Thursday, June 24, 2021

'I Felt a Sugar’d Strange Delight'

Surprise is among the underrated poetic virtues, and not to be confused with mere shock. The first time I saw the word “fuck” in print was in an Allen Ginsberg poem, and that was mere shock, as in a cheesily explicit horror movie. Nor do I mean surprise used as a clumsy, tacked-on plot element – maniac with a knife behind the door. I have in mind word choice, as when Philip Larkin writes “the serene / Foreheads of houses” in "Coming." Foreheads is carefully weighed, unexpected but appropriate, something the reader will recognize and accept as not mere attention-seeking on the part of the poet. The word reads as surprising yet natural and almost concealed. For the careful reader, “foreheads” enhances the poem while lending itself a new level of meaning. Now consider this: “I felt a sugar’d strange delight.” 

I’ve read George Herbert’s “The Glance” a hundred times but that line has now reached out and grabbed me. Say it aloud and pay attention to the dancing movement of your tongue. I salivated, even though I don’t have a sweet tooth. “Sugar’d” and “delight” have a natural link but what about “strange”? Read it in context: “I felt a sugar’d strange delight, / Passing all cordials made by any art.” “Strange” here suggests novel, surprising, unexpected. The OED cites Herbert’s use of “sugar’d” and gives this definition: “of actions, states, etc.: frequently, having an attractive outward appearance, alluring.” The visual image it conjures for this reader is more literal: the delight is dusted with sugar like beignets.


A glance is the subtlest of visual acts, the opposite of staring. The one who glances is God, for Whom a glance suffices. In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury writes of the poem:


“The subject . . . is eye-contact, as important as it is unspoken in the everyday communications of person with person. As usual with Herbert, one of the persons is God, but the atheist reader is not thereby barred from its truth to the universal experience, from cradle to grave, of reading and exchanging looks or glances.”


Sticking with the “sugar’d” theme, Herbert writes in the second stanza: “But still thy sweet originall joy, / Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul.”

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