20 July 2007

George Herbert & the conundrum of Christian poetry

I've taken a little break from posting on CW while I work on a paper for school. Here are some bits; rather a controversial thesis, I think, and not one I necessarily like.

Sonnet (I)

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy wayes are deep, and still the fame,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?

-- George Herbert

Their Other Flames:
The destabilization of devotional verse
in “Sonnet (I)” by George Herbert

Herbert sent this sonnet to his mother in 1609 or 1610; he was sixteen years old (Stull 134). This gift was designed to reassure his mother of his pious intentions. He wrote to her about his New Year’s Resolution:
But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs by which scholars say the Muses use to take up their habitations. However, I need not their help to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning—dear mother—is, in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory. (Walton)
In practical terms, this decision meant he would write devotional poetry to and about God rather than amatory poetry to and about women. However, a close critical analysis reveals that this sonnet implicitly—and perhaps unintentionally—posits an imaginary perfect woman to fill its love-poetry vacuum, seeks to secure the poet’s eternal fame, and effectively supplants God. In spite of himself, then, Herbert—or his narrator—suggests that “devotional poetry” is an oxymoron, because it actually appropriates divine creative power.

There are four themes woven together in this sonnet, expressed by means of four metaphors—fire, pagan deities, the ocean, and death—and each one signifies both surface piety and substantive self-aggrandizement. This tension between ostensible moral platitude and authentic critical stance is embodied in the series of quasi-rhetorical questions of which this poem is comprised. By means of the implied answer to these questions, Herbert offers at least three tentative hypotheses of why devotional poetry is impossible, which can also be read as theoretical views of poetry at large.

After that introduction, I'm omitting the body of the paper & jumping down to the conclusion, with just one chunk of evidence for my claims/

. . . The final statement of the death-and-immortality theme (in lines twelve through fourteen) unites it with inspiration and love: “Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might / Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose / Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?” Paraphrased, this says: Lord, since every human being feels passion burning in his or her insides by Your design and creation, why don’t we poets choose You as the motivation for and subject-matter of our poems, since You are going to last a whole lot longer than women, who will only die and, in their repulsive final corruption, might even be rejected by worms? In an effort to slough off any remaining commitment to amatory pursuits, the narrator tries to persuade himself that women, though beautiful and desirable now, will one day be so disgusting that even worms might scorn to touch their decaying bodies.

However, another interpretation is possible. Perhaps the putative woman is so perfect, so beautiful, so incorruptible, that even worms do not dare to violate her! In that case, the woman is immortal—and so will his poem be, if he dedicates it to her.

The narrator’s attempts to sublime or transfer erotic love into religious zeal have actually worked to metamorphose a devotional poem into an amatory sonnet. In that transformation process, God has also undergone a conversion. In the final couplet (“…braver fuel choose / Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse”), the speaker recommends God as a better fuel than women for the flames of passion or inspiration. This metaphor suggests not only that God serves the poet’s purposes, but also that God is consumed in the process. There is very little of God left by the end of this analysis, into which a reader is forced by the rhetorical questions.
It is precisely that series of destabilizing rhetorical questions that undermines the moral the narrator set out to teach. He asks: Where is that ancient heat? Does poetry wear the uniform (or form) of Venus? Does poetry serve Venus? Why aren’t sonnets made of God? Why aren’t lays sacrificed to God? Can’t God’s love sound His own praise better than a woman[’s]? Can’t the Holy Spirit fly faster than pagan deities? Won’t devotional verses be better or more famous than secular poems? Why doesn’t poetic inspiration choose God for its subject rather than women? The ultimate answer is: Because “devotional poetry” is an oxymoron.

This sonnet is framed as a rant by one poet to God, but functions as an injunction from one poet to all others. The subversive answer to his own questions—pious poetry is impossible—raises a larger problem: Why? Herbert offers at least three tentative hypotheses to explain why poetry cannot be devotional, which can also be read as theoretical views of poetry at large.

...and then follows a whole long bit about the literary criticism-type statements that can be extrapolated from this conclusion...

A conflicted attitude towards the value and power of poetry, especially virtuosic displays in secular forms, permeates much of Herbert’s writing. His work “is the product of a combined verbal dexterity and religious devotion” (von Ende 173), and this coy sonnet secures both the poet’s devotion and his reputation, while making sly statements about the motivations for poetic creation. The putative dedication of poetry to God assures his status as devout Anglican (and later priest in the Church of England after he gave up secular ambitions), while ostensibly repudiating poetry in the paradoxical locus—in situ in a sonnet—serves to highlight his literary skill. The use of secular forms and the destabilizing, undercutting effect of the poem’s actual message assures the poet’s fame and immortality. By shaping lacunae into the silhouette of a woman, the poet claims creative power, supplants God, and ensures the death of the devotional poem. Whatever contributions Herbert may later have made to the development of devotional sonnets, this is not one of them.

But I don't really like this conclusion, because I love Herbert, and I think that he wrote some really good devotional poetry later on! However, I do think that he articulates the central problem of Christian writing: How to write about God, since it's pretty much impossible to do. What do you think?


Rosie Perera said...

I don't read that sonnet the same way you do, but maybe I'm misreading it. I see the last three lines as reinforcing the questions asked earlier in the poem. I agree with your paraphrase of them: "Lord, since every human being feels passion burning in his or her insides by Your design and creation, why don’t we poets choose You as the motivation for and subject-matter of our poems, since You are going to last a whole lot longer than women, who will only die..."

