vissicitudes of the soul named in the first stanza are exteriorized to an explicit landscape of relationality. The speaker describes trying to scale and plumb the dimensions of a world fashioned by, and measured according to, the other:
O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world's too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.
The proportions of the other swell beyond containment ("the world's too little for thy tent"), and the self is swallowed up in "vast" expanses by which he defines his worth ("a grave too big for me"). The unattainability of a steady, engravable "love" and faith is gauged in "distances" that "belong" to the unattainable other. The willful soul's inability to sustain an unvaried "rhyme" now seems produced by the longed-for "thee" to whom "those distances" belong and who "rack[s]" the speaker "to
such a vast extent." Strained and pulled out of all proportion (tortured, even, as Harman suggests ), the speaker soars and plunges willy-nilly as God's unpredictable presence determines, but always ending up, somehow, self-less and annihilated--too small to fill his own grave.(30) At the same time the formidable other is "bigger" than the perceived world, far too big, indeed, to be engraved in the steel of a human poem.
That sense of enormity leads, in the fourth stanza, to the self's near-disappearance into "a crumme of dust" that is unnaturally, even cruelly "stretch[ed]"--cruel because the self can never be sure whether God will "meet" his outstretched arms, reciprocating the desire to be joined, or abandon him entirely:
Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
A crumme of dust from heav'n to hell?
Will great God measure with a wretch?
Shall he thy stature spell?
Indeed, the sudden shift to the third-person here (he is relegated to one of "man," dismissed as "a wretch," neutralized as "he") announces the success of the speaker's disappearance into the "grave" of stanza 3. He regards himself now as if distantly; this tone of detached observation, in addition to the stanza's three questions (the only questions in the poem and occuring in the poem's central stanza), suggest how far the speaker has travelled from the first line's distinct "I" and hopeful,
energetic promise to praise, and convey, not the solid regularity of a rhymed poem of praise, but rather the unknowability of God, the uncertainty of the self's relationship to God. From deep within a vast grave he is too puny to fill, the speaker seems dead to himself.
But this fourth of seven stanzas is a pivotal one, and despite its oddly removed tone, it begins to intimate the significance of the human self in this difficult relation with God. The first question in the stanza ("Wilt thou meet arms with man ... ?") does not, as one might expect, ask whether or not God will take up man, or cease the unbearable stretching; instead, the specificity of "meet" conveys a sense of necessary motion on both sides. And the paired second and third questions ("Will
great God measure with a wretch? / Shall he thy stature spell?") grant to the lowly "wretch" the means to designate the "stature" of God. Subtle but compelling, these hints carry the speaker forward out of the abyss of the "grave"; accordingly, his subsequent desire is to "roost and nestle" as if under the eaves of the roof of God's "stature":
O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there:
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.
This wish to "hide" under God's roof would seem to involve a corresponding decision to release his claim on his own autonomy, to become absorbed into the wondrous safety of God, and, as Harman writes, to "live within safe limits, protected from the dangerous form of relationship" (153) already laid out in the poem. But the metaphor Herbert chooses here to describe a particular kind of connectedness is, I think, more provocative than "safe" or "protected" would indicate. Certainly, "roost and
nestle" connotes a sheltered, even cuddled, perching. But the phrase also rearranges the spaces and distances through which the speaker has been--prior to this moment in the poem and, as we will see, following--maneuvered by God. It is almost as if the speaker would inhabit God,(31) settling there with a stasis--and a status--that his formerly erratic movements toward and away from God have prohibited; and (even more audaciously), from within that capacious womb, incubate a self free from the
extremeties of "hope and fear" that characterize the second stanza. A desire for closeness and contact becomes a fantasy of generativity that, against Harman's claim that the speaker "retreats from ... difficulties" (153), works to "rid" the self of difficulty.(32)
As if such ideas were too daring, however, in the next stanza the speaker once again gives over control of his bodily integrity to the powerful other, whose "way is best" (21), and who will "stretch or contract" the speaker in a contortion that returns to the drastic swings of the first two stanzas. But even as he figures himself here as the "poore debter" (22) of God, the speaker simultaneously imagines that these distensions of self are "but tuning of [his] brest, / To make the musick better"
(23-24). Despite needing to be tuned, this speaker's breast is not the "unstrung" soul of "Deniall"; it already makes music, and so plays on the paradigmatic Herbertian doubleness that a harmonious tune requires God's tuning and the instrument/breast of the human self.
