Tag Archives: 2000

Even Close Reading is Vanity, Perhaps

Update:  I should point out that this piece, like my article on Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” is an example of an early version of my Religion & Literature specialization.  At this point, I consistently described my major research interest as “Biblical backgrounds to English literature,” and it’s still an important element in my approach to scholarship.

And here’s a brief close reading of a poem put together for the Metaphysical Poetry and Prose seminar I took with Dr. Robert Ray, who literally wrote the book on Donne and Herbert.  Not much preface required, except to warn you that the conclusion is a bit dull, to be honest:

All is “Vanitie,” Saith the Poet

Like most of The Temple, George Herbert’s “Vanitie” (1) contains a knife-edge balance of Biblical context, personal reflection and public statement, reinforced by careful word choice and using both thematic and aural shifts of tone. Whether by deliberate allusion or incidental similarity of thought, Herbert’s deeply Christian language sends the attuned reader scurrying through the pages of his Bible (or, in this age of marvels, a search engine) for the passage that just eludes the memory. In line 5, for instance, Herbert uses a commercial image to represent the thoughts of the “fleet Astronomer” about the “spheres” he “surveys” so that he “knoweth long before” others what they will do. This image of a planned commercial venture resonates with James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go . . . and make a profit’ . . . you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . you boast in your arrogance.” The similarity of image reinforces the argument against pride that will appear in the following stanzas, and occurs in the only clearly ironic phrase of the stanza.

Another important cluster of Biblical allusions occurs in the last stanza, where God is depicted as putting the law “in us” (cf. Romans 2:14-15 “Law written in their hearts”); “mellowing the ground / With showres and frosts” (cf. Matthew 5:44-45 “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”; Psalm 147 on “frost”; and passim, especially the Matthew 13 parable of the soils, on the human heart as “ground”). The weight of all these (and more) come to bear on the single word “death” (see Proverbs 14:12 “its end is . . . death”) followed by a pregnant caesura (one can almost hear a sob in the space after the comma) and the phrase “but missest life at hand.” The idea that the secret of life is immediately available, “at hand,” invokes a Biblical passage that ties together much of the poem: Deuteronomy 30:11-15 (which is quoted in Romans 10:9-10). In the passage, God speaks to the people through Moses, saying,

this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.

The passage lies closely parallel to the entire poem, particularly the last stanza, in its concepts and even in its images—the word is not “out of reach” (i.e., it is “at hand”) but “in your heart” (i.e., “embosome[d] in us”), it is not “in heaven” or “beyond the sea” (i.e., no “Astronomer” or “Diver” is required). It is a choice of “life . . . and death” in which “man [has] sought out and found” “death, but missest life at hand.”

The public statement in “Vanitie” is among the sharpest in The Temple, especially when it is understood that Herbert’s imagery represents a critique not only of those seekers of secrets the “fleet Astronomer,” “nimble Diver” and “subtil Chymick,” but also of the thoughtless pride of the rest of humanity. This broader critique is carried out in three stages, with a crux in the second stanza. The first stage is so simple as to be easily missed. In line 6, the “Astronomer” is said to know the “aspects, and . . . glances” of the spheres “long before.” “Before,” however, is a preposition demanding an object—and loudly demanding it, for it is left hanging at the end of a short line with a comma to emphasize the resounding silence that follows the word. The stanza is logically and grammatically incomplete, and leaves the reader with the question, “before what?”—a question never fully answered in the first stanza.[ The closest possibility to a first-stanza solution would be “dances,” treating the action content of this noun as if it were verbal (i.e., “knoweth long before [they dance]”). This, however, seems a bit of a stretch; and the reiteration of “before” in line 20, with a completion logically related to the content of lines 5-7, seems a much stronger thematic link.]

This gap is widened in the second stanza, where we find not only the “nimble Diver” and “God” but also an unnamed lady who “wears” the “dearly-earned pearl” which is “her own destruction and [the Diver’s] danger.” The appearance of this extra person begins to hint at a fulfillment of the “before” question of the stanza; there are more people in the poem than the seekers of secrets. The others are represented by the lady just as the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” are represented by the “Diver” in the second stanza’s complex conceit. The interpretive crux of the poem is thus reached in line 14, when it becomes clear that the lady is at least as much the object of criticism as the secret-seekers: for the secret wrested out by the “Diver” is not only “danger” to him but “destruction” to her, a “destruction” she “wears” “with excessive pride.”

