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  • The Life of the Mind:George Herbert, Early Modern Meditation, and Materialist Cognition
  • Brent Dawson

In at least one moment of meditation, George Herbert longed to become a tree. Such is the evidence, at least, of "Affliction (1)," a poem "generally taken to be one of H[erbert]'s most autobiographical" according to the editor Helen Wilcox.1 The poem, like many of Herbert's, examines the inner life of its speaker, recollecting and recreating the turns of thought and feeling as he seeks the purpose God means him to serve. But this introspective process takes a sudden twist in the poem's climax toward the material world. Realizing he will find no resolution to his inquiry, the speaker enviously compares his anxiety to the tranquil growth of trees:

I reade, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;        For sure then I should growTo fruit or shade: at least some bird would trustHer houshold to me, and I should be just.2

Herbert is drawn to a life that can dwell in silence, growing yet still, a space for other beings to roost. If the speaker could make peace with God's ways, accept a plan divinely set but never revealed for his own life, he might have something like the life of a tree, just existing. Natural life is something to which human inner life might be favorably compared: trees exhibit an ability to be content with uncertainty, to grow to "fruit or shade," unlike the fretful speaker's need to know his path. It is also life that makes space for others, housing shade for birds, while the speaker is still learning to make his soul God's dwelling. The poem's comparison assumes that the life of the mind and material life share some basic qualities—uncertain change and entanglement with others—and suggests that one task of meditation is to realize and accept these conditions.

Herbert's poetry has merited praise for its focused attention to the life of the spiritual mind. It's worth asking, though, what kind of life is it that the mind has? What does that life share with other, [End Page 895] allegedly lower forms of life? How are we to make sense of Herbert's understanding that one of the traditionally lowest forms of existence, vegetal growth, and one of the highest, the soul's spiritual quest for union with God, are related?

This passage from "Affliction (1)" has attracted less critical attention than its surprising arboreal wish leads one to expect. Wilcox's variorum edition details the debate over the poem's overall psychological tone, the degree to which its statements can be mapped onto events in Herbert's life, and the meaning of its final cryptic tautology. In contrast, the scant commentary collected on this passage translates its fantasy into soteriological terms: the tree is the man of faith, the bird the holy spirit.3 Attention to the passage has, in other words, erased the literal from a wish not phrased as simile.

That foreclosure adheres to a broader trend in Herbert's reception, which has often placed his rich attention to inner life at odds with an interest in the life of the world. As far back as 1681, Richard Baxter set a precedent in claiming that "Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books," as though there were no attention to the realm between those poles.4 The influential readings of Barbara Lewalski and Richard Strier, in their attention to the importance of the heart in both Herbert and Calvinist devotion, downplay his curiosity toward the natural world as ironic or straightforwardly metaphorical.5 Stanley Fish argues that the experience of Herbert's poetry is one where the speaker learns to "let[] go" of the world and self in a violent process of total erasure into the Godhead.6 While recent critics like Cristina Malcolmson and Michael Schoenfeldt have given more weight to Herbert's interest in the material world, they have relatively deemphasized inner experience in his work, providing more space to his investment in social advancement and bodily health, respectively.7 The guiding assumption in Herbert criticism largely remains that...


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