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Configuring Herbert's "Christmas" by Chauncey Wood In "The H. Scriptures" (?) Herbert uses the word "configurations" to describe the effect when separate verses of the Bible reflect upon one another so they form a pattern. These "configurations" of verses — verses that are not always contiguous — can be seen to form "constellations," and the constellations "storie[s]." Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine, And the configurations of their glorie! Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine, But all the constellations of the storie.1 Because Herbert almost stridently calls the reader's attention to the relationships between or among some of the poems in The Temple by giving them the same names but sequential numbers, it has become a commonplace in Herbert criticism to treat his poems in the way he treats scriptural verses and to look for invisible "configurations" and "constellations" that emerge only when we see the "lights" of separate poems in their proper relationships. Accordingly, in order to read a poem like "Christmas" analytically we should at least attempt to relate it to the poems that precede and follow it, which in the case of "Christmas" are the superficially unpromising poems for the joyous occasion of Christmas, "Deniall" and "Ungratefulnesse." Moreover, in order to trace a "configuration" we must look carefully at the poems that comprise its parts. To do that for "Christmas" we shall have occasion later to look at Paul's letter to the Ephesians,John Donne's "GoodFriday, 1613. Riding Westward," and at the way in which George Herbert's brother, Henry Herbert, uses Ephesian imagery from St. Paul in his unpublished spiritual meditation in prose, The Golden Harpe. The configuration we hope to trace should show "Deniall" and the two parts of "Christmas" linked in such a way that the speaker's complaint in the former is more than answered in the second part of the latter, while the individual speaker's sense of being denied is answered by the gift of salvation — at once individual and universal. 22Chauncey Wood Because it sets the scene for "Christmas" and is a poem seldom studied, let us begin our reading with a look at "Deniall." When my devotions could not pierce Thy silent eares; Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: My breast was full of fears And disorder: My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow, Did flie asunder: Each took his way; some would to pleasures go, Some to the warres and thunder Of alarms. As good go any where, they say, As to benumme Both knees and heart, in crying night and day, Come, come, my God, O come, But no hearing. O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue To crie to thee, And then not heare it crying! all day long My heart was in my knee, But no hearing. Therefore my soul lay out of sight, Untun'd, unstrung: My feeble spirit, unable to look right, Like a nipt blossome, hung Discontented. O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast, Déferre no time; That so thy favours granting my request, They and my minde may chime, And mend my ryme. "Deniall" is one of several poems in The Temple in which the speaker describes being distanced from God. Although he prays, his Herbert's "Christmas"23 prayers appear to be unanswered, which causes both personal and poetic distress: "When my devotions could not pierce / Thy silent eares; / Then was my heart broken, as was my verse" (U. 1-3). The speaker's thoughts, "like a brittle bow, / Did flie asunder" (11. 6-7), with some going to "warres and thunder" (1. 9), others to "pleasures" (1. 8). The refrain "But no hearing" (11. 15, 20) is used in both of the next two verses to emphasize the speaker's firm but false conviction that God is not listening. Apparently denied a hearer, the speaker's soul "lay out of sight, / Untun'd, unstrung" (11. 21-22). The final verse asks God to hasten to cease his denial to hear so that the speaker can be re-tuned both as a person and a poet and be reharmonized with God. As Mario A. Di Cesare has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 21-35
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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