Gimme That Ole’ Time Religion:

An Essay on an Anglican Divine in two parts

It has often been commented that because he translated the Bible into German, Martin Luther did more to shape the German language than anybody previous. In that time all academic works were done completely in Latin and the colloquial language remained mostly oral and the general public illiterate. Something similar happened in English, the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible was also instrumental in uniting and shaping English. But there are three other works which aided in this evolution of English: The 1559 then 1662 Books of Common Prayer of the Church of England, the Works of Shakespeare, and the pious poetry of George Herbert. It is George Herbert that I will be looking at. After setting up a very brief bio, I will examine several of his “concrete” poems, and finish with an evaluation of his “Afflictions.”

George Herbert was born April 3rd, 1593 in Wales to Richard and Magdalene Herbert. This is the year Shakespeare wrote “Venus and Adonis” and only one year later the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker would write the first parts of his monumental book “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” which would be absolutely influential in the Church in which Herbert was to grow up in and serve till his dying day. The English Reformation was not yet fully over and there was yet to be even more huge political and religious turmoil culminating towards the end of Herbert’s life even in the abolition of the Episcopacy.

I mention this because for such a time of rapid change and intrigue, one would hardly have guessed it from the collected works of this “simple” poet/priest. For a time it seemed that Herbert was to be a scholar. Well schooled in many things George was to be a teacher at Cambridge for a time. But since his youth he had felt a call to be a priest, and in time he gave in, moved from his places of considerable influence and prestige to a small country parish where he would live out the rest of his days. He was close to the famous poet John Donne, but he never fancied that he would become significant himself; as evidenced by his dying request to his friend Nicholas Ferrar concerning his poetry:

“. . . tell him (Ferrar) he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul . . . [I] desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it . . .” – emphasis mine

This does not sound like one who is a master of the English language, rather a poor humble man; which seems to me to be exactly as he would like it

I would like to turn first to a certain number of his poems, and two specifically which seem to be well ahead of their time: “The Altar,” “Easter Wings” and.  These poems all organize the words and stanzas (where there are some) into the shape of what it is talking about, or some other creative shape of the words on the page. These “spatialist poems” predate significantly poems such as Emmett Williams “Like Attracts Like” [1967] or Hansjorg Mayer’s “carmina figurate” [1943]. And in a perhaps unexpected way, Herbert’s complex poems such as these came earlier in his life. At that time he was more prone to delve into the complex forms and experimental methodologies. Later in life he believed simplicity was linked to humility and piety so he experimented less in these overtly nuevo forms; though I would not go so far as to say he was “less creative” or “less complex” later in life. Indeed, it is quite astounding what he can do with strict forms, and his boundless mind was able to meet many a challenge fit into a stanza. Since the visual aspect is so very important I will set out the three poems below.

“The Altar”
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is s uch a stone
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctify this A L T A R to be thine.

“Easter Wings”
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poor:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:

Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did begin:
And still with sickness and shame
Thou didst so punish sin,
That I became
Most thin.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day thy victory:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

As one can see, The Altar is a concrete, mimetopoetic carmen figuratum. But more so than being merely a poem shaped as an Altar, the poem uses the other unique technique of capitalizing four words that play off each others theme and position in the poem. The top and the bottom line both capitalize ALTAR. The first line has the altar being broken – “a broken altar” – and the bottom has it being “sanctified,” that is reformed into something once again useable. But useful for what? This is where the other words come into play. Well his “heart” of course is what should be “sacrificed.” Like the “altar” it is referred to as a “stone” in line 6, and in 14 stones are bid to praise unceasing. The heart is not merely broken, but as line 4 indicates, it is worked upon by a “workman.” The theme from top to bottom is circular, the heart, as the altar, must be broken to become useful again, for use in praise.
We see here the incredible craft of Herbert. No only is it organized strictly, but the verses themselves are shaped into a single “form;” implying rigidity. But the words themselves reveal that the form must be broken to be remade, with an almost line to line mirror effect.

In Easter Wings we also see form being used not simply in the actual physical shape of the poem, but in the themes and overall message. Complexity forced into simplicity, revealing great skill. For instance, the first line in the first stanza referring to the creation of mankind, and the first line in the second stanza referring to his own creation; the “beginning of his tender age.” The first stanza moves on to recount the classical Christian doctrine of the “fall of man” (cemented as a theme in line 10), and the implication is that ‘Easter,’ that is “this day” of “victories” is the reversal of the fall. But as with the Altar, the second stanza, though it can stand on its own, is a mirror of the first; forming a perfect set of wings, and for Herbert (presumably), connecting himself to humanity first, with Easter the “victory,” and second to himself. Easter is not merely humanities salvation, but it is his salvation. The parallels are so intricate it is difficult to explain without a theological background. In the first stanza, second line, we see “the fall” (“lost the same”), the consequence being “decaying;” a “punishment” if you will. But then in the same line, second stanza, it is sin, the master of “decay,” who now is subjected to punishment. The result of the first that “man became most poor,” and of the second that Herbert was made “most thin.” For mankind, death aroused the need for God (“further the flight”), but because of Easter, for Herbert, it is now not death but “affliction” which “advances the flight in” him. From here we will turn to Herbert’s “Afflictions”

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One Comment

  1. Possibly the oldest figure or shape poem is also of a religious theme of considerable sophistication: The Dream of the Rood, an Anglo-Saxon poem written likely in the 8th century. In it, the Rood of Christ appears to the poet and describes the crucifixion. There is considerable evidence that the author of the poem was familiar with the relatively recent Council of Chalcedon and incorporated Chalcedonian Christology into the poem. Christ is described as a Germanic hero who takes off his princely garments and climbs up onto the cross. At certain key passages the poetic line is extended to created crossbeams–thus making it a shape poem. If you copy out each poetic line you find that the shape of the cross is repeated several times throughout the poem even though the only extant copy of it is in texto continuo and thus its shape is hidden.

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