Teaching Literature to Edify in Christ
By Merle Meeter, Associate Professor of English, Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa,.This paper, which developed from the Colloquium on a Christian Approach to Curriculum, has been edited by Donald Oppewal, Professor of Education, Calvin College.
THE CALVIN COLLEGE MONOGRAPH - 1970
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN
Editorial Introduction, Donald Oppewal
Teaching Literature to Edify in Christ
LESSON ONE: Robert Herrick and the Anatomy of Adultery
LESSON TWO: George Herbert and the Poetics of Fidelity
Teaching Literature to Humanize Christians, Stanley Wiersma
This document has been reproduced for the world wide web by the Calvin College Education Department in June 2000 thanks to a grant from Calvin College. If you have any questions about this document or others in the Calvin College Monograph Series please contact Dr. Robert Keeley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching literature to edify in Christ
Merle Meeter, English Department
Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa
Christian education is formal instruction (in addition to the nurture of the home and the indoctrination and exhortation of the church) in the Biblical-Christian interpretation and conduct of faith-and-life, as illustrated in the many aspects of God's creation and as understood in the light of His infallible and inerrant Scriptures. Its purpose is to confirm the learner's faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ as Savior and Lord (and, of course, to confront any unbelieving learner with his prerequisite need to believe on that Redeemer with a repentant faith if he is to see Truth: the Christ as Center of Coherence and Meaning-Giver to all things - Colossians 1).
That is, Christian education is part of God's program of salvation, not in the narrow sense of fundamental and crucial regeneration by God's grace and Holy Spirit through the Word, or of redeemed man's initial and radical conversion to faith and repentance, but in the consequent and comprehensive sense of whole-life sanctification and edification in the knowledge of truth (inseparable from Christ, the Truth) and in obedient worship of the Lord which is the essence of wisdom.
As the Christian student is guided in his perusal and understanding of his Father's world and of the cultural products of God's image-bearer man, he grows in covenant blessing under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, Who leads His own into all truth, toward the fullness of the stature of the mind of Christ, his Example, his Mediator, his Vindicator, his Judge and merciful King. Education that attempts to ignore the relevance of creation, man's fall into sin, God's curse on man and nature, the blood atonement, the empty tomb, the judgment, and the establishment of the new heavens and earth is not Christian education; instead, its specious and unreal framework is, of tragic necessity, humanistic, anthropocentric. Its spirit, even though seemingly and avowedly neutral, is false, apostate, diabolical, and God-denying. Presuppositions will out—in this life or the next. No man can serve two masters, even in education.
The teaching of literature in Christian education, therefore, must be seen in this Biblically determined perspective. Literature is the unified verbal expression, in significant and meaningful form, in discursive or metaphorical mode (usually these last in combination), of some situation or setting or experience, consistent with the author's personal view of life, his deeply faith-committed religious presuppositions. The novel, the play, the poem, the essay-each is an artfully contrived work that coherently and clearly-even if symbolically -presents an aspect of true or imagined reality. Also, every such literary realization of thought and feeling arises out of the mind and heart (out of the total being with all its faculties) of its composer; and out of the heart are the issues of life.
Man's heart cannot be neutral; it is the slave of God or of Satan. And the radical allegiance of the non-Christian author is, therefore, a consecration to some false god, to an idol formulated from within the creation, to such an ideological deity as mysticism, materialism, rationalism, romanticism, nihilism, aestheticism, existentialism, sensationalism. One who, for example, denies the death of Christ, is Alan Paton as in one of his published essays he apostrophizes a dead Christ thus: "Ah, those precious, precious bones whitening on the Judean hillsides." When the genius of a literary composition is one of these God-substitutes, then the Christian teacher of literature must ultimately come to grapple with these abstractions-become-real, with the peculiar pagan germ of animation that inspirits the work. But he cannot exercise this essential critical function apart from consideration of style.
