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"He my succour is": A Language of Self in Herbert's "The Holdfast" by Susannah B. Mintz Stanley Fish writes in his chapter on George Herbert in SelfConsuming Artifacts that Herbert "lets his poems go, so that both they andthe consciousness whose independencetheywere supposedly asserting give themselves up to God."1 Fish characterizes "letting go" as "the discarding of those very habits of thought and mind that preserve our dignity by implying our independence,"2 a formulation that tends to erase the poet, turning him into an inky conduit for the divine word. "The Holdfast," Fish argues, is a "quintessential" Herbert poem in that it enacts just such a "letting go." The poem's "recalcitrance" — a mood in which the price of being the "beneficiary"3 of so enormous a gesture of love as the Sacrifice is determined to be too high to pay — progresses steadily toward a dissipation of the speaker's desire for self-worth and his initial expressions of self-righteousness. Fish suggests that while the "I" begins by insisting upon and defending itself as the producer of action and meaning, clutching for a way to prove presence and agency, to affirm his love for God, the speaker eventually reaches a moment of epiphanic clarity in which the futility of his exhibitions of autonomy becomes clear to him. The word of God is accepted as "all," and in him all boundaries — between "Him" and "me," one's love for him and his goodness, his word and Herbert's poem — are dissolved; Christ is the ultimate agent and maker, the ultimate substance of all things. The speaker — and the poem — thus lose autonomous existence in what Fish describes as the "supererogatory goodness of God which is so extensive that it finally claims responsibility not only for the deeds that are done but for the impulse to do them. One cannot even take credit for the act of loving God."4 The human writer, chastened and "in spite of himself . . . gives up,"5 as his attempt at personal power evaporates into the final triumphant image of Christ. Since Fish's 1970 evaluation, the view that Herbert's poetry testifies to the impossibility of an autonomous, representable self apart from God has been subtly revised; nevertheless, there continues to be a prevalent critical agreement that the poet "writes himself out 2 Susannah B. Mintz of his poems."6 As recently as 1991, Douglas Thorpe, in the introduction to A New Earth, provides an example of the way many readers of Herbert carefully, even exuberantly, pay tribute to the intelligence, craft and profound human-ness of his poems, only to relegate the poet to a position of obedient transcriber of doctrine. While aptly observing that Herbert's poems "reveal that whatever we know of the 'ineffable' is known precisely in our own labor, which is inevitably rooted in a concrete here and now," Thorpe weakens his claim for human agency with the idea that "our own labor is, paradoxically, ... a giving up, a letting go, a dying to oneself."7 Thorpe's use of the phrase (and trope) "letting go" is a clear reference to Self-Consuming Artifacts. My interest here will be to read "The Holdfast" as a paradigmatic Herbert poem, not because it dramatizes a self unable to speak or act in the face of doctrine, but because its internal dialogue demonstrates the self's capability of holding onto a realm of human impulse over and against theological proscriptions. Fish's rendering of the poem's speaker as passive, abashed by the authority of Christ, and forced to relinquish an existence separate from God — "humilityand self-abnegation" prevail8 — underestimates the survival of the speaker in the poem's central drama. I will argue that "The Holdfast" proceeds as a deeply human, individualized catechism,9 in which the speaker's answers not only become successively more contrary to what has been decreed, but the interlocutor seems increasingly unable to hear the speaker's responses or to reconcile them with the narrow terms of doctrine. The speaker survives the appropriative responses of this doctrinal other, and reveals that the place from which he speaks is unowned by doctrine; a sense of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 1-19
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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