Herbert, Donne, and the Cunning Use of Language

Rachel Thorpe was in her second year of studying English at Sidney Sussex College when she wrote this piece on the distinctive accessibility of George Herbert's language. While Herbert was often considered by his contemporaries to be John Donne's poetical heir, this essay focuses on the important differences in their respective styles.

'Catching the sense at two removes'

For T. S. Eliot, writing in 1926, there was no question that the work of Herbert in The Temple was indebted to that of his poetic predecessor, John Donne. Eliot wrote: "Herbert must have learned from Donne the cunning use of both the learned and the common word, to give the sudden shock of surprise and delight" (my emphasis). This 'cunning' use of language was something that concerned Herbert throughout his poetic career, and he was often gripped by paranoia that the work of the poet was one of obscuring God's truth. In 'Jordan (I)' he writes:

Must all be vail'd, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Donne, by contrast, revels in first obscuring his meaning, and then unravelling it for his reader. Perhaps his most famous secular poem is 'The Flea', in which a flea forms the centre of the the speaker's argument - to persuade his mistress to come to bed with him. Donne communicates at two removes:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is.

Not only does the flea represent something to the woman addressed in the poem ('mark...'), but the poem represents, by that representation, something to its reader ('mark in this...'). The improbability of the image, too, makes the reader uneasy, and necessitates a justification.

How is it then that Herbert, the poet of self-conscious plainness, can be said to have been influenced by Donne, the poet of the extended metaphor?

'In paraphrase'

Herbert's poem 'Prayer (I)' is a list of phrases synonymous with the noun 'prayer'.

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

No element in this list is grammatically privileged, nor is there a driving argument. Rather, Herbert expresses the simplicity, and through that simplicity the mystery, of prayer. Each image has its significance within itself - prayer is just as much 'the Churches banquet' as it is 'reversèd thunder' or 'the soul in paraphrase'. Each image is complete within itself, yet rich in meaning.

For example, while 'reversèd thunder' is an image we can accommodate within the poem, what does it mean? A familiar image is that of God showing violence towards human beings, or even dealing punishment, by throwing lightning bolts - an image borrowed from Greek mythology and Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning. That we might be able to reverse the process, hurling thunder 'against th' Almightie', is a startling suggestion. Is this the power that prayer allows us? Certainly prayer might be thought the reciprocation of sound as our accumulated, desperate pleas thunder in heaven. Prayer invites us into a relationship where we have a voice and a form to speak to the Almighty. Coming to such an understanding may help us unravel some of Herbert's meaning, but it does not destroy the beauty and mystery of the image.

So how does this image work in relation to the poem as a whole? Having started with 'Gods breath in man', it becomes a fearful tune, which is used as an 'Engine against th' Almightie'. And yet, despite the seeming connotations of violence and anger implicit in the roar of thunder leaving man's mouth, it is further 'transpos[ed]' so it becomes 'Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse'. Prayer, then, is in this image a passionate and resounding growl coming from somewhere deep within the human soul. It expresses anger and frustration, and is a fearful tune. Yet it is at once made into something sweet sounding. For Herbert, this is possible because of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Romans 8:26, KJV)

It is significant that prayer becomes audible in this poem - a 'tune' - only when it is expressive of anger and frustration. Prayer is a form which allows human language to express something true to God, and yet it must be transposed back again, by God's power, into something unspeakable. For God can skip over the stage of human language and make 'something understood' in the individual, transcending clever metaphor and elaborate rhetoric.

Herbert is desperate, as much as possible, to bypass the stage of human poeticizing, and instead to replicate the way that God through nature expressed the unutterable. He feels that this is the true commission of the poet, as a 'friend' tells him:

There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense. ('Jordan (II)', ll. 17-18)

But the decision to reproduce in words what already exists in nature is not simply one to 'save expense'. Herbert's fear is greater than that of wasted labour. The concern that language may become too rich is connected to a concept of what poetry is for. Quite the opposite from Sir Philip Sidney (writing around 1580), Herbert was quite sure that poetry was not capable of 'making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature'. (Sidney, An Apology for Poetry) For Herbert, God is the only and the most almighty creator, and the poet could never hope to rival or out-do him.

His metaphors therefore do not try to adorn the truth, or to distance his poems from the nature or the God that they describe. Rather, they are emblems or hieroglyphs, encapsulating meaning and mystery in a way which allows readers immediately to understand. The seeming simplicity of Herbert's language and images allows readers to feel they can grasp what he is saying, and share in the poems as 'something understood'. The reader of 'Prayer' does not need, then, to 'divine' its meaning; rather, the reader simply experiences the transition from pride to anger and back to humility.

'Something understood'

Donne on the other hand uses lists to keep his readers in the dark, and in suspense, before his final explanation. His poem 'Song (Go, and catch a falling star)' begins a list of impossible tasks, which he later likens to the impossible task of finding 'a woman true, and fair'. The motive which drives the list is the revelation of the ultimate unattainable act, but the reader is left unaware of this until the end of the first stanza, wholly reliant on Donne to provide a rationale for the poem.

The reader is even more reliant on Donne in a poem like 'The Flea'. Although to a contemporary reader the conceit would have seemed a little more appropriate because of its connection with other poems about exploring the female body, Donne still needs to explain exactly how 'This flea is you and I'. The immediacy of Herbert's hieroglyphs is replaced by a sense of distance and confusion, soluble only by the intrusion of the poetic voice.

From this position of power within the poem, Donne is able to deliver the list of 'Song' as a set of instructions, prefixed by the verb 'Go'. The imperative form is often found in Donne, even when he addresses God. In one of his Holy Sonnets, he directs him:

Batter my heart, three person'd God,

and he continues his catalogue of instructions, which culminate in the paradoxical command to God, 'imprison me'.

Herbert is far more subservient, and even when violent verbs encroach upon his poems (e.g. in 'The Collar': 'I struck the board, and cry'd, No more'), it is God who is able to still him:

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, child:
And I reply'd, My Lord.

The final word, though Herbert's, is one of obedience and recognition, putting God in the place of authority.

Donne's religious poems, however, stop short of imagining any responsive voices, and the voice of God does not appear in his poetry. Often he ends his poems by pre-empting the response of the reader, or imagined recipient of the poem, thus quieting them. 'The Flea' ends on the twist that in fact the killing of the flea only goes to further prove his case. While it may seem that 'thou triumph'st', in fact, his argument is proven: ''Tis true'. 'Song' ends when Donne tells his (male) reader that even if he were to succeed in the impossible task of finding a faithful woman, she would not remain so anyway. No other voice is allowed to intrude to question, as the poems rest on Donne's ability to prove his images relevant and appropriate, and to safeguard them against queries and complaints. His language gains authority, and his images significance, through his argumentative reasoning.

Herbert on the other hand uses images that are significant in themselves, which imitate nature's mystery rather than surprising or brow-beating the reader. He moves away from Donne's highly performative, authoritative poetic voice to find his own. It is quieter and softer, often found in the whisper of a friend. While at times it is 'fierce and wilde', and always mysterious, it is simple and immediate, full of

Softenesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse.

Eliot is perhaps right, that Herbert learnt from Donne the power of using words astutely, for effect. Yet he does so carefully, and as Eliot goes on to note, he does not use his knowledge of language to claim poetic authority, as Donne does. Rather, he is 'a master of the simple everyday in the right place, and charges it with concentrated meaning' - meaning rich yet simple, mysterious yet transparent, paraphrased from nature yet something that - because it reflects our own experience, and our own nature - can be understood.

Further Reading

It is best to start with Herbert by enjoying his poems, but if you want to find out a little more, try Eliot's short introduction, which is written as a study guide:

  • T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (London: Longmans, Green, 1962).

If you are interested in Herbert's concerns about the role of the poet, try:

  • Ernest B. Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

To think more about what metaphor does in poems and other texts, you might look at:

  • Terence Hawkes, Metaphor (London: Methuen, 1972).

For thoughts on Donne, see:

  • John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber, 1981).

And for other critical readings of Herbert, the following are a sample of helpful books:

  • Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1979).
  • Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
  • M. E. Rickey, Utmost Art: Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966).
  • Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954).

Further Thinking

Rachel Thorpe notices, in this article on Herbert's poetry, how Herbert seems to use language (and images) in an open, unassertive way, while at the same time achieving 'charge' and 'concentrated meaning'. Can you find your own examples of the surprising everydayness of Herbert's diction?

Rachel Thorpe's representation of Herbert's poetry might almost suggest that, in his posture of humility and obedience, Herbert risks writing poetry so simple that it becomes boring. But she also suggests that this simpleness arises from the way Herbert's poetry 'copies' the world he sees around him, and replicates for the reader the experience of that world. In what ways do you think reading a poem like 'Prayer (I)' might create the experience of prayer? Can you think of other poets who who induce in their readers the experience of the thing they are representing?

Comments are closed.