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This is the famous stone : George Herbert's Poetic Alchemy in The Elixir

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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
  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 セ 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 ー 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
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