Biblical-Christian teaching of literature, then, is not content with art for art's sake, or with art for the sake of sensation or experience or beauty or culture or entertainment. Such God-centered teaching evaluates art, finally, in terms of truth, as manifested especially in the Bible and in Jesus Christ; and it is also judiciously heedful of the Scriptural injunction to "examine (discern) the spirits to see whether they be of God." Insofar as a work of literary art is an affirmation of truth as revealed in God's creation order (despite the distortion of that order resulting from man's sin), in the Word Incarnate Jesus Christ, in the record of God-ordained history (in which "all things work together for good to them that love God"), and in His perfect Inscripturated Word, to that extent a literary composition will demonstrate beauty. But insofar as God's truth is repudiated or obscured, to that extent the work will be disintegrated and aesthetically dissatisfying. The Christian writer, of course, should not attempt to deny the chaotic ugliness, the vicious reality of sin and its damnable effects; but he always foils sin by his depiction, or clear suggestion, of its redemptive contrast: the justice, holiness, mercy, and grace of the Sovereign Triune God in Jesus Christ.
If anyone can delight in God-gift beauty, however, it is the Christian, whether it be in the cosmos that declares the glory of God or in the cultural products of men (which, sometimes, despite their author's intent, praise Him). Sadly, though, not every Christian author writes Christian works; for not only does he see through a glass darkly (as do even God's holiest saints in this life), but he is surrounded by the deceiving and alluring powers of the world, of the flesh, and of Satan. In The Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis and in the poems of George Herbert, however, the dynamic and God-extolling spirit of art for Christ's sake (the only true justification for the arts, incidentally) is pervasively evident. But though the dialogue and descriptions and symbols of Hemingway and Camus, to choose two antithetical examples, show sporadic and superficial glimmerings of beauty, the unity and radiance of their works are noticeably impaired by atomism, alienation, nihilistic bitterness, and carpe them sensuality. Their styles cannot wholly escape the devastation of their hopeless vision and naturalistic message.
The beauty of a work is the manifestation of a successful attempt to objectify in words the meaning of some event or adventure in life. But beauty in literature does not exist merely for "rapt, intransitive attention," to use Eliseo Vivas' phrase. It is, rather, the attractive and moving vehicle of truth (or of what is meant to be taken for truth). The teacher and literary critic disqualifies himself for both analysis and evaluation, however, when he neglects to consider the formal and technical felicities of a written work. Christian instructors especially should be able to identify and appreciate, in terms of the work, such elements as plot, setting, symbol, tone, theme, conflict, characterization, dialogue, and stanzaic form. Only after studying the formal structures of a work may one presume to speak with any authority about the core and totality of religious meaning that the author intended to or actually did present.
Having attempted, briefly, a definition of Christian education, of the nature and function of literature, and of the relationship of beauty to literary content, I shall now make a few observations about some curricular emphases and teaching strategies that seem to follow naturally from an ultimate concern with the life-directing meaning of a literary work as it tends to influence the reader's attitude toward God, toward man, toward love, toward life, toward death, toward the after life. Literature is ideological-emotional dynamite , : it incorporates, transmits, and amplifies character-shaping, culture forming power. It is more than just happy or sad or a "great" experience; it is very much more than soothing sounds and pretty words. Moreover, it has personality: a person wrote it, and a person is a religious being. Nor can he keep his religious presuppositions (his faith-principles) out of his work-unless he is a fragmented Christian writing as a humanist because of publication pressures and a dichotomous view of life. An author lives and writes his life-direction: toward light or darkness, toward life or death, toward Christ or Satan.
Because many are called and few are chosen by God to be Christians and because the world despises the Gospel of the cross (as soon as they recognize it) even in novels, dramas, and poetry, for these reasons at least, the bulk of published, discussed, and finally anthologized literature is secular, man-adulating, covenant-breaking by nature. Nevertheless, it must be confronted, read sympathetically and reflectively, understood, appreciated, and evaluated for its meaningful view of reality, but always in the definitive and illustrative context of its aesthetic form. Further, the Christian teacher should take knowledgeable pleasure in the purposeful contemplation of technical beauties and appositely integrated formal devices as he appropriates them for service to their true Origin and King, Jesus Christ.
This is not to imply, however, that the Christian teacher should be engaged in "Christianizing" naturalistic or otherwise apostate works of literature; rather, he learns from the demonstrated skills of unregenerate authors to craft beautifully worshipful products for his Lord. Hopefully, Christian teacher and Christian student develop such competence and enthusiasm together.
As for selection of works, perhaps more of our time should be spent on Christian or pseudo-Christian authors than with the obviously fatalistic, romantic, atavistic, or absurd. In the Christian category, for example: Augustine, Calvin, Donne, Herbert, Revius, Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis, Walsh, Wiebe, Irwin. And in the pseudo-Christian camp: Swift, Hawthorne, Melville, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Greene, Paton, Auden, and Catherine Marshall. The author of Christy ends the listing of pseudo-Christians because I agree with a frequently-made proposal that we condescend to teach inferior works occasionally for contrast.
