15 October 2006

Herbert and "Embodied Theology"

Read: Several chapters into Don Quixote
Listened to: Tannhäuser (Wagner), “Amadeus” soundtrack
Watched: at least part of if not most of: City Lights (Charlie Chaplin), The General (Buster Keaton), Sunrise (F.W. Murnau), M (Fritz Lang), and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) [all for the film class I'm taking]

This started out as a comment on Sorina’s previous post, but it began to get long enough that I decided to promote it to a post in its own right. I’ve been waiting to let Sorina’s students get a chance to post comments first, but seeing that no one has taken the bait (yet), and I’m chomping at the bit to comment on this one, I’m not going to wait any longer.

I had the pleasure of taking a whole class on the metaphysical poets, particularly Donne and Herbert, at Regent College several summers ago. Herbert is among my top five poets, if not my favorite (depending on my mood).

As for his use of poetic form, Herbert is more creative in inventing new forms than he is strictly adhering to existing forms. Over two-thirds of the poems in his collection The Temple are in a unique meter and rhyme scheme. He plays around with varying line lengths, lots of word play, anagrams (“Anagram”), concrete poetry where the physical shape of the poem on the page relates to the content (“The Altar,” “Easter Wings”), and cross-references between adjacent poems (e.g., a word in the last line of a poem which is taken up in the first line of the next, or the title of a poem which takes up the theme of the preceding one). It is sheer fun to read his poems and discover all his delightful frolicking. And yet, as you pointed out, he wrestled with whether these frills were appropriate for the serious genre of sacred poetry.

However, I disagree with your reading of “Jordan (2).” First, you’ll have to be more specific about what “aspects of Sidney’s secular love sonnet” Herbert is copying. I don’t see the resemblance in form at all. Second, when Herbert writes “There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d: Copy out only that,...” you’ve got to see it in the context of Herbert’s own poetry -- both this very poem, and his whole oeuvre. He begins “When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention.” So I don’t believe he’s talking about secular love in line 17, but rather about his devotion to God (as in so many of his poems). I think he simply means to exhort himself (the “friend” in line 15 is merely his own conscience speaking to him): “just say plainly what’s written on your heart, and leave all this decorative poetic inventiveness aside, as it only feeds your pride.” But of course he cannot make himself do that and ends up with another poem that’s just as creative as the last. And we, from our vantage point, realize that Herbert was carrying out his vocation from God and needn’t have beaten himself up over his desire to use artistry in his writing.

As for how Herbert uses poetic form to express his theology:

The ordering of the poems in The Temple is ingenious, and speaks of Herbert’s ecclesiology. Overall, the structure is reminiscent of church architecture, with an entrance through “The Church-Porch,” the opening poem. Then the main body of The Temple is called “The Church,” with an introductory poem called “The Altar.” Of course the altar or communion table would have been a focal point in the interior of an English church in his era. Later there is a series of poems with titles depicting other parts of a church, e.g., “The Church-floor” and “The Windows.” Other parts of the collection are organized around liturgical themes and the church year.

Herbert sometimes uses the number of lines per stanza with significance, as in “Sunday” where there are seven lines per stanza, representing the seventh day, and “Trinity Sunday” where there are three stanzas with three lines each. In “Coloss 3.3” he hides a Bible verse along the diagonal, “My life is hid in Him that is my treasure,” displaying concretely what it is to be “hid with Christ in God.”

That’s enough on Herbert, but I would venture to propose that even Scripture itself uses poetic devices to convey theological meaning. Understanding something about the literary techniques employed in great poetry and literature will help in interpreting the Bible. Some would balk at the idea of “reading the Bible as literature” because it seems to be mutually exclusive with reading it as the Word of God; as if “literature” meant something invented out of whole cloth by humans. And indeed many (if not most) college courses that purport to teach the “Bible as literature” are taught by people who think it is only that. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t onto something with regard to the incredible artistry with which the Bible is crafted. And if human artists can embed their theology in their work, as Sorina’s posts are beginning to convince us, how much more can the Artist of Artists do that, through the pens of his intelligent creatures?

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