Herbert and Confession, in one sense

This is one of my favorite pieces from early in grad school, as it has so much just plain fun study of the details of a great poet’s craft—and one of a pair of special favorites (the other being John Donne).  I also got to enjoy working with T. S. Eliot’s line of criticism on the metaphysical poets, something that has become an important landmark for me.

There are a couple details that might be of interest, here.  First, the discussion of “The Quip” is especially interesting, and I think my reading holds up pretty well (though it may not be as surprising as I thought at the time).  Second, my reading of what “confession” is holds for one sense of confession, but turns on a mistaken notion that “confession” should be parsed as “to speak with” rather than having its own proper meaning—and a too-narrow interpretation of the meaning of “speak with” rather than any of the other senses in which “to confess” is used in English.  This is a common false etymology, but improved knowledge both of the history of English and of the Latin makes it obvious it is a mistake.

Finally, the conclusion of this paper is—and I am surprised to remember this—perhaps the cleanest statement of the critical insight I was to work for the next several years (during which I would often style myself a “post-structuralist fundamentalist”).  Here is a paper, completed in May of 2000 for a seminar on the metaphysical poets, and the argument sketched here is the one I would be capping off with my dissertation, completed in 2009:

Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

I would eventually be quite satisfied that I had made that argument—and quite unable to live with the results.  But the effort of scrutiny, and the effort to subject all claims to the authority of the Word of God, was not wasted.  It just needed to be liberated from some errors, and understood in its own proper frame of reference.

Here, then, one of my favorite pieces of criticism from my early graduate school days:

“Dark as Day”:  Speaking with God in Herbert’s Temple

T. S. Eliot says of George Herbert that “it was only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness, in his self-questioning and his religious meditation, that he was inspired as a poet” (21).  Herbert’s poetry, though neglected like much of the poetry in the metaphysical tradition, has long thrived in the Christian community.  Reading the lyrics from The Temple as isolated pieces of didactic or inspirational verse, however, diminishes the power of Herbert’s language.  Examining The Temple through a more subtle lens discloses a complex craftsmanship designed to enable reader and speaker alike to find an authoritative, true voice through the Christian practice of confession.

To confess is, in its etymological sense, to “speak with” (not to) another; in religious contexts, to confess is to “speak with” God.  When the Christian believer admits to his sin and acknowledges its heinous character, the believer is saying what he knows God has said about sin.  Confession is not, however, limited to sin; any utterance of the believer speaking what he knows God has said is a confession.  Thus Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (10:9).  Herbert’s poetry reflects the centrality of verbal confession in the Gospel and reveals a sophisticated understanding of confession as utterance, using the play of authority and indeterminacy to underscore the relative roles of God and man.

If confession is “speaking with” God, then it bears a special relationship to all other utterances of mortal humanity.  Instead of claiming authority, the confessing believer specifically disclaims authority, accepting instead the authority of God over his speech.  Because all truth and all right volitions must accord with the word and will of God, the act of confession reveals all other speech-acts as invalid claims of authority.  By tracing each to some choice contrary to the expressed will of God (a sin), confession reveals the contentless incoherence of such unauthorized utterances, deconstructing them into their component volitions against God.  Having unravelled the false authority of the self, confessional speech explores the potential for authoritative speech by groping for the language needed to give form to the experience of revelation; this authority is found in the affirmation of authentic words of God, “speaking with” God the truths revealed.

A ready example of the first stage of confessional speech occurs in the aptly-named “Confession” (118).  The speaker, wracked by griefs brought by “God’s afflictions,” finds that “they are too subtle for the subtlest hearts”and evade all attempts at self-protection.  Indeed, the central paradox of the poem is that to attempt such protection is to guarantee penetration:  “no locks . . . but they have keys.”  Openness is the only means of protection, but only because it is not a protection at all:  griefs “cannot enter; / Or, if they enter, cannot rest.”  Even to define openness as protection fails; all self-protection from divine “torture” is, as if by definition, guaranteed to fail.  The point is carried home vividly in a clever line which almost undercuts the poet’s whole enterprise:  “fiction / Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.”  The poet’s craft is the creation of fictions, but it here appears as a handgrip to affliction.  In order to escape the trap of “God’s afflictions,” the speaker must literalize his own metaphor; rather than seek protection against trials, he must be open to the God who sends them–and who also forgives.  The final stanza gives an explicit statement of the theology of confession:

Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take the plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond:  let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.