Finally, a few notes on classroom strategy. First, the literal statement of the work must be clearly understood. This may be achieved by discussion, occasional and succinct teacher commentary, student presentations, panels, films, and testing-whenever necessary or desired. In the process of determining what the work is saying, the teacher should already be directing the students to a discovery of noteworthy aspects and of their integration with the thematic substance. Then, though evaluation must also be integral (not just summary didacticism), the fusion of style and content along with the central view-of-life meaning (the unifying message of the work) should be subjected to a self-consciously Biblical-Christian critique through close scrutiny of the text and by intensive question-and-answer disputation. (A little conflict of ideas stimulates learning.) Seminar papers sometimes enable and encourage students to defend their views, and thereby provide needed variety at low points in the course. Following are two examples of literary criticism (in atypically monologistic form) as I try to conduct it with my classes.
LESSON ONE: Robert Herrick and the Anatomy of Adultery
DELIGHT IN DISORDER
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonnesse:
A lawne about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring Lace, which here and there
Enthralls the Crimson Stomacher:
A Cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving Note)
In the tempestuous petticote:
A careless shooe-string, in whose tye I
see a wilde civility:
Doe more bewitch me, then when
Art Is too precise in every part.
This poem by Robert Herrick is one of the more than 1400 that constitute his single volume of poetry: Hesperides (1648). "Delight in Disorder" is, superficially, only a pretty, flirtatious general compliment in the cavalier tradition. Subtitled The Works Both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq., the Hesperides is 398 pages of gaily frivolous, frankly sensual, secularly spirited poetry-the "Humane" poems (of which "Delight in Disorder" is one). The last 79 pages of the book Herrick entitled "Noble Numbers; or, his Pious Poems."
Most of Herrick's poetry is occupied with fortune, wine and celebrity, and sexual relationships outside of marriage. These last are ceremonious panegyrics addressed to "his mistresses": Julia, Anthea, Silvia, Perenna, Perilla, Sapho, Electra, Myrha, Corrina, to name several. It seems ironic that such a dedicated sensualist as Herrick should also write a number of "Noble" poems on God and Christ. But Robert Herrick (b. 15 9 1 ), after rejecting the craft of goldsmith and the practice of law for which he had been serially educated, was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England in 1623.
Herrick became a country pastor, vicar of Dean Prior, the "dull Devonshire" of, one of his poems. He missed the libertine life of London, the wine and genteel carousing of the literati under "Saint Ben," the classical Elizabethan dramatist and lyricist who was Herrick's. high priest and hero, whom he worships in versified prayers. That Herrick was as acrobatically amorous with the women of his acquaintance as his love songs might suggest is doubtful. He was a bachelor, and his preoccupation was undeniably coition, but his lust may have culminated imaginatively in his poetry. That the impact of his (illicit) love poetry on his readers is only emotional, aesthetic, and intransitive is an accepted thesis that should be challenged in the light of our increasing .awareness that all literature has religious direction'l that every poetic expression ultimately praises God the Creator or, anthro po centrically, man the creature.
We turn now from prefatory exposition to the epigraphical lyric "Delight in Disorder," a sonnet in iambic-tetrameter rhymed couplets. The first verse of each couplet flows fittingly into the second without caesura, and the scansion is regular except for the initial trochees of lines two and eight: "Kindles" (a word designed to fire up the reader) and "Ribbands" (which stresses the flimsiness and looseness of the idealized garments: the freedom suggest anti-inhibition). We are reminded of the fluency and swing of the lines of Herrick's equally popular poem "Upon Julia's Clothes":
Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
The liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave Vibration each way free;
0 how that glittering taketh me!
"Delight in Disorder" has as theme the easy grace, the accomplishment and charm, the sprezzatura of conducting oneself with facility: it is achieving in appearance the casualness which, as one of my students said, the fashion magazines urge young ladies to emulate at the expense of long hours of primping and pantomime. Herrick obviously prides himself upon being a connoisseur of feminine fashion and form. With evident delectation ("Delight," "enthralls," "winning," "bewitch"), he allows his eyes to rove from shoulder scarf to waistband to cuffs to skirt to shoes: that is, he overlooks his subject from head to toe (overlooks, I say, because he misses the person in his preoccupation with the symbol of sexual invitation).
