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The "Unhewn Stones" of Herbert's Verse by Susanne Woods This century has seen an increasing appreciation of George Herbert's poetic artistry, with particular revaluation of his formal and metrical skills.' Though traditionally much attention has been paid to his use of mimetic and emblematic forms in such poems as "Heaven," "Paradise," "The Altar," and "Easter-wings," Herbert's mastery of the techniques of line and stanza-making has at last been recognized for the breathtaking sphistication that frequently underlies whatever is apparently simple or obvious in The Temple. The ordered variety of Herbert's lyric constructions reflects the seventeenthcentury view of stylistic decorum as the natural and appropriate presentation of idea, and also reflects what Joseph Summers calls "the poet's duty ... to perceive and to communicate God's form."2 It is in addition an example of Herbert's doctrine of sacrifice, particularly what I would call his doctrine of unhewn stones. Thomas Wilson's popular Christian Dictionary (1612) devotes three quarto columns to "sacrifice."3 His third and most inclusive definition calls it "Our whole spirituali service and Christian duties of all sorts, within our generali and speciali callings." Herbert's speaker is. generally, a Christian, with "speciali callings" as Protestant priest and poet. His sacrifice in The Temple is first and foremost the offering of himself to God, as "The Altar" (among a great many other poems) makes clear. It is also a sacrifice of teaching, as enunciated in the first stanza of "The Church-porch": Thou, whose sweet youth and early hopes inhance Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure; 30 HERBERT'S "UNHEWN STONES" Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure. A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, And turn delight into a sacrifice. Herbert's sacrifice of himself and his teaching is here, as in the two "Jordan" poems, combined with his poetic art. It is an art that seems to eschew complexity, as the poet struggles to avoid weaving himself into the sense ("Jordan" [M]) and desires "plainly [to] say, My God, My King" ("Jordan" [I]). Why, then, is Herbert such a complex versifier, and in what ways are his complex verses in service of his Biblical poetics? Taken together the two "Jordan" poems and "The Altar" suggest a general answer. Rosemond Tuve glosses the "Jordan" titles by referring to the Biblical injunctions requiring the Israelites to build altars of unhewn stones in the Wilderness (Exodus 20:24-25) and, after crossing the Jordan, in the Promised Land (Deut. 27:2-8).4 More recently Barbara Lewalski has shown how the "Jordan" poems are illuminated in the context of "The Altar" and how together these three establish Herbert's stance as a poet in the Biblical tradition.5The complexity of Herbert's versification can be accounted for if we extend these insights and consider each of Herbert's poems to be an altar, centered by the poet's God-hewn hard heart, on which the sacrifice of his priestly poetic is performed or through which it is made manifest. Like the variously dimensioned stones used uncut by the Israelites to construct their altars, Herbert's various line lengths, stanzaic constructions , and rhyme schemes are fitted together so that the disproportionate is made more proportionate and the simple elements are put together to form a decorous whole. Despite the characteristic variety of Herbert's verse forms, their basic elements are with rare exception limited and conventional. He uses no line longer than pentameter, for example, and no strophic construction longer than the old six-line ballade stanza. His sonnets are all of the conventional English type (though he has some impressive assonating rhymes) and his rhymeschemesareseldom elaborate. An important exception is "The Collar," where the posture of disarray is supported by the 31 Susanne Woods form. And this exception underscores the import of Herbert's verse variety: it is in service of a highly self-conscious formal mimesis, what Summers has called Herbert's "hieroglyphs." The poetic form, like the poet himself, must not weave itself into the sense; it must mirror and illustrate the sense, making...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 30-46
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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