In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Book Reviews83 William Flesch, Generosity and the Limits ofAuthority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992. 277 pp. $35.95. by Janis Lull In Generosity and the Limits ofAuthority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, William Flesch compares three poets rarely treated together and finds common ground in their concentration on generosity and its antitheses: abandonment, loss, and "extremity," a final stage of emptiness in which the subject ceases to believe that plenitude is possible. While Flesch links the poetic exploration of extremityto the work of such theorists as Blanchot, Mauss, Freud, and Wittgenstein, the strength of the book lies more in its sensitive readings of particular works than in the explanatory power of the theories. The moments of extremity Flesch finds in such works as Herbert's "Love" (III) or Shakespeare's Richard II can usually be illuminated by theories familiar to the poets themselves — Protestant theology, for example, or the social thought associated with feudalism. While Flesch explores these connections, he also senses that many presentday readers will empathize more easily with Herbert's crises of faith or Shakespeare's nostalgia for authority when they are described in the language of modern philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. In his first chapter, "Public and Private in Herbert," Flesch compares Herbert's Protestant faith to Wittgenstein's analysis of skepticism. Just as Herbert's speakers often find the assurance of God's nearness hidden in their feelings of estrangement, so Wittgenstein maintains that the very act of doubting the external world assures us that it exists, in the form of the "language game" that makes doubt possible in the first place. In many of Herbert's poems, Flesch argues, the speaker's act of questioning his membership in God's community ultimately assures him that he does belong. But Flesch also discovers in Herbert, as in Wittgenstein, a sense of loss so profound that it cannot be redeemed even by God's grace. In his analysis of "Love" (HI), for instance, Flesch emphasizes the past-tense verbs in the final line: "So I did sit and eat." While Flesch agrees with other critics that the poem dramatizes God's generosity in justifying the unworthy speaker, he also insists that the feast portrayed in the poem's present-tense dialogue — "You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat" — is not the eternal feast of love in heaven because it is over by the end of the poem. At best, 84Book Reviews "Love" (III) is a brief, lyrical vision of heaven, and Flesch finds in the last line a suggestion that the speaker may be excluded forever from God's community. He thus connects Herbert's most intense anxieties not with the fear of damnation but with the fear that the divine generosity of grace can be exhausted, leaving the human subject completely outside any system of relations to God or, in Wittgenstein's terms, outside the real. Flesch's skill as a reader leads him to an important insight: in the same way that the past-tense ending of "Love" (III) undermines its vision of present grace, so real despair haunts the fringes of Herbert's poetry of faith and gives it its deepest resonance. Flesch brings out the nature of this despair especially well in his treatment of "The Sacrifice" and "Redemption," poems that represent the Incarnation as a kind of divine bankruptcy rather than as a fulfillment. Having identified a neglected note in Herbert's poetry, however, Flesch sometimes tries too hard to hear it, as in his unpersuasive reading of "The Pulley." His assertion that the poem is "not about everlasting rest but about everlasting exile from rest" (p. 83) ignores the suggestions of reassurance hidden, as so often, in Herbert's puns, especially in "let him keep the rest" (1. 16). Flesch's philosophical-cultural approach is helpful in highlighting an undercurrent of "extremity" in Herbert's English lyrics, but it works even better when he turns to Shakespeare, a poet more overtly concerned with exchange and loss and often discussed in such terms. Flesch demonstrates, for example, how Rkhard II reflects the feeling of decline surrounding the early modern transition from a feudal gift economy to a...

pdf

Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 83-85
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.