It is unsurprising, then, to find the completion of the “before” of the first stanza in the end of the third stanza’s climactic trope. “The subtil Chymick” is to the microcosmic universe what “the fleet Astronomer” is to the macroscomic; both are represented by “the nimble “Diver” of the second stanza. The missing object in the first stanza, represented by the lady in the second, now appears in the form of the “ordinarie suitours at the doore.” The “before what?” becomes “before / They appeare . . . / To ordinarie suitours,” and the parallelism is perfected: the outwardness of “dances” meets the inwardness of “bed-chamber” in the form of the “suitours” who are neither at the dance nor in the bedchamber; who do not see the “secret glances” nor the “naked . . . principles” with which the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” dally.

The first three stanzas, in fact, are a self-contained whole: by the end of line 21 all the conceits have run their course and the characters of the secret-seekers as well as the mass of mankind who pride themselves on following them stand indicted of pride and presumption. It is in the fourth stanza, however, that Herbert moves from public to personal reflection, leaving the violent words (“bore,” “piercing,” “cuts,” “devest,” “strip”) for warmer words of entreaty (“deare,” “glorious,” “embosomes,” “mellowing,” “poore”). The stanza becomes aurally softer and metrically smoother (note the abundance of resonants and round vowels) than the clipped, hurried pace of the first three. The two questions maintain the tone, requiring no downward inflections at all until the end of the stanza; while the lengthy enjambed phrase “thou searchest round to finde out death” (with three repetitions of “ou” and to “d-t” combinations to further slow the pace) ensure a lengthy pause after the climactic word, “death.”

This careful, gentle control of the emotional setting through metrical and aural effects allows Herbert to poignantly express the frustration of watching those to whom every good has been given who still fall short, as well as the contrition of recognizing oneself in that portrait. The poem’s final utterly anti-climactic verb “missest,” as if failure to respond to all God has done were a mischance, creates a striking irony in light of the three stanzas of sharply-worded indictment with which the poem began. The ability to create and control such striking juxtapositions that marks Herbert as one of the prime exemplars of the metaphysical tradition in poetry.

Snakes and Ladies

Back to posting some bits of my past scholarship. Here’s a reading of the first portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene that sketches in the relationship of Error, false Una, and Duessa to the lamia as found in Burton and, later, in Keats. What is lacking, here, is the solid connections back to Keats that would “cash out” the parallel in really fruitful criticism. Also, I think Dr. Hunt thought that treating succubus and lamia as variants of the same thing was mistaken. Nonetheless, here you have my first extended exercise in reading in terms of proper allegory, rather than the coarser Bunyanesque labels-and-discourses sort. Thanks to Dr. Hunt for getting me started down that path!

Here, then, is “What Dreams May Come”:

Preliminary Paper
(Short Presentation)
Dr. Maurice Hunt
November 8, 2000

“What Dreams May Come”: Spenserian Succubi in Book I of The Faerie Queen

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.[. Milton, Aeropagitica.]


Beauty is truth, truth Beauty.[. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”]


Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But wander too and fro in wayes vnknowne.[. FQ, 1.1.10.]

When Spenserian heroes enter the magic woodland of Renaissance lore, they do so with considerably more baggage than their counterparts in Shakespeare’s bright comedies; coming in love or in service of quests, they find themselves in an allegorical dreamland where only by becoming masters of the story–by usurping the poet’s pen and the reader’s eyes–can they hope to survive with their virtue, the very essence of their allegorical being, intact. Keats longed for a life of allegory, and Milton refused his praise to “fugitive and cloister’d virtue,” but for Spenser’s characters, the exercise of virtue is survival. In Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight (RCK) and Una find themselves in a veritable wonderland of doppelgangers and doublings, in which what “seemde” wise and safe a moment ago may turn into deadly danger without warning–except those who, like the reader, hold the key to discernment, the text, in their hands. The order and characteristics of the RCK’s female adversaries reflect the classical myth of the lamia, using it as a recognizable structure by which the reader (and the Red Cross Knight) lay hold on the truth needed to “prefer that which is truly better.”

The lamia, generally held to be a Greek variant of an old Sumerian legend, arrived in English literary culture through two paths: the classical mythologies, with their incubi and succubi, and medieval Jewish thought, which features the legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and of the many liliths often held to be her spawn (among other demons). Both branches share the same essential elements, though with significant variants. The medieval Jewish variant explains the existence of liliths and glosses the Genesis account of Creation by postulating an original wife for Adam who was created from dust, as was Adam, and who, refusing to be subordinate to Adam, fled the garden and became the consort of Satan. She is most feared as a killer of infants, but also comes to men in their dreams in order to breed demons from their nocturnal emissions. As both infanticide and succubus, her effect on the victim is a vampiric wasting as a result of lost body fluids and the suffocating of the spirit. As consort of Satan, she also bears him demonic children, among whom are other liliths.[. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.] The classical variant includes the general idea of the succubus, as well as the more sustained illusion referred to by Burton:

Lycius, a young man . . . met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, “he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she being fair and lovely would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold.” The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius, who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia . . . when she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she . . . vanished.[. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,]

Burton’s recounting of this lamia encounter recorded by Philostratus provided the source material for Keats’ narrative poem Lamia; it also provides a suggestive context in which to examine Spenser’s use of serpent and dream imagery in portraying RCK’s female enemies. While it is difficult to verify the likelihood that Jewish myth directly affected Spenser’s writing, it is certain that both the Jewish and the classical milieus contribute to the lamia legendary, so that both should be remembered in readings of The Faerie Queene (FQ).