Art, like life, implies Herrick, must be natural, free from scrupulous regulation, from fastidiousness, primness, prudery. A meticulously unimaginative demeanor in personal relationships or in poetry-such effete and flaccid superciliousness Herrick rightly and wittily satirizes. Moreover, and ironically, he employs a notably precise and orderly verse form to repudiate the order and precision that he contemns as stultifying and prosaic: all the couplets but the last end with a colon, and the whole poem is merely a listing of feminine accouterments which exemplify the "sweet disorder" of the first couplet and are epitomized in the last two lines: "Doe more bewitch me, then when Art/ Is too precise in every part."
Now, that is the obvious, literal meaning of the poem. But Herrick is making a more profound comment about life and morality than may appear on the surface. Notice the ethical weight, the religious direction, the suggestive resonances of the diction: "delight," "disorder," "wantonnesse," "distraction," (dis-track'-shee-own, for the rhythm of the line), "erring," "enthralls," "neglectfull," "confusedly," "tempestuous," "carelesse," "wilde," "bewitch." Here is a gal on the make, a coquette who has learned how to flaunt her skirts, an inducement to fornication. And Herrick approves: in fact, he revels in it. Apparently what God says in His Word about fornication and adultery is for Sunday sermons only, not for life. And marriage as an institution of God and as the only relationship permitting sexual intercourse? Here is Herrick's opinion of that state:
A bachelour I will
Live as I have liv'd still,
And never take a wife
To crucifie my life....
He also expresses this seriously jocular judgment as follows in "Single Life Most Secure": "Suspicion, Discontent, and Strife/ Come in for Dowrie with a Wife." But Herrick pronounces most emphatically and grossly on this subject in these stanzas from "A Poet Loves a Mistresse, But Not to Marry":
Ile hug, Ile kiss, Ile play
And Cock-like Hens Ile tread:
And sport it any way;
But in the Bridall Bed:
For why? that man is poore,
Who hath but one of many;
But crown'd he is with store,
That single may have any.
Herrick is fascinated by women's clothing, as in "Laxare Fibulam". "To loose the button, is no lesse,/ Then to cast off all bashfulnesse"— but only to tease himself and the reader: his interest is really in what the clothing covers, and, therefore, most of his poems are prurient, as pornographic as the pseudo-sophisticated cavalier tradition would permit. But the awake reader especially if he is a Christian-soon begins to resent the insistent, febrile titillation. Further, Herrick's anatomical obsession flaws his art in such poems as "Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast" or "Her Legs" with its bathetic analogy:
Fain would I kiss my Julia's dainty leg,
Which is as white and hair-less as an egge.
Almost as grotesque is this Brobdingnagian depiction in "Fresh Cheese and Crearn":
Wo'd yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia's Breast can give you them.
And if more; Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, here's Strawberries.
But even more offensive to the perceptive and moral reader is the sustained double entendre of the single-couplet poems, such as "to a Maid": "You say, you love me; that I thus must prove;/ If that you lye, then I will sweare you love---; and -Satisfaction for Sufferings": "For all our workes, a recompence is sure:/ 'Tis sweet to think on what was hard T'endure"; or this one to "Glorie": "I make no haste to have my Numbers read./ Seldome comes Glorie till a man be dead"; and '~Great Maladies, Long Medicines": "To an old soare a long cure must goe onj Great faults require great satisfaction"; and this last couplet poem, "To Perenna": "Thou say'st I'm dull; if edgeless so I be,/ Ile whet my lips, and sharpen Love on thee."
Some readers may not be aware of the 17th century meanings (many of which are still contemporary) of such literary sexual puns as "lye," "suffering," "work," "comes," "dead," "faults," "dull." These culturally accepted graffiti affected by Herrick are euphemisms attractively presented in rhyme, rhythm, and tongue-in-cheek wordplay, but the language of the lecher becomes more apparent in the imagery of genitalia, pudenda, and sexual perversity. Consider, for example, the metaphoric implication of the following quatrains:
ANOTHER TO THE MAIDS
Wash your hands, or else the fire
Will not tend to your desire;
Unwasht hands, ye Maidens, know,
Dead the Fire, though ye blow.
Seest thou that cloud that rides in State
Part Ruby-like, part Candidate?
It is no other then the Bed
Where Venus sleeps (halfe smothered).
