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?