The only bit I might quibble with is the word we. Here indeed is a poem which is passionate about God, and is bemoaning the fact that more poets don't write sonnets of Him. I'm not sure I see where Herbert is drawing the conclusion that devotional poetry is an oxymoron, nor suppressing his erotic passions and directing them towards God. His entire oeuvre is devotional poetry, and though he wrestles often with whether his faith and passion towards God are strong enough, and whether he is worthy of God's love, yet he does write devotional poetry, and knows it.

An interesting, and possibly provocative development of this idea you've brought up would be to look at ways in which erotic love does blend with passion for God in many ways, and what's wrong with that? Maybe that is part of how God made us to relate to him. We've got the whole book of Song of Solomon as an example of very explicitly erotic imagery which has been interpreted by the church through the ages (squeamish about the sexual bits and wanting to underemphasize them) as love poetry about God. I believe that many of the celibate religious (particularly women) over the years really have lived out their sexuality (which cynical unbelievers might simply think they had "repressed") in a passionate relationship love with God.

Some contemporary poets/artists/playwrights are becoming more willing to explore the sexual nature of relationship with God. See, for example, the phenomenal play Espresso by Lucia Frangione, which I was fortunate to see the premiere of in Vancouver a few years ago. "A rich, dark, bitter hit of comedy and sensuality, Espresso inverts the Catholic stereotypes of feminine sexuality to boldly examine their corresponding masculine sexual emblems of Father, Son and Holy Ghost." (Definitely not appropriate for children!)

There's also John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God" which ends: "Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

It's certainly there in Greek Mythology (Leda and the Swan), too, and of course all paintings based on this story.

I can't think of other examples off the top of my head, but it seems to me I've encountered some others in recent years, both in literature and visual art. Anyone else aware of any other such sensual/sexual imagery for relationship with God in the arts?

Iambic Admonit said...

Wow, Rosie, I love this! Thank you very much for calling my attention to the beautiful, startling truth of the marital/romantic/almost sexual relationship the soul (and maybe even the whole person?) can have with God. I remember being told that St. Teresa's ecstasy (which I've never yet read) is extremely sexual in its tone and vocabulary; that her descriptions of her encounters with God really sound like love affairs! I'll see if I can think of any others....

I still think I'm right about this particular sonnet, partially because Herbert wrote it when he was very young (16). I think later he did write really profound devotional verse, but that he was always vexed by the problem he felt, about poetry not being a worthwhile pursuit for a Christian, and also that words really couldn't do God justice.

Rosie Perera said...

Somewhat related is the overt sexuality of Jesus in art through the ages, something which modern Christians (particularly Protestants) have either avoided acknowledging or been embarrassed about. The book which brought this to the fore a couple of decades ago was The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg. The book's main thesis -- I think (I've never done more than skim through it in the bookstore and that was a while ago) -- is that in a surprisingly large percentage of paintings of Jesus, both as an infant and as an adult, his male organ is displayed undraped, and even at times drawn attention to. I'd never noticed (perhaps, bashful, I'd looked away when seeing those bits in Jesus art). But sure enough, Steinberg makes solid proof of his claim by showing hundreds of examples. Someone taught a summer school class at Regent with that book as the textbook a few years ago, and it was all the buzz. I think this was the first time many students considered that Jesus was indeed fully male, complete with genetalia. And presumably with all the sexual feelings that would have accompanied that.

Some art/literature/film (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ) has attempted to face the sexuality of Jesus square on and has sometimes erred on the side of presuming that he must have acted on it and had sexual relations with women (or a homosexual relationship with John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved"). In defense against such heresy, evangelicals have tended to avoid the subject altogether. Which tends to denigrate our sexuality (particularly that of single people). If Jesus didn't have these feelings, we think, then they must be sinful when we have them, whether we act on them or not. That might have been some of what the 16-year-old George Herbert was struggling with, having recently come to an age when his body was starting to do strange things he didn't command it to do.

Indeed, sexuality is a very powerful and dangerous thing. Bringing it into one's relationship with God is fraught with peril. It can become the source of idolatry. The other religions of the world in which the nation of Israel was born were full of sexual practices in their worship. Fertility cults abounded. Temple prostitution was rampant. Pagan religious art has frequently glorified the erect phallus.

[Incidentally, one of these works, still extant on the English landscape, the Cerne Abbas Giant, has been in the news recently, as someone drew a giant chalk Homer Simpson next to it as a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons movie. This angered local pagans, who pledged to do "some rain magic to bring the rain and wash it away." But they can't wash away all the Internet humor that has been generated as a result, including this hysterical animated gif of Homer doing a ring-toss with his donut. Wait a couple of seconds for the animation to start.]

So what are we to make of all this? What have all these artists in the Christian tradition been onto? Is this idea likely to lead us astray? Not necessarily. I think any time we really encounter God with all or any part of our person truly naked before him, it is an awesome (in the older sense of the word: terrifying; awe-inspiring) encounter. As C.S. Lewis said, God is not safe -- but he is good. That is not a reason to hold back our sexuality from him, but to be very careful with it, as it is a precious thing. And what better a gift to give to him than something we treasure?

There's a lot more to say on such a huge subject (the role of the marital union in symbolizing the relationship of Christ and the Church; marriage vs. singleness: which is the "better" state to be in for relationship to God; etc.). Maybe we can spin this off into a whole new thread at some point. But I'd best get back to my sermon...which is going to mention synaesthesia in Scripture, BTW, thanks to you bringing it up in your post on synaesthesia in Williams. (The text I was assigned to preach on just "happened" to be 2 Cor 2:14 - 3:11 which begins with that "we are the aroma of Christ" passage.)