Wednesday, April 03, 2013

`Thou Art a Masse of Strange Delights'

George Herbert (1593-1633) published none of his English poems during his lifetime. In his biography of Herbert, vividly written if not always reliable, Izaak Walton reports the poet shortly before his death gave the manuscript of The Temple to his friend Edmund Duncon. Herbert described the poems as a “picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my Soul.” He told Duncon to give them to Nicholas Ferrar, who was instructed to publish them if they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” or else burn them. Ferrar published The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations shortly after Herbert’s death, and the book went through eleven editions by 1695. 

Herbert has been much admired by poets as spiritually and poetically varied as Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Elizabeth Bishop, R.S. Thomas, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney. A man’s presence suffuses the poems, which are characterized by elegance, piety, unexpected word choices, wit, sweetness and occasional ferocity. Consider the second stanza of “Affliction (IV)”: 

“My thoughts are all a case of knives,
                     Wounding my heart
                     With scatter’d smart,
As watring pots give flowers their lives.
               Nothing their furie can controll,
               While they do wound and prick my soul.” 

The image of self-lacerating thoughts as knives feels so modern it might show up in a pulp novel or film noir, yet it precisely represents “the many spiritual Conflicts” Herbert describes. The transition to “watring pots” is breathtaking. Look at “The Holy Scripture (I),” written in the decades following the publication of the King James Bible in 1611: 

“Oh Book! infinite sweetnesse! let my heart
             Suck ev’ry letter, and a hony gain,
             Precious for any grief in any part;
To cleare the breast, to mollifie all pain. 

“Thou art all health, health thriving till it make
             A full eternitie: thou art a masse
             Of strange delights, where we may wish & take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasse, 

“That mends the lookers eyes: this is the well
             That washes what it shows.  Who can indeare
             Thy praise too much?  thou art heav’ns Lidger here,
“Working against the states of death and hell. 

            “Thou art joyes handsell: heav’n lies flat in thee,
             Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.” 

“Indeare” means to increase the value of something. A “Lidger” is a confederate and a “handsel” is an omen of good luck but also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a gift or present (expressive of good wishes) at the beginning of a new year, or on entering upon any new condition, situation, or circumstances” – in this case, a rebirth in God. At once formal and conversational – the voice of one man speaking -- the poem is a breathless profusion of images suggesting one might know “a full eternitie.” 

In his introduction to A Choice of George Herbert’s Verse, an anthology he edited in 1967, R.S. Thomas says his fellow poet/Anglican priest “demonstrates both the possibility and the desirability of a friendship with God. Friendship is no longer the right way to describe it. The word now is dialogue, encounter, confrontation, but the realities engaged have not altered all that much.” You can almost hear Thomas chuckling, bitterly. Walton writes of Herbert: “Thus he lived and thus he died, like a Saint, unspotted of the world, full of alms-deeds, full of humility, and all the examples of a virtuous life.” 

Herbert was born on this date, April 3, in 1593, and died on March 1, 1633, age thirty-nine.

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