A second example occurs in “Divinity” (126), as the speaker observes the way men “cut and carve” the “transcendent sky” of theology with a demand for “definitions.”  These “questions and divisions” obscure the truth:  the “wine” of Christ’s blood is “thickened . . . with definitions,” his “seamless coat” is “jagged” (torn), and “faith lies by,” waiting to be called upon.  The speaker accuses these modern Pharisees of converting simple commands into “dark instructions” and “Gordian knots.”  As in “Confession,” the speaker’s response is simple and literal:  without debate over such issues as transubstantiation, he chooses “to take and taste what [God] doth there design,” for this “is all that saves, and not obscure.”  The confessional affirmation of the words of God in Christ, “Love God, and love your neighbour.  Watch and pray. / Do as ye would be done unto” is the only source of clarity; the affirmation underscores the irony and futility of scholastic confusion over things which the speaker sees to be “as dark as day!”

Herbert’s puns and sudden transformations of meaning exploit indeterminacy of signification to produce an effect more significant than the simple reference of the words themselves.  The experience of suddenly recognizing a pun, especially such dignified, serious and multi-layered puns as Herbert sprinkles throughout his work, cannot be reduced to mere plurality of meaning.  The pun demonstrates a real likeness through a seemingly arbitrary similarity of spelling or pronunciation.  By using a pun, the poet creates a metatextual space in which the reader must grapple with realities only partially voiced by the speaker.  That a pun is possible hints at the richness of the reality the text purports to represent; that it takes a pun to reveal this richness points to the limitations of human language.  These hints beg inference to the reality behind the pun, even as they demonstrate the need for an authoritative word to give full form to revelation.

In “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay,” Kathleen J. Weatherford discusses the well-known sun/son pun:

Both “the sun” and “a son” provide “light” and “fruit”; both chase away “dimnesse”; both bring “new discov’ries of posteritie.”  Of course, the real point of the poem is that our name for Christ, “The Sonne of Man, “ (l. 14) is the most significant meaning of “Sonne,” which fully embraces the other two. (22)

Weatherford also traces Herbert’s musical and metrical imagery at some length, centering her inquiry around the word “measure.”  She pauses to discuss the complex of puns in “Grief,” noting that

In line 16 . . . “measure” can mean meter, poetic lines, and poetry, as well as music and, more specifically, the time or rhythm of a piece of music and an action taken as a means to an end,  an expedient . . . In line 18 it means both meter, poetic lines, poetry (and the corresponding musical terms) and moderation. (25-6)

The heavily-laden pun on “measure” in the final lines of “Grief” is especially appropriate, because the existence of the pun suggests the swell of experience beyond the reach of mortal language–in a passage where “measure” itself is explicitly revealed as grossly inadequate to the task of expressing the speaker’s grief; he must end with an unmetrical “Alas, my God!” (154)

In her book Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert, Mary Ellen Rickey notes a number of other puns to be found in The Temple.  Notable among these are the images of “starres” and “griefs” as the “foil” of “vertues” and “sinning” in Herbert’s “The Foil.”  Rickey points out that, in addition to an opponent or weapon, “foil” can have the sense “of a thin sheet of metal commonly set under jewels to enhance their brilliance” (64-5).  She further points out the consistent use of the pun in words such as “toil” (“to fight as well as to labor”) and “foul” (“both loathsome and a breaker of the rules”) throughout the poem (65).

Rickey also examines “The Family,” calling it “one of the most unfortunately neglected of Herbert’s poems” (67).  Once more the use of language is clearly confessional, tending to point out the inadequacy of the mortal speaker’s attempts to order his experience, as Rickey says:

[Herbert] exemplifies this order [of soul] by means of two figures:  human faculties exercised in consort make music, whereas indecorously indulged they produce noise; and, as the title indicates, the faculties of the well-ordered man are a happy household, a fitting seat for the Lord to occupy.

