A Gift for Our Times
Chapter Four: Flesh Made Word
1. Nerves in Patterns
One of the distinctive features of New Philosophy is the new interest in the empirical world and the human body. Commenting on seventeenth-century poetry, one critic observed that we often encounter “ancient sentiments” expressed in “disturbingly modern and scientific” ways, and referring to the medical idiom of many love poems, including George Herbert’s pursuits of divine Love, he defined them as “an anatomy, which murders to dissect”.167 In order to understand the poetry which illustrates this scientific turn of the seventeenth century, we must therefore pay due attention to such daring descents into the “internal inferno” of human “violent anatomy”, to borrow an apt metaphor coined in our times by a Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska. This detour will help us anchor our reading of Herbert’s poetry in the contemporary phenomenology of the flesh. The phrase used by Szymborska entails all that the modern reader finds so up to date in the idiom of English metaphysical poets: the liability of the flesh, the anarchy of our appetites, the sour-sweet immediate experience of human corporeality. We are not like onions, Szymborska humorously observed, filled with nothing but “pure onionhood”. On the contrary, “our skin is just a cover-up for the land where none dares go”; the speaker explains that “we hold veins, nerves and fat”.168 Herbert’s spiritual struggles, as we shall argue, are also firmly set in the feeling and suffering body which, although it has been made of insensitive “clay...
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