THE AMBER BEAD
I saw a Flie within a Beade
Of Amber clearly buried:
The Urne was little, but the room
More rich than Cleopatra's Tombe.
And observe the phallic figures in this sextet, "To Oenone":
Thou sayest Loves Dart
Hath prickt thy heart;
And thou do'st languish too:
If one poore prick,
Can make thee sick,
Say, what wo'd many do?
Finally, then, how is the Christian reader to evaluate the religious direction, the life-view that animates this first three fourths of the poetry of Robert Herrick, Anglican clergyman? Herrick's is the carpe momentum philosophy of the hedonist who flippantly voices his derision of the Triune Sovereign God by spurning His commandments; it is the faith of the libertine who makes his whims and urges autonomous, who ignores the Biblical teaching about man's rebellion and sin, the condition of guilt and alienation that requires repentance and trust in the obedience and cleansing blood of Jesus Christ as the only way of reconciliation with God, as the only hope of pardon and peace.
Herrick, however, articulates the religious genius of his wine-and-lust poetry in this credo:
TO ENJOY THE TIME
While Fate permits us, let's be merry;
Passe all we must the fatall Ferry:
And this our life too whirles away,
With the Rotation of the Day.
That one makes either Christ or some imposter his Lord (or his idol) is further substantiated by the last word of "A Sonnet to Perilla" (the agent of rebirth here is not the Holy Spirit, but only the physiological gratification of the sexual act):
Then did I live when I did see
Perilla smile on none but me.
But (ah!) by starres malignant crost,
The life I got I quickly lost:
But yet a way there doth remaine,
For me embalm'd to live againe;
And that's to love me; in which state
Ile live as one Regenerate.
Because one cannot serve two masters in life or literature, Herrick's apotheosis of idealized sexual carnality supplants the Holy God. Also Herrick's world is sickly compounded of daydream, delusion, and dehumanization.
Worse, even the cross of Christ is made part of a blasphemous conceit ("holy," "stand," "circum-," "crost" "prophane") in the erection imagery of "To Silvia":
I am holy, while I stand
Circum-crost by thy pure hand:
But when that is gone;
Again, I, as others, am Prophane.
Adulation of apostate thought in the name of aesthetics has crippled the efforts of most Christians associated with literature; it may even be that some readers of this essay are still refusing to acknowledge that a poet of Herrick's literary reputation could be so disgustingly obscene in imagery and implication. Allow me, then, to quote one more poem that makes explicit his idee fix e:
I askt my Lucia for a kisse;
And she with scorne denied me this:
Say then, how ill sho'd I have sped,
Had I then askt her Maidenhead?
Herrick's champions may counter with lines from "His Prayer for Absolution" (one of his "Pious Pieces"):
For Those my unbaptized Rhimes,
Writ in my wild unhallowed Times;
For every sentence, clause and word
That's not inlaid with Thee, (my Lord)
Forgive me God, and blot each Line
Out of my Book, that is not Thine....
But the ironic and irrefutable fact is that this penitential poem was published simultaneously with the "love" poems in 1648, or even a year earlier, as the title page of "His Noble Numbers" indicates, in 1647. Whether Robert Herrick is in heaven or hell now is not the issue, of course-that is God's business. But the peculiar religious genius, the characterizing, culture-influencing spirit of his poetry is what our Lord commands the Christian reader to examine, discern, evaluate, judge, to see whether it be of God or Satan, and where, and why.
LESSON TWO: George Herbert and the Poetics of Fidelity
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lackd any thing.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? A h my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marrd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Writing home from Trinity College, Cambridge, young George Herbert W (b. 1593-d. 1633) promised his mother that his rhetorical and poetic talents should "be all and ever consecratedstian lady, saw to the education of her children. George she sent to Westminster and then to Cambridge, where he excelled in Latin, Greek, and rhetoric. In fact, upon receiving his M.A. he was appointed to a lectureship in rhetoric and was soon after elected Public Orator of Cambridge. During this period he took noticeable pride in his aristocratic background, fashionable clothes, and influential friends at court; he also delighted in the pastimes of "mirth and music," "courtesy and wit."
But at 34 George Herbert was a lost courtier, highly educated, socially prominent, politically successful, lean, greying, consumptive, and exhausted. But he had never completely repudiated his idea of dedication to God, of consecrating his abilities to God's glory; further, he was experiencing an increasingly demanding call to the Anglican ministry. George Herbert was a true and Biblical Calvinist, faithfully affirming the predestinating decrees of the Sovereign God:
Who gives to man, as he sees fit, Salvation.