The first line of the final stanza reprises the poem's vacillations of mood and metaphor ("Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust" ), and momentarily the speaker seems in danger of losing the kind of self-determination that turned "stretch or contract" into "tuning." But in the last three lines of the stanza, a radical transformation occurs; the speaker resolves all the prior expressions of doubt, fearfulness, confusion, through an avowal of reciprocity put forth in powerful Winnicottian
Whether I flie with angels, fall With dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev'ry where.
Though both the angels and the dust that might accompany the speaker are made by God, and though the heights and the depths to which he "flie[s]" or "fall[s]" may still be measured according to the "stature" of God, something different is articulated here: an unambiguous, self-possessed, undoubting declaration that "I am there." And God, too, is transformed: no longer the "rack" upon which the self's body is contorted, not even the musician (or mechanic?) who tunes the self's breast, God is here
the creator who makes with his hands; the phrasing--"Thy hands made both"--is tactile, even fertile. (In fact, these last lines are only suggestively metaphorical, as if the speaker now perceives his relation to God as newly clear and settled, and no longer resorts to figures of speech.) But the fact that "I am there" does not result from the productive power of God's hands (not, "Thy hands made both, thus I am there"); rather, the connective "and" suggests independence and simultaneity: "Thy
hands made both, and I am there." What I want to suggest is that the focus on God's prior "making" of things in the world--indeed, on the very hands that "made"--allows the speaker, not so much to experience himself as also "made" by God, but rather to believe in the reliable presence of a God with "hands," and that that trustworthy handling, that holding space, brings forth the affirmation "I am there."(33) This, in turn, elicits a still more profound expression of mutuality, that what makes
"one place" an "ev'ry where"(34) isn't just God's "power and love," but the combination, the overlap, of God's "power and love, my love and trust."
Thus Barbara Harman's contentions about the poem's closure--that the speaker "relinquishes entirely the dream of being all together in one place at one time," that he is thankful "for being many instead of one" (154), and that he has abandoned hope for a stable self and accepted a fundamental instability (151)--are problematic in the extreme. Herbert carefully ensures the continuity of an integrated self in the powerful solidity of "I am there," and far from letting go of his wish to find and
rest with God, the speaker gathers the poem's expanses and distances into "one place" that reverberates with shared love. By the end of "The Temper (I)" Herbert shows a self negotiating space, calling up his own love and trust to navigate the extremes of heaven and hell. By no means a passive receiver, the self does: loves, trusts, goes on being there.
St. John's University
(1) All references to Herbert's poetry are to the C. A. Patrides edition. Line numbers will be parenthetical and in the text. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C. A. Patrides (London: David Campbell, 1974).
(2) My use of object-relations theory has been most influenced by the metapsychology of British School analyst D. W. Winnicott. See in particular his Playing and Reality, for its cogent discussion of transitional space and the intermediate nature of self-other relating (New York: Basic Books, 1971).
(3) In Benet's Secretary of Praise, for instance, the many speakers of poems become a faceless, universal, "typical" Christian (see chapter 2, "The Temple and the Typical Christian"), despite Benet's contention that "though he is typical, the Christian speaker of The Temple lives and feels the Christian experience as a particular personality involved with God in a close, developing, and individual relationship." Secretary of Praise: The Poetic Vocation of George Herbert (Columbia: U. of Missouri
Press, 1984), 32.
Rosemond Tuve contends, in her published debate with William Empson, that to call Herbert "unique" disregards the "hundreds of years," the "generations" that preceded Herbert and that "Herbert's mind makes its jumps under the very precise guidance of those who had made the jumps before him." Thus "the word `unique' pulls us up with some sharpness." A Reading of George Herbert (U. of Chicago Press, 1952), 25.
See also Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Lyric (Princeton U. Press, 1979); and Richard Strier, Theology and Experience in George Herbert's Poetry (U. of Chicago Press, 1983).
(4) These ideas go hand-in-hand, of course, with Fish's larger theoretical interest in what he calls "Affective Stylistics" in the appendix to Self-Consuming Artifacts, a way of reading that de-emphasizes historical, cultural "artifact" in favor of a "reader," whose process of "developing responses ... in time" is seen as decentering and destabilizing the literary text. Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (U. of California Press, 1972), 387; Barbara Leah
Harman, Costly Monuments: Representations of the Self in George Herbert's Poetry (Harvard U. Press, 1982).
(5) Anna Nardo, The Ludic Self in Seventeenth-Century English Literature (Albany: State U. of New York Press, 1991).
