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  • “Double Motion”:Herbert and Seventeenth-Century Polyphonic Practice
  • Simon Jackson

In his meditation on the subject of “Church-musick,” George Herbert memorably describes the way in which he feels spiritually transported by the sounds he hears:

Now I in you without a bodie move,    Rising and falling with your wings.

(ll. 5-6)1

This association between wings and music recurs a number of times throughout The Temple; and we repeatedly find these ideas discussed in terms of the contrary motions of rise and fall. This happens in “Whitsunday,” where the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is reciprocated in both Herbert’s song-infused lyric and his uplifted, inspired heart:

    Listen sweet Dove unto my song,    And spread thy golden wings in me;    Hatching my tender heart so long,Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

(ll. 1-4)

And famously in “Easter wings,” provoked by ideas of the fall, of the crucifixion and of Christ’s victorious resurrection, he is again drawn to the same theme:

      O let me rise    As larks, harmoniously,  And sing this day thy victories:Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

(ll. 7-10) [End Page 146]

“Rising and falling with your wings.” We regularly encounter Herbert writing about the emotional peaks and troughs of his lived experience, moments of elation soon followed by periods of depression and affliction, and we are used to finding Herbert writing about such contrary motions in his devotional life: torn between the sacred and the secular, perhaps; between submission and assertion; or between elaborate and plain devotional responses. And often such opposing forces exist syncretically and simultaneously: pressures that are again frequently expressed in musical terms, as in “Easter” where Herbert imagines Christ’s body on the cross in terms of a stringed instrument, describing how “His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key / Is best to celebrate this most high day” (ll. 11-12).

What is it about music that triggers these ideas of opposed fall and flight for Herbert? In the case of this last example from “Easter,” Herbert is clearly thinking in terms of the practicalities of music-making: his conceit depends upon an understanding of the physical qualities of a musical instrument – the tension and pressure under which a string is placed when tuned. But can we also understand these tensions in terms of the music performed during the seventeenth century and experienced by the poet? Are there ways in which this repertoire helps to reconcile the opposition we perceive in these antagonistic pressures? And can we usefully relate the contrary motions of musical rising and falling to other moments in The Temple where we find Herbert subjected to similarly opposed impulses and pressures?

This essay attempts to situate Herbert’s poetic devotional response within the context of a wider seventeenth-century devotional aesthetic – specifically that of contemporary church music. As well as the more specific examples of double motion with which it deals, this attempt to locate Herbert’s poetry in such a musical context has more wide-reaching implications for the interdisciplinary study of Herbert’s poetry that it advocates: implications, for instance, for the ways in which we might think about the dual artistic responses of music and poetry, for the ways in which they might complement or challenge each other.2 Herbert’s concept of double motion allows us to think about the ways in which these twin aesthetics may at times seem very closely aligned, or at others may pull in apparently opposing directions; and by locating Herbert’s poetry in such an interdisciplinary study, ideas of double motion offer us a means of harnessing these forces. [End Page 147]

To attempt to engage with some of these questions, I intend to look at one specific example: the “double motion” that lies at the heart of Herbert’s poem on “Coloss. 3.3.” There we find Herbert meditating on the inherent duality that he perceives pervading not only his own life, but also that of Christ the Son whose narrative – simultaneously pulled downward in the incarnation “wrapt in flesh, and tend[ing] to earth,” yet still divine, “shoot[ing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 146-161
Launched on MUSE
2015-09-28
Open Access
No
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