11 This
s
the famous stone : George Herbert's Poetic Alchemy
n
The Elixir
Yaakov Mascetti
The
knowledge of ourselues consisteth
in
2.
things:
first,
that considering what
was
giuen
vs
in creation, and howe bountifullie God contynueth
hys
grace towards
vs,
wee may
knowe how great
ye
excellencie of our nature should
be,
if
so
it should continue sound, & that
we
may
therewithall thinke vpon this, that
we
haue nothing of their owne, but that
we
hold at the pleasure of another,
all
that which God hath bestowed vppon
vs,
that
we
may
alwaies depende ·vppon him. Secondlie, that
wee may
call
to
minde our miserable estate after the fall of Adam, the perceauing whereof,
may
trulie humble
us
beeing confounded,
all
glorie and confidence being throwen downe. Thereby
may be
kindled a
desire to seeke God, in whome euerie one of
us
may
recouer those good things, whereof
we
are found altogether empty and voide.
-William
Lawne,
An
Abridgement
of
the
Institutions
of
Christian Religion written by
M.
Iohn Caluin. Wherein Briefe and sound answeres
to
the
obiections
of
the
adversaries
are
set
downe.
(1585)
William
Lawne's abridged 1585
edition
of
the
Institutes
of
the
Christian Church
was
one
of the
many
English translations
of
Calvin's
writings,
and
a tool in
the
hands
of the
Protestant
reformers.
In the
Institutes
Calvin
opposed
the
nobility
of
a free
and
thinking nature
bestowed
on
Adam
before
the
Fall
to
the
destitute state
following
the
lapse whereby "all glorie
and
confidence"
had
been,
by
an
irrevocable
Divine
decree,
"throwen
downe."
The
acceptance
and
understand
ing
of the "truth of God,"
continued Calvin,
was thus founded
on
man's
solid knowledge
of
his
own
impotency,
which
would lead
both
to
a
complete denial
of
"all confidence
of
our
owne power,"
and
to
a
humbling intellectual
"submission,
being destitute
of
all
matter
of
boasting."
These
were
the
necessary
criteria
for
Calvin's new outlook
on the
intellectual
search
of man
for
God,
and the
"right marke
both of
being wise
and
also
of
doing." Literary critics have, in more
or
less compelling ways, persistently focused
on the
close
connection
between
the
religious writings
of
George Herbert
and
the Calvinist
theological treatises
and
polemics
in seventeenth-century
England. But as
Gene Veith
has persuasively argued, in
order to understand Herbert's
religion, it
is
necessary
to understand
"the
theology
of Calvin
from
the
inside."
1
 
Although
Veith
is
right in
claiming
that
poetry
and
religious discourses were closely related
in
Renaissance England, I wish to argue
that the
particularity
of
Herbert's
"The
Elixir"
is
that
it aims
to
soar beyond
the
systematic parameters
of
theological
thought,
creating,
within
the verses
of
the
poem, a unique process
of
spiritual and alchemical renovation.
In
his preface
to the
1633
editio princeps
of
The
Temple,
Thomas
Buck reminded
the
reader
that
although Herbert was
not
a
man
of
"worldly matters,"
and
did
not
yearn
to extend
his religious experience to
the
public sphere,
God had
"ordained
him
his instrument for reedifying of
the Church
belonging thereunto,
that
had
layen ruinated almost
twenty
yeares."
Although
referring
to the
physical restoration
of the
greatly deteriorated
church at
Bemerton, where Herbert served
as
rector, it appears
to me
that
Buck's words may also be interpreted
in
a more theological sense, referring to
the
metaphysical restoration
of
the
Church
of Christ
in England.
The Temple
was
not,
as Buck specifies using
the
Biblical
metaphor of
sacrifices,
an
ineffectual "free-will offering,"
but
a Divinely ordained verbal act.
Herbert
may
thus
have shared Buck's idea
of
religious poetry, for,
as
he
wrote
in
"The
Dedication," his poems were his "first. fruits," a verbal offering
to
God
the
Father.
2
But,
as
he
was later
to
write in
one
of
his last notes
to
his friend Nicholas Ferrar, his poetic .temple was first
and
foremost a "picture
of the
many spiritual Conflicts
that have
past betwixt
God
and
my Soul, before I could subject mine
to the
will
of
Jesus my Master,
in
whose service I
have now
found perfect freedom."
3
eeing
a piece
of
verbal craftwork, Herbert saw poetry
as
always already
the
expression
of
a self-centered consciousness.
The
only
path
leading
out of or
beyond
this
prison
of the
self and
of
language was Christ. For as
he
said
to
a friend
who had come to
comfort
him
on
his
death
bed,
The
Temple
was
a
good
work, if it
be
sprinkled with
the
bloud
of Christ.
4
Only the
perfecting
and
redemptive effect
of
Christ's presence (represented
in
this anecdote by
the
sprinkling of his "bloud") could refine
the
imperfect
matter
of human
consciousness
into an
enlightened
vessel
of
Presence. As I will here demonstrate, Herbert's use
of
Christ's blood
as
an
elixir vitae
in "The
Elixir," a perfecting philosopher's stone, mingled
the
alchemical arid theological lexica, endorsing
the
languages
of
Protestant
theology while re-conceiving his poetic activity
as
that of an
initiate, working
to
refine
both the
object
of
his versification
and
his subjective consciousness
of God.
Herbert
was
not
merely
another poet
influenced
by
and
interacting with
the
religious milieu
of
his time,
or
for
that
matter
adhering more
or
less
consistently
to
the
dicta
of
Calvin's writings,
but
a
man
struggling
to
give shape
to what
Donne
would
have
called a "true religious Alchimy," a religious-alchemical
operation
acting
within the
lines
of "The
Elixir"
to
refine
the
brutal simplicity
of the concept of
"religious action."
One
of
the
fundamental clashes
that
characterized
the
fashioning
of
Reformed theology
as
a break from
the Catholic
dogma was
the
relationship between
man
and
God,
in relation to
the
value
of
human
actions, free will,
and
obeisance to divine.will. Addressing this set
of
theological issues, Herbert wrote
in
his "Prayer after a
Sermon"
a blessing
of
God,
the "Father of
all mercy
who
continueth
to pour his benefits
upon
us.
Thou
hast elected
us,
thou
hast called us,
thou
hast justified us, sanctified,
and
glorified us."
1
Herbert
was
obviously eager
to
address,
here
and· elsewhere,
the
fundamental creeds
of
Protestantism,
when
portraying
God
as
the
one
who elects, justifies and glorifies men. Some
of
the
poems
of
The
Temple,
though, have shed considerable doubt
on
the orthodoxy
of
his interpretation
of
Luther and
of
Calvin's thought. While it has
been
reasonably speculated
that he
adhered to most
of
the doctrines delineated by
the
new Calvinistic dispensation, and thus shared the belief in salvation and
action
as
belonging exclusively to God's initiative while the passive nature of fallen
men
could
but
accept
the
"clusters"
of
blessings
that
come "trooping" .
upon
them, critics
have
always denounced
the
persistent presence
of
quasi
Catholic
overtones,
and
a disappointing lapse
of the
poet into Catholic doctrines
of
human
action
and
freedom.
The
dedicatory lines introducing the reader into his poetic temple are a clear combination
of
these two opposite fronts:
Lord,
my
first
fruits
present themselves
to
thee;
Yet not
mine neither:
for
from
thee they
came,
And
must return. Accept of
them and
me
.
...
("The
Dedication," lines
1-3)
As the
priest turns
to
God
in presenting
the
"first fruits"
of
his verbal work in his
Temple,
a conflict between
human
and Divine will, between
"human
depravity
and
irresistible, unconditional grace" breaks
out
of the
soothing calm
of
the dedicatory prayer.
6
On
the
two banks
of
this ontological split between
human and
Divine, Herbert's critics
have
divided themselves
into
two fronts represented by those who delineate a
poet entrenched in
a Protestant humanism, and those who see in his poetry a
continuation of
Medieval-church traditions.
7
The
intention
of
this paper
is
to
demonstrate
that "The
Elixir"
is
structured
as
the
poet's move
ment
beyond
what
Stanley Fish has called
the
"self-consuming" essence
of the Protestant
religious
poesis,
initially longing to work towards salvation
and
then
subsequently (and inevitably) frustrated
by
the distance separating
man
from God.
8
As
Fish emphasizes, the issue at stake in
Herbert
criticism should be
the
contradictory coexistence in
The Temple
between a "restless" and a "secure" poetry.
9
Engaging
the
contradictory coexistence
of
"order
and
surprise" in Herbert's poetry, Fish has in fact argued
that
in
The
Temple
the reader
is
'catechized," and
is
led through
what
I would like
to
define
as
a process
of
verbal refinement.
10
The
speaker functions or operates in his poems
as
a pastor, catechizing his readers
and
setting
them
free from their imprisoning self-consciousness, while ingenerating
the
need to make Divine presence always prior to
the think
ing
"I.''.
Fish's
Herbert
works,
in other
words,
as
a
kind
of
anti-Cartesian
pedagogue, convincing his readers
that
one's existence
is
not
based
on
the
"cogito,"
but
on
God's
presence
in
our hearts and actions. Herbert, claims Fish, undertakes
the
reader's reeducation
with
a faulty pedagogical stance, for
the
self-confidence
he
displays
in
his verses
is
"as illusory
as
the
confidence
he
seeks
to undermine."
f
the
Socratic knowledge
of
Fish's Herbert
is
rooted
in
a catechistical process
 
of
questioning
and
undermining
opinions performed
by
the poet
on
his reader,
the
poet
also finds himself
"in
a position which, in terms
of
the
lesson
he
teaches,
is
reserved solely for
God."
11
Fish argues, therefore,
that
while
"he
may succeed in driving
his
pupils
to the
discovery
of their own
insufficiency," bert's speaker
is
always "driven to the driving
and
must claim a share
of
that
discovery for himself."
12
The
reader's and
the
poet's success will be therefore "inseparable from
an
acknowledgement
of
personal inadequacy" which will lead, consequentially,
to
the
construction
of
a spiritual temple for
God
to
inhabit.
 3
For
the
poet to
educate
his reader,
he
must also be reeducated:
he
must, in
other
words,
both
perform
and
relinquish his authorial role.
This
paradox,
or
conflict
between
poetic agency
and
yearning to "prepossess" God, determines, according
to
Fish, a.constant oscillation between order
and
disorder, between
the
catechizing poetic agency
and
the
prepossession
of
Divine presence in one's actions.
t
is
this epistemological imprisonment between
human
subjectivity
and
Divine objectivity
that the poet
endeavors to undermine in
"The
Elixir," refining
the
imperfection
of
this opposition
to
a perfect unity.
In
Herbert's
The Temple
the
oscillation between
the
two poles
of
Plato's heritage, the
contingent and
the
ideal,
is
and
inescapable,
and
the
reader often finds
himself
lost in
the
search for
what
Fish, after Martz, has called
the
"plateau
of
assurance"
of
a seemingly meditative poetic work, a closure in
which
univocal
truth
is
stated in univocal terms.
14
f
for Fish this lack
of
closure
in
Herbert's poems,
seen
as
a verbal icon
of
salvation,
or
as
a soteriological telos,
is
necessarily imposed from above (by the author,
or
by God),
and
not
earned
through
actions, I wish
to
claim
that
the
poet
struggles
to
find a way
out of
this dualism using
the
operational
language
of
alchemy. A close reading
of the
three manuscript drafts
of the
poem,
in
which Herbert edited over
and
over again
the
structure and
the
theological meaning
of the text
before reaching
the
final version
of
1633,
will
highlight the
importance
of
alchemy for
the
poet's concep
tion
of
an alternative to
the
typical submission
of human
will
to
the
will
of
God. Herbert
worked
on the
dross
of
man's freedom
to
act in order
to convert/
transmute, his
own
poetic
will into
the
gold
of
the
"prepossest" will
of God,
using
the
elixir
of
Christly presence.
* *
*
Imperfect
Perfection -the
first draft
Not
that
we
are
sufficient of ourselves, but
our
sufficiency
is
of God.
2
Cor.
3:5
·The text
of
"The
Elixir" underwent two revisions, producing three versions, leading the
P.oem
from its first title, "Perfection,"
to
the alchemical title
of
the
first
printed edition in
1633.
The
two surviving manuscripts
of
The
Temple
are designated
B
and
W, and
bear witness to
the
supposed autograph changes imposed by Herbert
on
the text
of
the poem.
15
The
philological aspect
of
Herbert's poetic editing, characterized
by
dropped stanzas, added verses, and discarded quatrains, points, I
think,
to the poet's need to define and polish the theological
content
conveyed
by
the
text.
Although
this method might be considered
as
a commonplace
of
literary criticism,
when
applied to the case
of ''The
Elixir" and its manuscript revisions, the analysis
of
the author's corrections may give
us
an indication
not
only
of
how
he
endeavored to "improve [the] expression" of similar ideas,
but
actually altered
the
"general emphasis" and meaning of the text.
16
The
author
not
only changed
the
central metaphor of the poem, but also fashioned a new
concept
of metaphor, and of poetic text. Herbert's decision to transmute
the rather
dull lines
of
"Perfection" into what I wish
to
call the performative alchemic versification
of ''The
Elixir," entailed, furthermore, a radical re-conception .not only
of
the theological and epistemological relationship between
man and
God,
but
also
of
the role of religious poetry in the creation
of
a semantic bridge between the two. "Perfection,"
as
the
poem
is
entitled
in
MSW,
begins with a typical prayerlike appeal
to God,
in which
the
speaker formulates a request: Lord teach mee
to
referr All things I doe to thee
That
I
not
onely may
not
erre But allso pleasing bee. (lines
1-4)
The
poet's use
of
the
verb "referr" exemplifies the close relationship existing between verbal nuances and significant theological differences.
While
the
tone
of
the first two lines
is
that
of
a clear
and
expected submission,
the
speaker's use
of
"referr"
is
a request for
an
enlightened capacity
to
"trace back, assign, attribute something
t
a person
or
thing
as
the
ultimate cause, srcin, (author) or source."
17
The
poem's first stanza delineates the traits
of
a speaker who does
not
know
how
to uncover
the
relationship between
the contingent
events
of
his life
and
the
Divine author who, supposedly,
is
the
source
of
everything.
This
incapacity, this ignorance, entails a considerable degree
of
freedom of action, in
that the
speaker sees himself
as
capable of erring or
not, of
walking in God's
path
or not. Furthermore,
the
words
of the
second line seem
to
strengthen
this impression: the daily actions performed
by
the
individual are self-centered,
"All
things doe," caused
by
a string of personal choices indepen
dent
of
Divine causality.
Once the
actions are carried out,
the
individual prays
God
to
be granted
the
capacity
to
trace the source
of what
was srcinally
his
back
to
the
omnipresent, though apparently absent, God. It
is
only
in
this way
that
the
speaker
can
possibly conceive
of
"erre[ing]," deviating from the
path of
godly actions.
And
when man
is
free
to act in
this world,
and
can
either
obey or disobey,
he can
also be "pleasing,"
as
Herbert has
it
in
the
last verse
of the
first stanza, or displeasing. As
in other
of
Herbert's poems,
"The
Elixir" possesses a strong spatial
component,
such
that
when reading his verses one
is
forced
to
imagine where
the
speaker
and
his interlocutor are located.
In
The
Temple
these two "sides" are those
of
man
vs.
God,
of the
contingent
and imperfect vs.
the
absolute
and
perfect,
of
the
inferior vs. the supernal.
The
locus of George Herbert's spirituality
 
is
an
epistemological limbo between
the
ignorance
of
"this
world"
and
the
perfect knowledge characterizing
the
world
of
Grace.
In
"Affliction III," for example,
the
speaker grieves
and
expresses his suffering
with
the
following words:
My.
heart
did heave,
and
there came forth, 0 God
By
that
I knew
that
thou
wast in the grief,
To
guide
and
govern it
to
my relief,
Making
a scepter
of
the
rod: Hadst
thou
not
had
thy part,( Sure
the
unruly sigh
had
broke my
heart
· ("Affliction Ill," lines
1-6)
The
speaker's
heart
cracks under
the
weight
of
unspecified thoughts,
and the
result
of
this break
is
a cry for God's mercy.
The
exclamation, understood
as
the
expression
of an
intimate and
personal feeling,
is
then
transmuted
by
the
speaker irito
what
he
considers
to
be
the
obvious manifestation
of
Divine presence: "By
that
I
knew
that
thou
wast in
the
grief."
The
presence
of
God's
name in
his
heart
shows
the
speaker
that
it
is
God
who
is
present
in
his grief:
as
a consequence
the
emphasis shifts away from his
heart to
issues
of
Divine agency
and
presence.
In the
situation
represented
in
"Affliction III" where
the
speaker's consciousness does
not
prepossess
God,
while his
heart
breaks
in
a void
of
absence
and
grief,
the
exclamation
"O
God "
is
lost
in the
abyss
that
separates
the human
being from God. Herbert, though, was
not
only tortured by thoughts
of
Divine
absence
and
void,
but
also by a strangling sense
that
Grace
is
always
the
inescapable source
of
religious action. It
is
the
yoke
of
this absence
that
fractures
the
consciousness
of the
speaker
in
"Affliction IV," leaving
him
lost
in
the
confusion
of
fragmentation, forsaken
in
the
void separating
man
from God:
Broken in
pieces all asunder, Lord,
hunt
me
not,
A thing forgot,
Once
a
poor
creature, now a wonder, A wonder tortur'd in
the
space Betwixt this world
and
that
of
grace. ("Affliction IV," lines
1-6)
Afflicted
by
the
weight
of
the
Lutheran
predestinarian dogma,
the
speaker
of
"Affliction IV" resembles
in
many ways
that of
"Affliction III,"
with one
major difference: in
the
former example,
once the
speaker's consciousness
is
broken
and
its pieces are scattered,
he
is
no
longer sure where
he
belongs.
The
speaker
of
this poem appears
to
be trapped between
the
Divine side
and the human one,
between
Protestant
predestinarianism and a Catholic-like emphasis
on
deeds.
While
for
Luther and Calvin
the
initiative for
human
salvation
or
any
kind
of
religious
action
always belonged
to
God's grace,
the
traditional
Catholic doctrine had
emphasized
human
freedom and
human
action,
and
the
sacramental effects of
human
actions
on
Divine will. For the
Herbert
of
"Affliction III"
and
"Affliction IV,"
man
was incapable, due to his sinful
and
fallen nature,
of
willing
or attaining
reconciliation
with
God.
God
was
supremely active, seeking
out
human
souls, overriding their corrupt wills, saving them through his incarna
tion
in Christ. Salvation was attainable
by
"Grace alone" and in "Christ alone,"
and
was
not
a direct consequence
of the
sacramental value
of
man's actions.
8
With
religious confusion gnawing his consciousness, the speaker in "Afflic
tion
IV" does
not
portray
God
as
ever-present,
nor
does he suddenly acquire an
enlightened
vision
of
things
that
were already there.
The
only possible reaction
of
the
believer's dismembered consciousness to this internal fragmentation
is
to observe
the
painful effects of a state "betwixt this world and
that
of grace." In this ontological
(and
epistemological) limbo, separating
the
contingent from
the
ideal,.the worldly from
the
Divine, the speaker questions
what
the individual
can
do,
and how much
has already
been
done
by
God. Against the background
of
these two examples,
the
first stanza in "Perfection" appears
to
convey
none of
this tortured strength and religious angst. Its speaker prays
to God
from a state
of
stasis, albeit insecure, or,
as
Arnold Stein
calls it, of "passive obedience."
19
It
is
not
only, we might add, a question
of
what
Stein
calls "inferiority of expression,"
or of
a lack
of
verbal precision,
but
rather
of
a quasi-Catholic lapse
on the part of the
speaker who does
not
appear to be afflicted
by
the yoke of God's prepossession
of human
actions.
The
speaker's focus
on
man's search for
an
epistemological
path to
the
enlightened
apprehension of Divine presence becomes the central theme
of the
second stanza, where
the
mere prayer for God's
intervention
in
the
refinement
of the
individual's actions turns
into
a cognitive search for truth: A
man
that
looks
on
glass
On
it
may stay his eye:
Or
if
he
pleaseth_, through it pass
And then
the Heauen
espy. (lines
5-8)
Elaborating a Pauline
motif of
human
contemplatioµ
of the
world,
the
speaker begins to delineate
the
traits
of
a refined cognition,
an
enlightened state of consciousness for which
he
prayed in
the
first stanza.
In
1 Cor.
13:
12, Paul compares
the
imperfection
of
post-lapsarian gnosis,
in.
which man's knowledge
of
Divine immanency
is
opaque
and
blurred,
to
the
sight
of
a
man
looking
at
a window: "For
now
we see through a glass, darkly;
but
then
face·
to
face: now I know
in
part;
but
then
shall I know
even
as
also I am
known"
(1
Cor. 13:12, my italics).
Within
the dimension
of
this world's contingency, Paul's "now,"
man
is
required to interpret rather
than
see God's actions, for the effects
of
Divine agency are
not
clear, and are perceived "darkly." Herbert's believer, though, appears
to have
a choice
and
this,
we
will see,
is
per se theologically problematic from a Protestant perspective.
Contemplating
this world, the speaker sees himself
as
one
who looks
at
a window
and
perceives
the
glass,
not
what
lies beyond. It
is
by virtue of his choice,
"if he
pleaseth,"
either
to
empower his . eyes
to penetrate
beyond
the
mere perception of
what
is
superficial and
contingent, or to
inquire beyond.
When
Herbert's individual penetrates beyond
the
cognitive limitations
of
appearance,
he
does
not
acquire
an
immediate per
ception
of
Divine will,
nor an
enlightened and mystical
state of communion
 
with
God, but
an
"espy[ing]" glance
of the
eye towards Heaven.
There
are reasons for
us
to
argue
that
this image
of
man's willful acquisition
of
a "glimpse"
of
God's
truth
must
have
been, for a Protestant
habit
of
thought, a problematic theological argument. Salvation,
or
for our purposes any kind
of
human
cogni
tion of
Divine affairs, was
not
based
on
human
merit
at
all,
or
on human
activity, moral
or
ceremonial,
but
was assured, for Lutherans
and
Calvinists,
by
the
work
of
a grace-filled, never-failing God.
This
theological
contradiction
is,
I argue, but a phase in the poet's descrip
tion
of
a process
of
spiritual
and
cognitive refinement, in which
the mind of the
speaker moves from
the
self-centered overtones
of the
first stanza,
and
gradually ascends
to the
supreme heights
of
"Perfection."
Rather
than
entangled
in the doctrinal
cavils
of Protestant
theology,
Herbert
might have
been
interested
in
specifically including theological conceptions closer to those
of
Catholic
thinkers
than to the
Calvinist
norm of
his readers,
in
order
to strengthen the
sense
of
gnostic ascent:
He
that
does ought for thee
Marketh
y' deed for thine:
And
when
the
Djvel shakes
y'
tree,
Thou
saist, this fruit
is
mine. (lines
9-12)
The
word
"pleaseth" in
the
second stanza conveys a voluntary trespassing
of
borders, in
which man's
inquiring mind
wants
to
go beyond
what
it sees,
and
endeavors
to
see,
although it
only succeeds in spying
and
catching a glimpse
of the
realm beyond.
The
image
of the
D,evil shaking
the
tree comes
to
blur
the
reader's understanding
of
apparently
dear
concepts
such
as
human
agency
and
Divine
intervention,
of
free will
and
determinism.
As
the
individual
is
once
again called
to
do things (religious actions) "for
thee" and
to label
each action
as belonging
to God,
the
speaker coins a new
metaphor
to
portray
human
agency
and
actions.
Man
is
the
tree,
and
his actions are the fruits it bears.
The
taste
of
these fruits,
their
substance
and
flavor,
is
strictly human:
it
is
only
when Satanic temptation
draws
near the
tree in order to pick
that
fruit,
"when the
Divel shakes
y'
tree,"
that
the
Divine voice
is
heard in its authoritative claiming
"this
fruit
is
mine."
