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Book Reviews59 Harold Toliver, George Herbert's Christian Narrative. UniversityPark: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1993. 275 pp. $45. by John Ottenhoff Much of the recent discussion about George Herbert has centered on the disputatious axis of Geneva and Rome. Harold Toliver's George Herbert's Christian Narrative acknowledges that debate but explores a more abstract axis, the tension between the immediacy of Herbert's lyrics — in aesthetic, political, and theological terms — and the overarching framework of Christian history, or the controlling fable of universal history. Toliver argues that "the background presence of such a composite scheme makes epitomizing tropes possible and creates a métonymie and synecdochical lever by which the world can be hoisted at any moment" (p. 2). While Toliver's framework rarely proves to be such a powerful lever to move the world of Herbert scholarship, it does yield insights into the fruitful fields of this poetry. For the Renaissance Christian, the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and apocalypse functioned as the scope and frame of all human history; in linguistic terms, it was the langue that gave context for the individual instances, or parole of events. In this sense, Herbert, like Milton's Michael, sees the world through the lens of compendious history; every event in the Christian's worldly life has a reference point in the larger history. For Toliver, the fable provides a "semantic field" for Herbert's poetry, a location in which language and logic are strained and tropes "twisted out of local into global history" (p. 5). Herbert, more than most Christian writers, Toliver argues, manages to keep the fable personal and immediate, in part because he is so conscious of the tension between the two views. As the author suggests, his treatment of Herbert against the framework of the "fable" generally produces a version of the poet "more disengagedfrom social, ecclesiastical,andpolitical controversies than in fact he was" (pp. 9-10). Toliver justifies such a tendency in claiming that "the debate over whether Herbert is Genevan or Roman tends to neglect his spiritual struggles" (p. 9). Similarly, he recognizes the danger of aestheticism in such an approach, but maintains "the poems do not often suggest either a settled policy or a polemical edge and are often more aware of their status as poetry than they are of their status as argument or commentary. They are 60Book Reviews part of a history of biblical materials and Renaissance lyric genres before they are part of the history of parliaments and churches" (p. 10). Such an approach seems reasonable and perhaps a proper corrective to the occasionally partisan disputes that have marked recent Herbert criticism. Yet that position also seems to rest upon a simple notion of theology, depending upon a largely undefined notion of "spiritual struggle" rather than exploring how theology is more than slogans and can provide means for living and creating art. Without really taking on the implications of Richard Strier's theological reading of Herbert or even acknowledging Barbara Lewalski's Protestant Poetics, Toliver seems to overcorrect in the course away from the local and theologically contentious. Similarly, the social-political position represented in Michael Schoenfeldt's Prayer and Power (apparently postdating the research of this book) receives little direct challenge but only occasional oblique glances. Chapter 1 locates Herbert in opposition to the discourse of "secular labyrinths," particularly the course taken by Francis Bacon, and describes other "boundaries" that Herbert establishes in The Temple. Within a Christian framework, Herbert is seen to read the Bible with an emphasis on the individual rather than on collective application, to focus on personal, spiritual struggle rather than on larger issues or polemics. While Toliver has no serious argument with the new historicist readings of Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Schoenfeldt, and others, he places a different emphasis on topical concerns. Herbert, he thinks, uses political and social issues "primarily as a foil against which the character of holiness ... is asserted" (p. 17). Similarly, while aware of the secular lyric, Herbert primarily uses it "to map departures from it" (p. 17). In essence, "the function of the more public and collective poems is ... in part to show the dangers and limits of the soul...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 59-63
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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