-From "The Water-course
But some of his early poems satirize a perverse tendency of some Puritans toward fatalism; Herbert's own emphasis is pre-eminently redemption: the love of the Triune God as demonstrated and sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Sir John Danvers married Magdalen Herbert and became a well-loved stepfather to George Herbert while the latter was still an over-sedulous and undernourished student. Several years later, unsatisfied by the dialectics of statecraft and the distractions of lute and viol, Herbert married Jane Danvers and lived in happiness with her until his death at 39 (1633). For the last three years of his life, he was Rector of Bernerton, at which rustic charge he held services twice a day, praying in the little country church with his household and parishioners.
In A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson (1652), Herbert spontaneously evinces his love for God and His people. To his congregation he was a saint: considerate, generous, kind to his servants, diligent, a friend to the afflicted, a help to the burdened. His motto was "I am not worthy . . . the least of all Thy mercies." He said that he had found "perfect freedom" in God's service. And the love of God that he rejoiced in, Herbert transmitted through the style as well as the content of his messages. Only his first sermon was marvelous for its erudition and rhetoric, its brilliance of metaphysical conceit. From then on Herbert spoke naturally, in a conversational idiom, employing familiar dialogue, everyday images from byway and farm, simple stories and sayings, sympathy and humor, Biblical reasons for the liturgy, and the clear exposition of the Scriptures as central to life-in short, the loving and understanding approach that Herbert directly set himself to learn was a program consistent with his homely proverb: "People by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not."
Five poems entitled "Affliction" are included in The Temple. Though his contentment and trust were well known to all his acquaintances of the Bemerton years, George Herbert described his poetry as "A picture of the many spiritual conflicts that had passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect peace." Apprised of this spiritual tension in Herbert's poetry, we shall now consider "Love (III)."
The poetry of George Herbert is carefully structured and revised to refinement; it is fluent and musical in its colloquial and dramatic rhythms; it is clear, precise, simple, elegant, dynamic, and singingly beautiful. It is the offering of the sincere Christian poet awarely and gratefully praising the One True God of the Scriptures. "Love (111)" begins as a third-person narration: the sinner-protagonist (or, really, antagonist of "Love") has been drawn into the presence of his Savior to enjoy the communion of the Holy Spirit; but although "Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/ Guiltie of dust and sinne." That the hesitant guest should be humbled by the awareness of his sin and its consequences for all creation is a necessary step on his way to salvation. But the guilt of the speaker is contrived to double as a subtly advanced pretext for sin-loving recalcitrance and old-natured rebellion. God in Christ, the Host, immediately but tenderly, and with pertinaciously designing grace, challenges the reluctant convert thus: "But quick-ey'd love, observing me grow slack/ From my first entrance in,/ Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,/ If I lacked any thing." Observe here how the ababcc rhyme scheme with a trimeter line following each pentameter constitutes an echoing device, the short line answering as a brief choral comment on its more lengthy predecessor -and, incidentally, an especially ironic and insistently pertinent comment in the last verse of this stanza, the "sweetly" interrogative summons of Love Himself asking with gentle admonition: "If I lack'd any thing."
Stanza two begins with the reply of the proudly humble self-deceiver, the would-be backslider asserting his unworthiness to be the guest of Love, When Love reiterates and personalizes his welcome, "You shall be he," the sinner whom God is irresistibly sainting answers with such discreet and decorous rationalization that, if it were possible, God Himself should not detect the hypocrisy and self-will behind the piously pretty words: "I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,/ I cannot look on thee." But God is not deceived, nor will He be mock-humored; and again His rebuke is loving, patient, firm, unanswerable-and this time His words are further substantiated by His touch: "Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,/ Who made the eyes but I?"
A third time the called one, the one invited of God, declines, avouching his guilt and sordidness as sufficient warrants of eternal death. But behind the apparent graciousness of that crucial confession skulks the carnal spirit of unbelief, the Satanic death-wish of apostasy, the sanctimonious verbalizing that would obfuscate and deny the Gospel of eternal life to repentant sinners. Man's false humility is damnable, however; it leads only, if unconfessed and unpardoned, to hell. Still antagonizing his own happiness, and with vainly ingenious dialectic opposing his Master, the weakening sinner argues on: "Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them [His eyes]: let my shame/ Go where it doth deserve."