Trapped
in
a quasi-Manichean opposition of equal forces in
the
appropriation
of
human
actions,
the
reader
is
forced
to
ask himself where exactly
is
the
source
of
an
action:
is
it in
God
or
in
man's mind?
Is
man's agency
an
independent
tree?
The
"marking"
of
one's actions
as
belonging
to
God
entails, first
and
foremost,
man's
personal possession
of
agency
and
will,
and
only successively a stage
of
dedication,
by
virtue
of
which the
action
is
declared to belong
to
God.
And
while
the
third
stanza finishes with
the
image
of
man's labeling his actions
as
God's, and
not
Satan's, caught in
the
midst
of
a battle
of
powers,
the
fourth stanza
strengthens
this anthropocentric conception, elaborating this
metaphor
of "tree, fruit,
and
organic growth":
All
may
of thee
pertake:
Nothing can
be so low, wch
w h
his tincture (for thy sake)
Will
not
to
Heauen
grow. (lines
13-16)
On
the
basis
of
a
metaphor of
organic growth,
of
vegetation and fruitfulness,
the
poet here elaborates what
A.
0.
Lovejoy calls the "familiar device
for
mediating in some degree between the two elements [contingency and ideal] of
the
Platonic heritage."
20
Divine and earthly, interestingly enough, appear
to
be
connected
by
a_
growing stalk, or some sort
of
ontological ladder, similar
to
the "gradual scale"
that
unites Milton's cosmos in
Paradise
Lost,
by
means
of
which
the
"body [works its
way]
up to spirit" (Book 5:4 78, 483
).
The
result
is
astoundingly distant from
the
expected Protestant dualism
that
was
part
of
Herbert's
Lutheran and
Calvinistic heritage, in which, as Victoria Silver has recently .reminded
us,
"deity
is
alien to us."
21
As a
"Christian of
the Reformed
or
Protes
tant
persuasion" Herbert's theological formation
had
been structured around the
central
concept
of
a "veil
of
ignorance"
that
prevents man from attaining, either ontologically
or
cognitively,
"the
hidden
God
whose
ways
he
sets
out to
make right with humanity."
22
Nevertheless,
the
fourth stanza posits
the
possibility
of
a cosmos in which "all may
of
thee pertake," in which every creature may grow,
by
virtue
of
the perfecting action
of the
Christly
"tincture" and
for the "sake"
of
God's glory or
of
the
reader, up
the
"vast slope
of
being."
23
In
a cosmos characterized
by
an
ontological
continuum,
there
is
nothing
that cannot
be uplifted
to
Heavenly nobility,
and
no
"veil
of
ignorance" prevents
the
human
mind from acquiring cognition
of
Divine affairs.
This
enlightened state
is
the
subject
of the
fifth stanza, in which
the
individual
is
observed performing daily religious actions, while
ennobled
by
his tinctured consciousness: A servant,
w h
this clause, Makes drudgery, divine.
Who
sweeps a chamber, for thy lawes, Makes that, and
th'action
fine. (lines
17-20)
On
the
basis
of the
"clause" stipulated in
the
previous stanza,
"All
may
of
thee pertake,"
the
speaker delineates
the
traits
of
a "servant" empowered
with the
capacity to
ennoble
his
own
drudge, his own servile actions.
Once
the
individual
is
taught
that "nothing can
be so low" and distant from Divine nobility
that
it may
not
partake
of
supernal perfection,
the
mean "drudgery"
of
his daily actions
is
uplifted
and
refined
to
a portion
of
"divine" nature. Religious
action
is,
in this way, compared
to
the
sweeping
of
a chamber, and directly related
to the mean and
servile labor
that
occupies
the
activities of
the
servant.
While the
individual
can
perform his religious duties
in
a wearisome way, engaged in
what
he
.considers a dull
and
distasteful work, the refining effect
of
"thy
awes"
enno
bles
both
the action
and
its object. Behind
the
apparent simplicity
and
straightforward logic
of
this stanza, the speaker's use
of the
term " awes" in relation
to
the
pedagogical process
he
is
undergoing carries
with it
the
weight
of
theological
of 13