When RCK and Una enter the forest, they do so “with pleasure forward led” into what “seemes” a “faire harbour.”[. FQ, 1.1.7-8.] The experienced reader of Spenser knows that “seemes” is an immediate warning that the characters have misread the descriptive passages, that they do not understand their surroundings; but the characters themselves have not yet learned by experience the way to distinguish truth from appearances, and the naive reader projected by Spenser’s “fashioning” project will only discover the danger of what “seemes” in retrospect. A more direct warning comes when Una, or Truth, warns RCK that the place “breedes dreadfull doubts.” Having plunged in thus far, however, to their walk into allegorical dreamland, the forested dark which starlight cannot penetrate, RCK and Una do not turn back; instead, they press forward, and immediately encounter the first lamia figure in Book 1, the female serpent-fiend Error.

Given the analogic structure of allegory, Error is best seen as a representation of the outcome of RCK’s and Una’s choices: to ignore the textual (scenic) clues to their danger, to be led on by pleasure, and to press on even when the nature of their mistake becomes apparent. Etymologically, “error” derives from the Latin erro, “to wander”; RCK and Una err (exercise bad judgment) when they err (wander about). Given that RCK is a knight errant, as are all of the primary heroes in FQ, it is significant that the tendency to wander and to misjudge is the first adversary he must overcome.

Error’s lamia characteristics are obvious; she is a disgusting creature, “Halfe like a serpent” and half woman.[. FQ, 1.1.14.] While RCK is portrayed as awake, the shift to interior action as RCK, belatedly and ineffectually warned of his wanderings by Truth, confronts Error suggests that the darkened wood is also RCK’s darkened–whether by sleep or by moral confusion–consciousness. Error’s nakedness is so blatant as to be unattractive, and while there is definite sexual potential in her entwining of RCK, it is thoroughly diffused by her entirely beastly behavior, including her use of vomiting as a defense mechanism. Error is the lamia stripped of seduction, a naked but hideous creature (much like the syphilitic Lust portrayed in the House of Pride) whose assault is through venom and suffocation, and whose children glut cannibalistically on body fluids until they burst.[. FQ, 1.1.25-6.]

Una congratulates RCK on his victory, and the episode ends with their escape from the woods. Having defeated the obvious Error, however, the RCK has yet to learn how to distinguish truth from error–no great compliment to RCK, as he is travelling with the beautiful lady Truth herself, and has seen hideous Error face-to-face. Una, as Truth personified, is placed in an unenviable position; like truth presented to the human mind, her ability to act her role is completely dependent on the ability of the reader–and RCK as reader–to distinguish her from false appearances. Should RCK fail to recognize Truth when presented with a choice, Una herself is left helpless, subject to being used (or abused, which for a person is very much the same) by any who have the power to bend her to their will. This vulnerability, hinted at in the Error episode, becomes the major problem with which both RCK and Una must grapple throughout the rest of the book.

Upon leaving the forest of Error, RCK and Una encounter the hermit, known to the experienced reader as Archimago but appearing to the naive (hence to RCK) as a “holy father” who “seemed . . . sagely sad, / . . . as one that did repent”[. FQ, 1.1.29-30.] RCK and Una have not learned that what “seemed” right in the Error case and “seemes” right about the Hermit will inevitably turn out to be false appearance; their ability to “read the text aright” is impaired by their inexperience, and they are prevailed upon to sleep at the Hermitage. Una, Truth herself, is used by Archimago to persuade RCK to stop, despite his hesitancy;[. FQ, 1.1.32.] it is RCK’s duty to make the distinction, and his inability to do so leaves Truth free to be manipulated by the deceiver. Sleeping at the Hermitage, RCK encounters the second lamia figure, the false Una conjured by Archimago.