(6) The ordering of poems in my discussion may give a false sense of both the "structure" of The Temple and of the psychological development of Herbert's speakers. While space does not allow for a fuller description of the conterversial question of order in Herbert, I am concerned to acknowledge that such a question exists, and that it has been variously answered--The Temple is a church, a temple, a litany, a spiritual growth, a catechism, and so forth. As the title of Harman's introductory
chapter suggests, The Temple has inspired a "critical controversy" about whether or not the book can (and should) be read as a steady progression forward toward a coherent whole; the debate is well-documented by both Harman's introduction and by Stanley Fish in The Living Temple (U. of California Press, 1978).
(7) One thinks of W. R. D. Fairbairn's theory that the child's greatest need is to be loved and to have its own love genuinely accepted by its parents. Here, Herbert's speaker experiences mutuality unproblematically. In other poems, as we shall discover, the achievement of such a shared love will be hardwon. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (London: Tavistock, 1952).
(8) The title is evocative of what Robert Hass writes in "Meditation at Lagunitas": "Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances." Praise (New York: Ecco, 1979).
(9) Richard Crashaw provides the extravagant negative to Herbert's more tailored intensity. In the epigram "Luke 11," Crashaw displays his wild imagination--and tendency to greedily consume the bodies of his "parents":
Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teates,
Thy hunger feels not what he eates:
Hee'l have his Teat e're long (a bloody one)
The Mother then must suck the Son.
The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw, ed. George Walton Williams (Garden City, NY: Doubleday-Anchor, 1970).
(10) Winnicott describes the import of being "let down" in infancy as a perpetuation of "unthinkable or archaic anxiety." Babies who have been "significantly `let down' ... know what it is to be in a state of acute confusion or the agony of disintegration. They know what it is like to be dropped, to fall forever, or to become split into psycho-somatic disunion." "The Mother-Infant Experience of Mutuality," in Psycho-Analytic Explorations, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine Davis
(Harvard U. Press, 1989), 251-60.
(11) Louise Schleiner, "Seventeenth-Century Settings of Herbert," in Too Rich to Clothe the Sunne: Essays on George Herbert, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1980), 199.
(12) In "The Mother-Infant Experience of Mutuality," Winnicott writes that "the communication [between mother and infant] only becomes noisy when it fails" (259).
(13) Here, as at so many moments throughout The Temple, Christ's anguished cry to his father from the cross--"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:35)--echoes palpably.
(14) Psalm 94:9.
(15) Winnicott, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," in Playing and Reality, 1-25, 20-21.
(16) While the poem clearly makes use of Scripture's maternal imagery in its figuring of Christ, there are also, I think, undertones of what Murray Stein calls "the devouring father": "If at the one pole the archetypal father is guardian of his children and mighty fortress against the threats of the outer world, at the other he is devourer through his rigid insistence on conventional thought, feeling, and behavior" (64). Under such a burden, "the body suffers, the mind fails to understand"
(69)--the self breaks apart. "The Devouring Father," in Fathers and Mothers: Five Papers on the Archetypal Background of Family Psychology, ed. Patricia Berry (New York: Spring Publications, 1973), 64-74.
(17) "It is a matter of days or hours or minutes," writes Winnicott of the mother's disappearence "to have a new baby." "Before the limit is reached the mother is still alive; after this limit has been overstepped she is dead. In between is a precious moment of anger, but this is quickly lost, or perhaps never experienced, always potential and carrying fear of violence `("Transitional Objects," 22; italics added).
From another perspective, Chana Bloch discusses Herbert's use of the image of dust as a way of focusing on "the pathos of mortality, and the outrageousness of God's testing, or worse, ignoring him ... in order to express what it feels like to be totally dependent on God ... dust can be blown about, dust can rise ... [of the speaker of `Longing"] we hear the voice of Job and the psalmist." Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1985), 48.
(18) In "The Location of Cultural Experience," Winnicott writes that the infant survives its mother's absence through the use of a symbolic internal imago. If she returns before the imago fades, the separation is tolerated without distress. But if separation extends beyond the duration of the imago, the infant becomes traumatized, and must cope defensively via return to "the confusional state of a disintegrating nascent ego structure." In "Playing and Reality, 95-103, 97 (Italics added).
(19) Herbert subtitled The Temple "Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations."
(20) Cf. the OED, definitions 3b and 4a and b.
(21) Cf. the OED, definitions 1 and 6. In addition to "deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy," "silly" could also mean "stunned, stupefied, dazed, as by a blow," so that the "sillie worm" who begs not to be "bruised" is both already wounded and calling out for that hurt to be soothed.
(22) Here, "caretaker" seems just the right word. The greedy child who devours its mother's body worries that it can give nothing back--except, perhaps, through poetic reparation.
