A Gift for Our Times
Chapter Six: Word Made Wound
In Herbert’s poetic sequence, where the suffering flesh becomes poetic speech, language must undergo the same joys and miseries as the speaker who sings the songs of praise or woe. The poet frequently stresses that his role is not that of a skilled craftsman who “curls” metaphors and shapes words into curious patterns, not that of a gifted artist who sings heavenly notes dictated by the Muse and delivers nature from its present, “brazen” state, offering prospects of the golden, unblemished ideal. His task consists in imitating the Word of God who suffered rejection, was nailed to the cross, but through obedience overcame death and rose from the grave. It is this programme of Christian poetics that accounts for the surprisingly modern quality of Herbert’s poetry, which despite its undoubted mastery never forgets that speaking is also a form of death: the words which I utter leave me and become the property of the hearer, who may use or abuse them as it pleases him. Every word may be misheard or maliciously ignored, every utterance may be subject to fortuitous misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation.
1. Winter’s Fee
The trust in the poet’s insight that is so deeply embedded in Renaissance apologies for poetry is conspicuously absent from The Temple. Instead, the speaker constantly reminds the reader of the illusory charm of worldly fame and beauty (as when in the garden he spots “a gallant flower, / The crown Imperial” at whose roots, to his...
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