The false Una, because of her brief appearance and specifically sexual appeal, is the most obvious succubus to the reader, though not to RCK. In the middle of troubled dreams of error and temptation, which RCK does not awake to confront, the false Una is introduced. Posing as Una, and attempting (as Venus and Juno do for Dido) to give the ambience of marriage without the fact, the false Una directly attempts to seduce RCK, who is already morally compromised: in true lilith fashion, the lustful “sprite” so works in his dreams that “nigh his manly heart did melt away.”[. FQ, 1.1.47.] RCK has learned the true face of Error, though; confronted directly with the seduction, he “start[s] up” and avoids the deed itself; to him, the idea of “doing ought amis” is as shocking as Error’s vomit assault.[. FQ, 1.1.49.] The first lesson has been learned, it seems: RCK will not be “with pleasure forward led” even by Una herself. The second, and harder, lesson, however, has yet to be learned: RCK does not know Truth sufficiently well to distinguish her from an impostor, and not only cannot differentiate between the false Una who seduces him and the Una he knows but is deceived by Archimago’s shadow-play into believing that Una had left seducing him only to go on to another sexual encounter.[. FQ, 1.2.5.] The total effect of this lamia encounter, both in sleeping and in waking dreams (for Archimago’s sprites are but temporarily embodied dream-creatures), is once more consumptive: RCK “did his stout heart eat, / And wast his inward gall with deepe despight, / Yrksome of life, and too long lingring night.”[. FQ, 1.2.6.]

RCK’s failure to note the use of the word “seemed” with reference to the Hermit’s godliness and his concomitant failure to recognize a false appearance of truth lead to his abandonment of Truth altogether. Fleeing the scene of what he can only perceive (given his faulty perceptions) as a humiliating betrayal, RCK leaves Una “wandring in woods and forests”;[. FQ, 1.2.9.] without a discerning reader, Truth herself becomes lost in the maze of error. Una’s misadventures with the false RCK, Archimago in disguise, and her subsequent captures and rescues, demonstrate the vulnerability of Truth when unaccompanied by a reader able to recognize her.

RCK, having abandoned Truth, soon encounters Duessa, the third lamia of Book 1.[. FQ, 1.2.13.] Whereas Error was raw, with no seductive cover, and false Una was an imitation of Truth, Duessa’s appearance as Fidessa is a complete fiction. With Una as a basis for comparison, Fidessa’s duplicity would be readily visible; having abandoned Truth on the basis of appearances, however, RCK is now vulnerable to mere appearances with no resemblance to Truth; mearly calling “false Duessa” by the name “Fidessa” is sufficient to change her entire character in his eyes, and he is unable to correctly read the repeated clues in such lines as “Her seeming dead he found with feigned feare, / As all unweeting of that well she knew.”[. FQ, 1.2.44-5.] He continues acting on the basis of his quest, but his actions are now entirely inappropriate for the actual conditions masked by the waking dream cast by Duessa. The Fradubio and Fraelissa episode underscores Duessa’s lamia nature, as Duessa is shown in a typical succubus role (“false witch”), enchanting the lover’s vision so as to win him away from his true love, before revealing her true appearance as another, more hideous Error–loathsome woman above, misshapen monster beneath. Duessa’s final treatment of Fradubio–the dream-potion and poison–is one more variant on the classic lamia / vampire motif; Fradubio and Fraelissa both become undead creatures themselves, condemned to “waste” away while “Banisht from liuing wights.”[. 1.2.34-42.] Despite all that has gone before, however, at the very end of Canto 2 RCK has been rendered “all passed feare”;[. FQ, 1.2.45.] as it was the “wonted fear of doing ought amis” resulting from his encounter with Error which woke RCK from the dream of false Una, this sudden fearlessness is ominous.[. FQ, 1.1.49.]

Duessa’s treatment of RCK is reminiscent of the story from Philostratus recounted by Burton; the victim, a noble youth who is of good judgment except in affairs de coeur, is led to an enchanted home by the lamia, where he lives in careless pleasure (though RCK’s encounter with Error has inoculated against openly allying himself with Lucifera and Satan, he does not withdraw from Duessa when she does so).[. FQ, 1.4.2ff.] The entire House of Pride episode, like the confrontation with Error, is so structured that it must be viewed not only as a scenario in which RCK is one character, but also as a display of RCK’s internal conflicts upon his abandonment of Truth. He is humiliated and enraged at Una’s apparent betrayal, and abandoning Truth he is deceived by appearances which have no relation to truth–they are chimeras out of his psyche, realized by Duessa’s ability to enter sleeping dreams and create waking dreams. Duessa clearly reveals her close affiliation with Hell through her appeal to the gods of the underworld to save Sansjoy, and also adds another level to the allusion to Scylla that runs throughout the lamia characterizations in FQ.[. FQ, 1.5.19ff.] As in the lamia story from Philostratus, RCK is only alerted to the danger when another character (the Dwarf here serves for Apollonius) sees the grisly reality behind the charade and warns him to flee: as in the case of Error, the Dwarf correctly realizes that “this is no place for liuing men.”[. FQ, 1.1.13.] Stirred once more to fear, RCK escapes the final evil.