Unruly thoughts make a noise, but each sounds as insistently as if it were taking a musical part; the noise is loud to the eares, since it follows no rule.  Yet rule is also suggestive of a kind of family imagery; puling, too, is significant . . . as the sound which the children . . . might make.  (67) [I think here of Jacques’ representation of an “infant–mewling and puking” in As You Like It.]

In both layers of the imagery, as well as the puns used to convey them, the poet uses confessional language to identify the disorder within as the product of a lack of authoritative speech, of “rule” in both the musical and the familial senses (corresponding to the double meaning of “authority” as authorial control and executive power).

The pun points to the more complex realities which lie just beyond the bounds of mortal language, but it is Herbert’s sudden transformations that set the stage for authoritative speech.  In poems such as “The Quip,” a single word or phrase is used throughout the poem, but its full meaning does not become apparent until the ending.  This eschatological structure echoes the structure of Christian experience, with a series of assertions validated by a final, authoritative act of God.

“The Quip” (102-3) turns on the verb “answer,” repeated in a refrain-like line in the second through the fifth stanzas and twice more (once as a noun) in the sixth stanza.  In each of the four middle stanzas, a different representative of “the merrie world” tempts or taunts the speaker in a different way.  The speaker answers none of these hecklers, instead repeating, “But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.”  In the final stanza, the meaning of this elliptical response is made clear:

Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

The “answer” which validates the speaker’s response to each tempter can be read either as an indirect or a direct quotation:  it may read “say [that] I am thine,” indicating the Lord’s possession of the speaker; or “say, ‘I am thine,’” indicating the speaker’s possession of the Lord.  Edgar Daniels collapses this ambiguity in favor of the direct-quotation reading (12).  No critic, however, has examined the possibility that this ambiguity between direct and indirect quotation is deliberate.  The multiple possible meanings of the oft-repeated word “answer” make this deliberate ambiguity the most probable reading.  By phrasing the answer itself ambiguously, Herbert compels the reader to investigate just how the “answer” fits each question.  In stanza 2, “Beauty” asks, “Whose hands are those?”  The answer in this case is a simple answer to a question (OED 12) which requires the indirect quotation (“God, say that I am thine”).  Stanza 3 poses a musical question that demands an “answer,” this time in the form of an choral response (OED 17) which requires the direct quotation (“God, say, ‘I am thine’”), since God must be doing the figurative singing of the “answer” to jingling coin-music; this also answers the draw of money, as God is a much richer possession.  In stanza 4, “brave Glory” insultingly snubs the speaker; the logical “answer” is to respond in kind (OED 25); this stanza can accept either the direct or indirect quotation, as “Glory” is left out either way (“say, ‘I am thine [not Glory’s]’” or “say that I [not Glory] am thine”).  Stanza 5 prepares the reader for the conciseness of the final “answer” by confronting the speaker with “Wit and Conversation,” who, like Job’s less-than-helpful friends, wishes to “make an oration.”  The “answer” is the answer of an advocate, one who makes a speech in another’s interests (OED 2).  Here both senses of “I am thine” are invoked precisely with a view to the compression involved in the speaker’s ideal defense.  The compression and rapid transformation of the penultimate line constitutes a breakthrough:  the indeterminacies of language are rapidly condensed into clarity by an authoritative declaration from God.

In “Clasping of Hands” (147-8), Herbert uses the duality “thou art mine, and I am thine” again to achieve a transformation of perspective.  Beginning with the realization of mutual possession reached at the end of “The Quip,” a clever series of reversals confront the reader with an even bigger truth about the relationship between God and the confessing believer.  The first transformation occurs when the speaker realizes that he cannot be authentically himself unless he first belongs to God; the second when he sees that by being God’s, he is also his own.  This is precisely the goal of confessional language:  to reduce to incoherence utterances based on self-authority and to acknowledge that one’s only authority over one’s speech-acts comes from “speaking with” the one authoritative speaker, God.  “Clasping of Hands” pursues the logic to its end, saying, “If I without thee would be mine, / I neither should be mine nor thine,” and closes the second stanza with a direct appeal for divine intervention:  “O be mine still!  still make me thine! / Or rather make no Thine and Mine!”  The last line powerfully figures the unity which results from total correspondence of volition, from perfectly “speaking with” God, and recognizes that such perfection requires a divine fiat.

