08 October 2006

Milton & the Metaphysical Poets

Read: Phantastes by George MacDonald.
Watched: Cromwell
Listened to: student rap versions of hymns by Isaac Watts & Charles Wesley!!

In a previous post I discussed what I called Bach’s “Embodied Theology”—some of the ways in which Bach expressed his doctrinal beliefs in the very arrangement of notes, rhythms, etc. in his music. Now in this post I’d like to explore something similar in the poetry of John Milton & the “Metaphysical Poets,” especially George Herbert & John Donne, and I’d like my students (and any other readers) to add their thoughts.

There are two ways in which I see Milton, Donne, & Herbert embodying their theology in their works: 1. form & 2. technique. First, poetic form—the shapes they gave to their works. The fact that they chose to use standard, strict forms such as sonnet & epic shows, I think, that they believed the universe was an orderly place. They believed that nature revealed God’s love of organization, structure, and symmetry, so they chose highly organized poetic forms—with some notable exceptions. They also thought, I imagine, that working within boundaries is the best kind of freedom. Only within moral boundaries are people truly free to live & love; only within strict poetry boundaries like 14 lines, iambic pentameter, ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme, and so on, is the poet free to be truly creative (again, there are significant exceptions to this rule, and I’ll discuss at least one). That’s one idea the shapes of their poems gives me.

Form works on a larger scale, too. Paradise Lost is in 12 “books”—again, an orderly structure, and one that can have spiritual significance. 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, 12-sided wall around the new Jerusalem, 12 jewels set over the 12 gates…. And Herbert takes form even a step further, using it to interpret & interrogate the meanings of his poems. In “Jordan (2)” (which we did not read in class; but you can find it here), Herbert copies aspects of Sidney’s secular love sonnet, "Loving in Truth", but says that it’s sinful to write decorative sacred poetry, and then ends by implying that all you can do is copy secular love poetry! So he simultaneously condemns & commends himself for using Sidney’s form, and does so by means of the form! He does something similar with the form of “The Wreath,” which perhaps one of my diligent students would explain below? (It would be good practice for the test that’s coming up, hint, hint…).

And the second way I see them working their theology into their poetry is in some of the specific poetic techniques—meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. Let’s look at Donne’s "Batter My Heart" as an example. In line 4, he says he wants God to “break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Well, he does just that to the poetry! Instead of following the standard - / - / - / - / - / pattern of iambic pentameter, he “breaks” it with a series of strong monosyllables, all alliterating on one of the harshest consonants—to illustrate just how he wants God to pound on his stubborn heart! Another example occurs in Herbert’s “The Wreath” , when Herbert messes up his habitual pattern with the words “crooked winding ways”—illustrating the fact that his sin has messed up his life so badly it’s even messed up the patterns in his poetry! And he does this again on a large scale with the beginning and ending of his poem, which again perhaps a student would explain in a comment? And Milton even uses the complexity of his syntax & the length of his sentences to express the high, lofty, & complicated nature of the spiritual history he’s giving in Paradise Lost.

So now that you (hopefully) understand this idea of embodying doctrinal beliefs in verse, perhaps you can put in some observations of your own. They could be about the 17th century poets, or about any other writers. Or, as always, I’d really love to see examples of other genres (visual arts, music, etc.) that use similar techniques.


Rosie Perera said...

I began a comment here, but then turned it into a full post here.

Gemalee said...

As for "The Wreath" and one of your "diligent students" explaining it...I thought I'd have go at it.
"The Wreath" by George Herbert, just may I begin to an amazing poem. The form of the writting supports what he was saying in the poem. He talks of how his ways are crooked and windng, and then so are the lines he uses. He repeats phrases from each line in the following line, twisting it ever so slighty. If you were to draw a line for the direction of his poem it would look something like a twisted wreath...hence the title.
I think thats as far as Ill go with that...
I shall see you in class Mrs. Higgins.
~Gemalee anne Ugi

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