(23) Herbert uses similar language, but in a very different context, in chapter 4 of The Country Parson, "The Parson's Knowledge": "But the chief and top of his knowledge consists in the book of books, the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures. There he sucks, and lives." The Country Parson, The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 58.
(24) For a different perspective on eating, hunger, and appetite in Herbert's poetry, see Heather Ross's brief discussion of "the `food-hunger-appetite' complex" (121) in The Temple: "it is through indulgence in the sense," she argues, "that one transcends them and finds God, whereas it is through the repression and denial of our senses, our appetites, that we find ourselves" (126). "Meating God: Herbert's Poetry and the Discourse of Appetite," in George Herbert: Sacred and Profane, ed. Helen
Wilcox and Richard Todd (Amsterdam: VU U. Press, 1995).
(25) James Boyd White's suggestion that each stanza's final line constitutes a "grone" that "echoes and transforms the first, the `sigh,'" in a kind of duet between the "heart," "Herbert's image of the central self," and the "speaking voice" (225), seems best evidenced by this fourth stanza. Yet in each stanza the second plea's reprisal of the first ("do no use" / "do not bruise"; "do not urge" / "do not scourge," etc.) also indicates a Worsening of the speaker's fear. So in the pair "O do not
fill me" / "O do not kill me," where the "grone" does not so much "transform" the "sigh" as it follows directly from and indicates the consequences of that former plea. James Boyd White, "This Book of Starres": Learning to Read George Herbert (U. of Michigan Press, 1994).
(26) Winnicott, "The Location of Cultural Experience," 5.
(27) Diana Benet articulates a third, more standard reading, which suggests the speaker denies his proper role vis-a-vis. God. "For the wayfaring Christian, there are at least two selves--the imperfect reality and the perfect ideal ... the past sinner and the present sanctified self ... in a continual struggle until he reaches his destination" (100): human self is not meant to have an impact on God, but must wait for the `granting' that comes only in the last moments of the poem for "ryme" to be
put aright. But as I will argue, the turn that does occur in the last lines of "Deniall" has everything to do with a shift in the speaker's sense of his important participation in this relation.
(28) Even "pleasure" contains, though rearranged, the letters of "eares," as if to reiterate subliminally how satisfying being heard would feel, how fracturing not being heard can feel. "Pleasure" exists in the poem only as a direct result of the speaker's inability to "pierce" the "silent eares" of the other, which sends his "thoughts" scattering to fantasy.
(29) R. V. Young, Jr., "Donne, Herbert, and the Postmodern Muse," in New Perspectives on the Seventeenth-Century English Religious Lyric, ed. John R. Roberts (Columbia: U. of Missouri Press, 1991), 168-87; R. E. Money-Kyrle, "On the Process of Psycho-Analytical. Inference," paper read. before, the. 20th Congress of the International Psycho-Analytical Association, Pans, 1957.
(30) The first 3 stanzas of "The Temper (I)" record an interesting progression of personal pronouns. In the first stanza, there are both a discrete speaking `T' and the possessions, of that I, "my rymes,". "my soul." In the second, only. `T' exists, as if speaker, rhymes, soul, believer, etc. have been conflated into one, and by the third stanza there is only "me," acted upon object.
(31) From a very different perspective, Rosemond Tuve remarks that "when thy roof my soul hath hid," and "The Temper (I)" in general, describe "the soul's possession or enclosing of God ... elaborat[ing] ... the immemorial metaphor of the human soul as God's dwelling or church....' The many poems like `Temper, I' dealing with Herbert's own states of spirit, which have so interested us moderns, are not to be separated off as showing some rebellious `real' interest in himself that overcrowded his
clerkly interest in the Church; they are poems about his state of mind and about anima as ecclesia" (142-43). Such statements are paradigmatic of Tuve's reading of Herbert, which subordinates the individual poet to his debt to Church tradition.
(32) Note the presence of the three personal pronouns in this stanza--"me," "my," "I"--emphasizing the fantasy of generativity that produces and ensures the wholeness of self.
(33) Ellen Y. Siegelman calls it a "predictable `thereness,'" a "steadiness, dependability, caring, benign lack of judgment," and quotes the Winnicottian term: "going-on-being." "Playing with the Opposites: Symbolization and Transitional Space," in Liminality and Transitional Phenomena, ed. Nathan Schwartz-Salant and Murray Stein (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 1991), 151-68, 160.
(34) The language of the last line is, of course, strikingly Donnean, but it has none of the wariness of "The good-morrow" about it.