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George Herbert's Holy "Altar," Name and Thing by Kathleen Lynch The first poem we encounter in George Herbert's "The Church," "The Altar," compels and rewards our visual attention with a graphically coherent shape. The verbal properties of "The Altar" amplify the visual register of wholeness. The lines are replete with biblical phraseology. The changes in the typographical shape of the poem are marked by rhyming couplets, with the shaft of the altar composed of four, or precisely half, of the couplets. The typographical adjustments further correspond directly to the manipulation of the number of metrical feet in each line. For its contemporary readers, the very orthography would have carried traces of the divine Word.1 The poem is a carefully wrought sample of what John Hollander calls Herbert's characteristic pursuit of "an authenticity of form."2 As such, it is a self-reflexive instance of the genre of technopaegnia — the epitome of utpicturapoesis — in which the represented object directly addresses its reader. The poem may speak, but the authenticity of its visual structure has been discounted recently. The lack of the kind of critical acclaim accorded "Easter-wings" is not simply a dismissal of the "trick" from which the tradition of technopaegnia takes its name. Rather, readers have been reluctant to engage with the instrumentally mnemonic form of the piece. For while the shape is completely recognizable within the bounds of the genre, it is unrecognizable as a representation of the proper place for sacramental worship in a reformed church. The poem assumes the shape of a classical or stone altar only to redefine or mark the transformation of Christian modes of worship, it is argued.3 Or perhaps the poem is acknowledged to be a typological fulfillment of ancient models, but still denied representational validity.4 In any event, we are reminded the verbal and visual congruence is not what it appears to be. The altar on the page is not broken. How can it then represent the heart, which most assuredly is?5 While the discordance between the opening words of the poem and its visual impact on the page is striking, there are nevertheless a variety of ways in which the altar may be seen to be broken, 42Kathleen Lynch beginning with the interruption of the iambic rhythm at "Made" in the second line. But whether broken or whole, or perhaps both broken and whole, "The Altar" marks the great metaphoric gaps which inescapably divide a word from referents as various as a generic tradition, the object of representation, and the matter of sacramental presence. Not coincidentally, the separate identities of "Name and Thing" were emphasized by Bishop John Williams in the title of his The Holy Table, Name and Thing (1637). The relationship between the two was the core issue of what came to be known as the Altar controversy, which raged in 1636 and 1637 around the vortex of the bishop's by then decade-old ruling that an altar was more properly called a table. In June or July, 1627, Williams was appealed to as Bishop of Lincoln to mediate a disagreement in his diocese between the pastor and parishioners of Grantham about the placement and naming of an altar. Williams retreated to his study and wrote out an opinion overnight as contending parties waited. His decision to call it a table is appropriate for the memorial sacrament celebrated in the Church of England. But the ruling is also born of Williams' vulnerable position at the end of James's reign and his reading of the prevailing political winds in the wake of Richard Montagu's embroilment in controversy over ceremony.6 Court politics determinedthe referential relationship of word and thing for Bishop Williams, keeping him safely within the still dominant party in 1627, but marking him as a target for the ascendant party in 1637. Relations between names and things as they are driven by political winds remain the crux of the availability of "The Altar" to multiple interpretations. An examination of several layers of those relations constitutes the business of this paper. First, I posit that "The Altar" functions as an emblematic title page for "The Church." Therefore, I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 41-60
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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