“Home” (99-101) enacts the final stage of confessional speech, the full recognition of authoritative speech as a positive “speaking with” God.  In “Home,” the speaker’s focus is eschatological; the confession, repeated in the refrain, is the speaker’s plea to God:  “O show thyself to me, / Or take me up to thee!”  The speaker’s yearning to be united with his Lord is passionately presented as a complaint against further delay.  The speaker’s imperfection, though, is revealed by the frantic tenor of the poetry and by the telling break in metrical regularity at the end:

Come dearest Lord, pass not this holy season,
My flesh and bones and joints do pray:
And ev’n my verse, when by the rhyme and reason
The word is, Stay, says ever, Come.

The speaker’s “rhyme and reason” alike are broken by the dichotomy between his present life and the life he seeks.  In the end, though, his affirmation wins out even over the limits of his poetry as it has over the limits of his life; he “speaks with” God in affirming his desire for the soon coming of the Lord (compare Revelation 22:17ff).

In one of the most complete confessional poems in The Temple, “The Cross” (154-5), the speaker finds himself confronted with the loss of “power to serve,” of “abilities,” “designs,” and “threat’nings” after a life of privilege and high expectations.  The speaker’s self, family, wealth and plans are all invested in seeking God’s “honour” and “renown”; yet he finds that he is “a weak disabled thing, / Save in the sight thereof, where strength doth sting.”  With this line, simply stated and left, the speaker offers the thread that unravels all his self-authority, realizing the paradox that mortal strength becomes weakness in the presence of God.  Thus, “things sort not to [the speaker’s] will” despite apparent good intentions; God continually “turnest th’ edge of all things on me.”

The final stanza of “The Cross” resolves the tension into triumph in a dense succession of images.  The word “cross” carries a number of meanings, including ill-tempered; pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion; contrary, as in “at cross purposes”; or having to do with the believer’s identification with Christ’s death.  The final three lines use an extremely convoluted syntax to emphasize the power of “speaking with” God in identification with Christ’s death.  The main clause is the last phrase, “Thy will be done,” the words spoken by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  These words, however, are recorded by the speaker as “my words”:  the speaker claims authority over this utterance.  This claim, far from being self-authority, is based in his identification with Christ, effected by the words “cross actions”; the speaker realizes, when he uses that loaded pun, that the “contraries” have been taken away by Christ’s death–that only the speaker’s clinging to self-authority creates the struggle.  Without his sin, there would be no “contradictions”; as self-authority is sinful, these “contradictions / Are properly a cross felt by thy Son.”  Identifying with Christ’s death enables the speaker to share Christ’s authority over the utterance, “Thy will be done.”  The phrase “with but four words” modifies “be done,” so that the utterance becomes the fact; like God’s creative speech-acts in the beginning, the speaker’s “speaking with” God “Thy will be done” is itself the doing of God’s will.

Herbert’s exploitation of the boundaries of language allows for a robust challenge to mortal self-authority over acts, including speech-acts, while preserving the possibility–indeed, insisting on the necessity–of authoritative utterances.  Herbert’s ability to bridge the gaps of language rests on his belief in the possibility of a real relationship with a transcendent God who made Himself known by Incarnation as the one authentic speaker, a speaker whose words have been recorded by and through others in the Scriptures.  Accepting such an authoritative Word, Herbert finds no danger in pressing language to the breaking point in order to illustrate the fact that no human speech-act has any final authority except where it is continuous with divine utterance, and that any claim to self-authority is futile, even sinful.  Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

Works Cited

“Answer.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  CD-ROM.  Oxford U P.

Daniels, Edgar F.  “Herbert’s The Quip, Line 23:  ‘Say, I am Thine.’”  Explicator.  September, 1964.

Eliot, T. S.  George Herbert.  Harlow, Essex:  Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1968

Rickey, Mary Ellen.  Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert.  U Kentucky P, 1966.

Tobin, John, ed.  George Herbert:  The Complete English Poems.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.

Weatherford, Kathleen J.  “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay.”  George Herbert Journal.  15:1.