But no one shall snatch My sheep out of My hand, said Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Therefore, in His mercy, the Crucified and Risen Redeemer terminates the dispute, this life-and-deathly serious love quarrel, with the conclusive reference to the Cross: "And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?" He Whose eyes were blinded by His blood from the thorns, now beams as Light and Love upon His torturer, upon man, both the thorn-causer and the thorn-crowner, man the damned, but also man the delivered.
The message of the Cross, the blood that purged the blame, the Christ, Who brought peace between God and man at Calvary-He stills with a word His child's half-hearted struggle. The pseudo-intellectual, the sick-psychological sparring is over; the domesticated sinner submits to the healing joy and freedom of home: "My deare, then I will serve." But not so fast! A condition remains to be met: hospitality must be actively, whole-bodily accepted. For he who does not eat My flesh and drink My blood shall have no part in Me, warns the Savior. The guest must take the gift, must share the sacrifice (for only the Host can make the sacrifice). But he must partake of the spiritual food of that perfect offering if he is to rise from death to life: "You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat." And the quick response of the wholly subdued and reconciled guest is the consoling security and cheerful comfort of every hungry sinner: "So I did sit and eat."
Herbert's book of poetry is titled with reference to Psalm 29: "And in His temple doth every man speak of His glory." Many of the poems are ingeniously elaborated metaphors correlating church furniture and architecture with spiritual relationships, as in "Church-lock and Key" which begins: "I know it is my sinne which locks Thine eares …." But proclaimed clearly and triumphantly, his lyre lordly as a trumpet, is the Christ-centered theme of Herbert's true and beautiful hymns, even as they agonize healthwardly to their harmonious and ringing resolutions: "Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,/ My God and King" ("Antiphon I"); "Nor let them punish me with loss of rime,/ Who plainly say, My God, My King" ("Jordan I"); and this tribute to the Resurrected. Lord of "Easter":
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art,
The crosse taught all the wood resound his name,
Who bore the same,
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most holy day.
"Sin's Round," "The Collar," "Man," "Easter-wings," "Paradise": these poems are all peerless (with the hymns and holy sonnets of Donne) vehicles of adoration "consecrated to God's glory" as their composer meant them to be. B. L. Joseph makes this formalistically secular but delimitedly valid critique of Herbert's poetics in Cassell's Encyclopaedia of World Literature: "He wrote like an excellent classical scholar, inspired, in English, clear, majestical and economical, combining a strength like Milton's, a bite like Dryden's, with the tension of the metaphysical sonnet and the felicities of Elizabethan lyrists."
I conclude this exercise in criticism by quoting from "The Author's Prayer before Sermon," which epitomizes in prose the spirit and tone animating George Herbert's poetry-the secret-declared and substantial meaning of the whole body of his lyrics, the Glory-to-God ascription of an entire life (as pastor, poet, husband, neighbor) in homage to the Almighty Creator and the Eternal King:
Blessed be the God of Heaven and Earth! who only doth wondrous things. Awake therefore, my Lute, and my Viol! awake all my powers to glorifie thee! We praise thee! we blesse thee! we magnifie thee forever! And now, 0 Lord! in the power of thy Victories, and in the wayes of thy Ordinances, and in the truth of thy Love, Lo, we stand here, beseeching thee to blesse thy word, wher-ever spoken this day throughout the universall Church. 0 make it a word of power and peace, to convert those who are not yet thine, and to confirme those that are: particularly, blesse it in this thy owne Kingdom, which thou hast made a Land of light, a storehouse of thy treasures and mercies: 0 let not our foolish and unworthy hearts rob us of the continuance of this thy sweet love: but pardon our sins, and perfect what thou hast begun. Ride on Lord, because of the word of truth, and meeknesse, and righteousnesse; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things. Especially, blesse this portion here assembled together, with thy unworthy servant speaking unto them: Lord Jesu! teach thou me, that I may teach them: Sanctifie, and inable all my powers, that in their full strength they may deliver thy message reverently, readily, faithfully, & fruitfully. 0 make thy word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life and conversation: that as the rain returns not empty, so neither may thy word, but accomplish that for which it is given. 0 Lord hear, 0 Lord forgive! 0 Lord, hearken, and do so for thy blessed Son's sake, in whose sweet and pleasing words we say, "Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen