Tuesday, September 22, 2009

George Herbert

This post is to combine two things that I adore: George Herbert and Norton Critical Editions.

George Herbert was a rather dour-looking Welsh clergyman of the early 17th Century. I’ve had a fondness for his poetry for as long as I can remember, but his appeal is difficult to quantify. Religion was his consuming muse, but, as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the undercurrents of doubt are what creates the frisson that renders his poems much more than mere homilies. One has the sense that he’s trying to persuade himself rather than potential readers, constructing ornate castles of belief in the hope that one of them will contain the impregnable argument that will finally cement his faith. Plus, he really has a way with metaphor.

As a thoroughgoing liberal arts nerd, I have an inordinate fondness for Norton Critical Editions. For the uninitiated, these combine selected works of great writers with key criticism and commentary. It’s not that I’ve read any of them cover to cover, but there’s something appealing in the idea that should I ever get a hankering to revisit the Stanley Fish argument that Herbert’s poems were modeled on prayer book acrostics (or something like that –- it’s been a long time since grad school), a wealth of critical resources is at my fingertips in one slim volume. I think I’m like a Norton Critical Edition groupie. Or something.

Church Monuments

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death's incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust

My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble put for signs,

To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent; that when thou shalt grow fat,

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

George Herbert on Wikipedia

George Herbert on Poets.org

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