RCK, however, is still vulnerable to the lamia. Lying down to rest after the escape from the House of Pride (where he has done deadly battle with Sansjoy), he is once more overtaken by the illusion of Fidessa, and lulled by her enchanting conversation and the pleasures of nature, is won back to friendship with her in a startlingly short period–little more than a single stanza. Duessa’s lamia behavior now becomes even more clear; having come to him in sleep, she leads him to a pool which causes the familiar consumptive symptoms–chills like fever, frailty, and emasculation–suffered by victims of a succubus.[. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.] Duessa is finally successful with this treatment; exhausted, and having repeatedly escaped positive moral or physical destruction, RCK is unable to prevent his capture by the giant Orgoglio.

Arthur’s reuniting of RCK with Una and his stripping of Duessa–rendering Duessa the raw, naked Error that Fradubio perceived her to be too late–resolves the narrative plot; but one of the most important lessons of Book 1 lies in its education of RCK, and of the reader, to the importance of noticing the textual features–in the narrative, the scenery and characterization–for the protectors of Truth from false appearance that they are. Only if RCK–and the reader–learn to distrust all that is introduced with “seems” and to look instead for Truth; only if the reader–and RCK–truly espouses truth in a way which foils Archimago’s use of a false Una and prevents future rudderless encounters with the powerful Duessa can the reader, or the Knight–and in the end, Spenser considers them one and the same–hope to survive life or poetry with intact virtue.


  1. Milton, Aeropagitica.
  2. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  3. FQ, 1.1.10.
  4. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.
  5. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,
  6. FQ, 1.1.7-8.
  7. FQ, 1.1.14.
  8. FQ, 1.1.25-6.
  9. FQ, 1.1.29-30.
  10. FQ, 1.1.32.
  11. FQ, 1.1.47.
  12. FQ, 1.1.49.
  13. FQ, 1.2.5.
  14. FQ, 1.2.6.
  15. FQ, 1.2.9.
  16. FQ, 1.2.13.
  17. FQ, 1.2.44-5.
  18. 1.2.34-42.
  19. FQ, 1.2.45.
  20. FQ, 1.1.49.
  21. FQ, 1.4.2ff.
  22. FQ, 1.5.19ff.
  23. FQ, 1.1.13.
  24. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.

Herbert and Confession, in one sense

This is one of my favorite pieces from early in grad school, as it has so much just plain fun study of the details of a great poet’s craft—and one of a pair of special favorites (the other being John Donne).  I also got to enjoy working with T. S. Eliot’s line of criticism on the metaphysical poets, something that has become an important landmark for me.

There are a couple details that might be of interest, here.  First, the discussion of “The Quip” is especially interesting, and I think my reading holds up pretty well (though it may not be as surprising as I thought at the time).  Second, my reading of what “confession” is holds for one sense of confession, but turns on a mistaken notion that “confession” should be parsed as “to speak with” rather than having its own proper meaning—and a too-narrow interpretation of the meaning of “speak with” rather than any of the other senses in which “to confess” is used in English.  This is a common false etymology, but improved knowledge both of the history of English and of the Latin makes it obvious it is a mistake.

Finally, the conclusion of this paper is—and I am surprised to remember this—perhaps the cleanest statement of the critical insight I was to work for the next several years (during which I would often style myself a “post-structuralist fundamentalist”).  Here is a paper, completed in May of 2000 for a seminar on the metaphysical poets, and the argument sketched here is the one I would be capping off with my dissertation, completed in 2009:

Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

I would eventually be quite satisfied that I had made that argument—and quite unable to live with the results.  But the effort of scrutiny, and the effort to subject all claims to the authority of the Word of God, was not wasted.  It just needed to be liberated from some errors, and understood in its own proper frame of reference.

Here, then, one of my favorite pieces of criticism from my early graduate school days:

“Dark as Day”:  Speaking with God in Herbert’s Temple

T. S. Eliot says of George Herbert that “it was only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness, in his self-questioning and his religious meditation, that he was inspired as a poet” (21).  Herbert’s poetry, though neglected like much of the poetry in the metaphysical tradition, has long thrived in the Christian community.  Reading the lyrics from The Temple as isolated pieces of didactic or inspirational verse, however, diminishes the power of Herbert’s language.  Examining The Temple through a more subtle lens discloses a complex craftsmanship designed to enable reader and speaker alike to find an authoritative, true voice through the Christian practice of confession.

To confess is, in its etymological sense, to “speak with” (not to) another; in religious contexts, to confess is to “speak with” God.  When the Christian believer admits to his sin and acknowledges its heinous character, the believer is saying what he knows God has said about sin.  Confession is not, however, limited to sin; any utterance of the believer speaking what he knows God has said is a confession.  Thus Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (10:9).  Herbert’s poetry reflects the centrality of verbal confession in the Gospel and reveals a sophisticated understanding of confession as utterance, using the play of authority and indeterminacy to underscore the relative roles of God and man.

