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BOOK REVIEWS A.D. Nuttall, Overheard By God: Fiction and Prayerin Herbert, Milton, Dante and St. John. London and New York: Methuen, 1980. 147 pp. $25. by Helen Wilcox The opening of Professor Nuttall's book is arresting: "Imagine — if you can — God reading this poem." Such an approach to Herbert's "Dialogue" alerts us immediately to the originality of the book's critical stance. It proceeds to consider The Temple and (less fully) parts of Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Paradiso, and St. John's Gospel in the light of this extra and often unnoticed dimension — the assumption of God's presence as reader. This is "reader theory" with a difference: as Nuttall points out in his preface. "The bourgeois marriage of poet and reader which now dominates literature and criticism was once infiltrated by a third party, whose claims are both more importunate and more absolute than those of any ordinary lover" (p. ix). Shifting the focus of critical attention away from our responses as human readers towards the reactions of a sensitive Godhead produces fascinating, if uncomfortable, results. Herbert, for instance, asks God a question in "Dialogue": But before God can, so to speak, clear his throat to answer, lo, the creature Herbert is scribbling away at the second stanza and God's part is there, written out neatly for him. Herbert in the poem does not simply submit himself to the will of God; he personally supplies the divine correction, (pp. 2-3) If Herbert presumed to express before God the very essence of the creator's concern for his creature, then Milton's task in justifying God's actions, not only to men but to God himself, 53 Helen Wilcox was even more daring: If God is listening Milton is in trouble. In God's hearing he undertook to show that God's ways are just. This is already mildly embarrassing. He proceeded (in Book III) to write a form of self-justification to be pronounced by God himself: which is more embarrassing, (p. 110) The same approach is applicable to Dante too: What could God have thought as He watched this man telling his peers all about Hell, Purgatory and Heaven when he had not even died? What is God to think, when in Paradiso XXIV Dante has himself subjected to a brief examination by St. Peter and awards himself a sort of upper second? (p. 126) These questions must, of course, remain unanswered. Unlike the responses of individual human readers — which readings, however dissimilar, have a certain shared background —God's response is necessarily unique and can only be imagined. When Nuttall attempts to construct God's reaction, the result is problematic. If the divine reader confronts, for instance, Herbert's implication (in the final stanza of "The Temper" [I]) that God created hell to which men "fall with dust," Nuttall wonders: "May we imagine that, as [God] reads, he is shamed?" (p. 36). Such imaginings are, if not dangerous, at least fruitless; the great strength of the book is that it minimizes these critical fancies in favor of a brilliant and challenging discussion of the implications of God's constant presence as one who "overhears" all poetic activity. 54 BOOK REVIEWS The works chosen by Professor Nuttall raise these issues with great complexity, since Herbert, Milton, Dante, and St. John each present God the reader with an image either of himself or of his judgments, thus introducing centrally the problems of the truth or illusion of the presentation. Nuttall dismisses the supremely simple solution — that of asserting, as Calvin claimed in his Institutes and as many mystic writers have asserted, that there is no literary illusion since the words were God's own and the authorship therefore divine. Having rejected such an "escape clause," the book's major concern becomes the relationship between the poet and a doubleedged divinity: the fictional God who appears and speaks in human literature, and the real God who reads it. In Herbert's case, it seems that the poet is presumptuously usurping God's role as speaker within his poems and making a fiction of God's response; even if the poet retorts that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 53-60
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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