If confession is “speaking with” God, then it bears a special relationship to all other utterances of mortal humanity.  Instead of claiming authority, the confessing believer specifically disclaims authority, accepting instead the authority of God over his speech.  Because all truth and all right volitions must accord with the word and will of God, the act of confession reveals all other speech-acts as invalid claims of authority.  By tracing each to some choice contrary to the expressed will of God (a sin), confession reveals the contentless incoherence of such unauthorized utterances, deconstructing them into their component volitions against God.  Having unravelled the false authority of the self, confessional speech explores the potential for authoritative speech by groping for the language needed to give form to the experience of revelation; this authority is found in the affirmation of authentic words of God, “speaking with” God the truths revealed.

A ready example of the first stage of confessional speech occurs in the aptly-named “Confession” (118).  The speaker, wracked by griefs brought by “God’s afflictions,” finds that “they are too subtle for the subtlest hearts”and evade all attempts at self-protection.  Indeed, the central paradox of the poem is that to attempt such protection is to guarantee penetration:  “no locks . . . but they have keys.”  Openness is the only means of protection, but only because it is not a protection at all:  griefs “cannot enter; / Or, if they enter, cannot rest.”  Even to define openness as protection fails; all self-protection from divine “torture” is, as if by definition, guaranteed to fail.  The point is carried home vividly in a clever line which almost undercuts the poet’s whole enterprise:  “fiction / Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.”  The poet’s craft is the creation of fictions, but it here appears as a handgrip to affliction.  In order to escape the trap of “God’s afflictions,” the speaker must literalize his own metaphor; rather than seek protection against trials, he must be open to the God who sends them–and who also forgives.  The final stanza gives an explicit statement of the theology of confession:

Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take the plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond:  let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.

A second example occurs in “Divinity” (126), as the speaker observes the way men “cut and carve” the “transcendent sky” of theology with a demand for “definitions.”  These “questions and divisions” obscure the truth:  the “wine” of Christ’s blood is “thickened . . . with definitions,” his “seamless coat” is “jagged” (torn), and “faith lies by,” waiting to be called upon.  The speaker accuses these modern Pharisees of converting simple commands into “dark instructions” and “Gordian knots.”  As in “Confession,” the speaker’s response is simple and literal:  without debate over such issues as transubstantiation, he chooses “to take and taste what [God] doth there design,” for this “is all that saves, and not obscure.”  The confessional affirmation of the words of God in Christ, “Love God, and love your neighbour.  Watch and pray. / Do as ye would be done unto” is the only source of clarity; the affirmation underscores the irony and futility of scholastic confusion over things which the speaker sees to be “as dark as day!”

Herbert’s puns and sudden transformations of meaning exploit indeterminacy of signification to produce an effect more significant than the simple reference of the words themselves.  The experience of suddenly recognizing a pun, especially such dignified, serious and multi-layered puns as Herbert sprinkles throughout his work, cannot be reduced to mere plurality of meaning.  The pun demonstrates a real likeness through a seemingly arbitrary similarity of spelling or pronunciation.  By using a pun, the poet creates a metatextual space in which the reader must grapple with realities only partially voiced by the speaker.  That a pun is possible hints at the richness of the reality the text purports to represent; that it takes a pun to reveal this richness points to the limitations of human language.  These hints beg inference to the reality behind the pun, even as they demonstrate the need for an authoritative word to give full form to revelation.

In “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay,” Kathleen J. Weatherford discusses the well-known sun/son pun:

Both “the sun” and “a son” provide “light” and “fruit”; both chase away “dimnesse”; both bring “new discov’ries of posteritie.”  Of course, the real point of the poem is that our name for Christ, “The Sonne of Man, “ (l. 14) is the most significant meaning of “Sonne,” which fully embraces the other two. (22)

Weatherford also traces Herbert’s musical and metrical imagery at some length, centering her inquiry around the word “measure.”  She pauses to discuss the complex of puns in “Grief,” noting that

In line 16 . . . “measure” can mean meter, poetic lines, and poetry, as well as music and, more specifically, the time or rhythm of a piece of music and an action taken as a means to an end,  an expedient . . . In line 18 it means both meter, poetic lines, poetry (and the corresponding musical terms) and moderation. (25-6)

The heavily-laden pun on “measure” in the final lines of “Grief” is especially appropriate, because the existence of the pun suggests the swell of experience beyond the reach of mortal language–in a passage where “measure” itself is explicitly revealed as grossly inadequate to the task of expressing the speaker’s grief; he must end with an unmetrical “Alas, my God!” (154)

In her book Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert, Mary Ellen Rickey notes a number of other puns to be found in The Temple.  Notable among these are the images of “starres” and “griefs” as the “foil” of “vertues” and “sinning” in Herbert’s “The Foil.”  Rickey points out that, in addition to an opponent or weapon, “foil” can have the sense “of a thin sheet of metal commonly set under jewels to enhance their brilliance” (64-5).  She further points out the consistent use of the pun in words such as “toil” (“to fight as well as to labor”) and “foul” (“both loathsome and a breaker of the rules”) throughout the poem (65).

Rickey also examines “The Family,” calling it “one of the most unfortunately neglected of Herbert’s poems” (67).  Once more the use of language is clearly confessional, tending to point out the inadequacy of the mortal speaker’s attempts to order his experience, as Rickey says:

[Herbert] exemplifies this order [of soul] by means of two figures:  human faculties exercised in consort make music, whereas indecorously indulged they produce noise; and, as the title indicates, the faculties of the well-ordered man are a happy household, a fitting seat for the Lord to occupy.

Unruly thoughts make a noise, but each sounds as insistently as if it were taking a musical part; the noise is loud to the eares, since it follows no rule.  Yet rule is also suggestive of a kind of family imagery; puling, too, is significant . . . as the sound which the children . . . might make.  (67) [I think here of Jacques’ representation of an “infant–mewling and puking” in As You Like It.]

In both layers of the imagery, as well as the puns used to convey them, the poet uses confessional language to identify the disorder within as the product of a lack of authoritative speech, of “rule” in both the musical and the familial senses (corresponding to the double meaning of “authority” as authorial control and executive power).

The pun points to the more complex realities which lie just beyond the bounds of mortal language, but it is Herbert’s sudden transformations that set the stage for authoritative speech.  In poems such as “The Quip,” a single word or phrase is used throughout the poem, but its full meaning does not become apparent until the ending.  This eschatological structure echoes the structure of Christian experience, with a series of assertions validated by a final, authoritative act of God.

“The Quip” (102-3) turns on the verb “answer,” repeated in a refrain-like line in the second through the fifth stanzas and twice more (once as a noun) in the sixth stanza.  In each of the four middle stanzas, a different representative of “the merrie world” tempts or taunts the speaker in a different way.  The speaker answers none of these hecklers, instead repeating, “But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.”  In the final stanza, the meaning of this elliptical response is made clear:

Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

The “answer” which validates the speaker’s response to each tempter can be read either as an indirect or a direct quotation:  it may read “say [that] I am thine,” indicating the Lord’s possession of the speaker; or “say, ‘I am thine,’” indicating the speaker’s possession of the Lord.  Edgar Daniels collapses this ambiguity in favor of the direct-quotation reading (12).  No critic, however, has examined the possibility that this ambiguity between direct and indirect quotation is deliberate.  The multiple possible meanings of the oft-repeated word “answer” make this deliberate ambiguity the most probable reading.  By phrasing the answer itself ambiguously, Herbert compels the reader to investigate just how the “answer” fits each question.  In stanza 2, “Beauty” asks, “Whose hands are those?”  The answer in this case is a simple answer to a question (OED 12) which requires the indirect quotation (“God, say that I am thine”).  Stanza 3 poses a musical question that demands an “answer,” this time in the form of an choral response (OED 17) which requires the direct quotation (“God, say, ‘I am thine’”), since God must be doing the figurative singing of the “answer” to jingling coin-music; this also answers the draw of money, as God is a much richer possession.  In stanza 4, “brave Glory” insultingly snubs the speaker; the logical “answer” is to respond in kind (OED 25); this stanza can accept either the direct or indirect quotation, as “Glory” is left out either way (“say, ‘I am thine [not Glory’s]’” or “say that I [not Glory] am thine”).  Stanza 5 prepares the reader for the conciseness of the final “answer” by confronting the speaker with “Wit and Conversation,” who, like Job’s less-than-helpful friends, wishes to “make an oration.”  The “answer” is the answer of an advocate, one who makes a speech in another’s interests (OED 2).  Here both senses of “I am thine” are invoked precisely with a view to the compression involved in the speaker’s ideal defense.  The compression and rapid transformation of the penultimate line constitutes a breakthrough:  the indeterminacies of language are rapidly condensed into clarity by an authoritative declaration from God.

In “Clasping of Hands” (147-8), Herbert uses the duality “thou art mine, and I am thine” again to achieve a transformation of perspective.  Beginning with the realization of mutual possession reached at the end of “The Quip,” a clever series of reversals confront the reader with an even bigger truth about the relationship between God and the confessing believer.  The first transformation occurs when the speaker realizes that he cannot be authentically himself unless he first belongs to God; the second when he sees that by being God’s, he is also his own.  This is precisely the goal of confessional language:  to reduce to incoherence utterances based on self-authority and to acknowledge that one’s only authority over one’s speech-acts comes from “speaking with” the one authoritative speaker, God.  “Clasping of Hands” pursues the logic to its end, saying, “If I without thee would be mine, / I neither should be mine nor thine,” and closes the second stanza with a direct appeal for divine intervention:  “O be mine still!  still make me thine! / Or rather make no Thine and Mine!”  The last line powerfully figures the unity which results from total correspondence of volition, from perfectly “speaking with” God, and recognizes that such perfection requires a divine fiat.

“Home” (99-101) enacts the final stage of confessional speech, the full recognition of authoritative speech as a positive “speaking with” God.  In “Home,” the speaker’s focus is eschatological; the confession, repeated in the refrain, is the speaker’s plea to God:  “O show thyself to me, / Or take me up to thee!”  The speaker’s yearning to be united with his Lord is passionately presented as a complaint against further delay.  The speaker’s imperfection, though, is revealed by the frantic tenor of the poetry and by the telling break in metrical regularity at the end:

Come dearest Lord, pass not this holy season,
My flesh and bones and joints do pray:
And ev’n my verse, when by the rhyme and reason
The word is, Stay, says ever, Come.

The speaker’s “rhyme and reason” alike are broken by the dichotomy between his present life and the life he seeks.  In the end, though, his affirmation wins out even over the limits of his poetry as it has over the limits of his life; he “speaks with” God in affirming his desire for the soon coming of the Lord (compare Revelation 22:17ff).

In one of the most complete confessional poems in The Temple, “The Cross” (154-5), the speaker finds himself confronted with the loss of “power to serve,” of “abilities,” “designs,” and “threat’nings” after a life of privilege and high expectations.  The speaker’s self, family, wealth and plans are all invested in seeking God’s “honour” and “renown”; yet he finds that he is “a weak disabled thing, / Save in the sight thereof, where strength doth sting.”  With this line, simply stated and left, the speaker offers the thread that unravels all his self-authority, realizing the paradox that mortal strength becomes weakness in the presence of God.  Thus, “things sort not to [the speaker’s] will” despite apparent good intentions; God continually “turnest th’ edge of all things on me.”

The final stanza of “The Cross” resolves the tension into triumph in a dense succession of images.  The word “cross” carries a number of meanings, including ill-tempered; pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion; contrary, as in “at cross purposes”; or having to do with the believer’s identification with Christ’s death.  The final three lines use an extremely convoluted syntax to emphasize the power of “speaking with” God in identification with Christ’s death.  The main clause is the last phrase, “Thy will be done,” the words spoken by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  These words, however, are recorded by the speaker as “my words”:  the speaker claims authority over this utterance.  This claim, far from being self-authority, is based in his identification with Christ, effected by the words “cross actions”; the speaker realizes, when he uses that loaded pun, that the “contraries” have been taken away by Christ’s death–that only the speaker’s clinging to self-authority creates the struggle.  Without his sin, there would be no “contradictions”; as self-authority is sinful, these “contradictions / Are properly a cross felt by thy Son.”  Identifying with Christ’s death enables the speaker to share Christ’s authority over the utterance, “Thy will be done.”  The phrase “with but four words” modifies “be done,” so that the utterance becomes the fact; like God’s creative speech-acts in the beginning, the speaker’s “speaking with” God “Thy will be done” is itself the doing of God’s will.

Herbert’s exploitation of the boundaries of language allows for a robust challenge to mortal self-authority over acts, including speech-acts, while preserving the possibility–indeed, insisting on the necessity–of authoritative utterances.  Herbert’s ability to bridge the gaps of language rests on his belief in the possibility of a real relationship with a transcendent God who made Himself known by Incarnation as the one authentic speaker, a speaker whose words have been recorded by and through others in the Scriptures.  Accepting such an authoritative Word, Herbert finds no danger in pressing language to the breaking point in order to illustrate the fact that no human speech-act has any final authority except where it is continuous with divine utterance, and that any claim to self-authority is futile, even sinful.  Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

Works Cited

“Answer.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  CD-ROM.  Oxford U P.

Daniels, Edgar F.  “Herbert’s The Quip, Line 23:  ‘Say, I am Thine.’”  Explicator.  September, 1964.

Eliot, T. S.  George Herbert.  Harlow, Essex:  Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1968

Rickey, Mary Ellen.  Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert.  U Kentucky P, 1966.

Tobin, John, ed.  George Herbert:  The Complete English Poems.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.

Weatherford, Kathleen J.  “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay.”  George Herbert Journal.  15:1.