WHAT I WANT (AS A TEACHER OF LYRIC POETRY)
WHAT I WANT (AS A TEACHER OF LYRIC POETRY)
Following is a document prepared in response to an ingenuous question students often ask of teachers in English Departments, especially when we issue an assignment to write a paper: “What do you want?” After fielding that question for a number of years, no doubt awkwardly, and with uneven success, I decided to make a kind of formal reply, which I used to pass out at the beginning of each term in a course I taught for some years at Western Michigan University called “Practical Literary Criticism,” which, its name notwithstanding, had a small theoretical component to it as well.
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Now and again students ask me whether it is okay for them to offer “their own interpretation” of a poem. By which they sometimes appear to mean: “Isn’t one interpretation finally as
good’ as any other?" By which, on occasion, they almost certainly mean: "Do you think it is possible for me to bewrong’ in what I say about a poem?” To which my reply is: “Yes, it is certainly possible to be wrong in what we say about a poem—sometimes, very wrong.” I want to explain why I say this, because the question students such as the ones I have in mind ask is a good one. And also because, in asking about “interpretation,” many students are asking also about how their work will be graded. They deserve a helpful and clear answer.
Most everyone knows, from experience, that the ability to read poetry in English well, or helpfully, or instructively, or even with much pleasure, is not a matter of learning the alphabet, putting together a serviceable vocabulary, and mastering the rudiments of English grammar. What politicians and pedagogues call “literacy” is simply not enough.
We are no more naturally endowed, after an elementary education, with an understanding of (say) 17th century English poetry than we are with an understanding of “evolution by natural selection,” or of the meaning of the phrase “the key of B flat,” or of the difference between “nominalism” and “realism,” or between Arianism and the Nicene creed. No, we learn to read 17th century poetry—which I take for my example because I like it—by internalizing, over time, the conventions of 17th century English grammar; by making ourselves acquainted with 17th century habits of thought; by getting used to talking about meter, rhyme, stanza, and so on, because these things obviously mattered to 17th century writers; by developing an ear for shades of meaning that have, since the 17th century, disappeared from words we still use; by looking up, in good dictionaries, any words we no longer use, but which appear in the poetry; and by reading around a bit, casually, in the history and biography of the period, and also in literary criticism—preferably good literary criticism, which doesn’t necessarily mean new literary criticism. We can all worry about bringing ourselves up to date in due course. To start out, keep to a few good books and essays, ones that you can read with pleasure: make the latter your criteria for the moment.
Anyway, once we have done some or all of these things, we begin to have useful things to say about poetry—things that we can share with other readers, or perhaps even write about. And this raises still another question, especially in settings where papers are assigned in classrooms, and it is a question I have been asked scores of times: “Do I expect a student to argue an `original’ thesis in a paper about a poem?” Strictly speaking, I do not. It is damnably hard to say anything original, or even to specify clearly what “originality” might be. I don’t suppose myself to have been guilty of it yet. Perhaps I have been, but I can’t be sure. So I say, Why don’t we dispense with talk of “originality” for the semester? It will be a relief. As Emerson points out: “Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant,⎯and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing⎯that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” In any case, what most people mean by “original” in classroom contexts is “a view no one much helped me to achieve,” not “a view no one ever held before.” In that former sense “originality” is all well and good. “Originality” in the classrooms of undergraduate (and even graduate) English Departments is typically not the addition of something genuinely “new “to the world, except insofar as men and women never cross the same river twice. It is enough (let us say) simply to climb a mountain. You don’t have to be the first to do it. That others have done it before you diminishes your work, and the pleasure and profit you may take in it, not a whit.
I suggest that we try to think about reading as a performing art. Work through (say) George Herbert’s poem “Church Monuments” as a pianist works through music she has never performed before. Rehearse the poem. Render it. Give it a good rendition. After much practice—more than can be done in the course of writing a short term-paper—you may find something new in it, as a good musician finds something new in a familiar score. Honest-to-God originality might come over us. But how can we ever really tell? And isn’t it a little arrogant to try to tell? For now, anyway, let’s release ourselves from any obligation to seek “originality” out, or even to speak of it. Originality will visit us if it wishes, unannounced and unacknowledged—like the Messiah. Instead, let’s say that we are simply getting exercise in the reading of poetry, and exercise in talking about it as we read it. The aim is to become, like an athlete, more graceful and fluid in our movements. These metaphors of musical and athletic performance are inexact, but they help us discard certain burdensome ideas about “originality in interpretation.” By “interpret” we might, of course, mean all manner of things anyway, each with its divergent implications: paraphrase, explicate, comment upon, clarify, explain, summarize, translate, decipher, etc.
Often we speak of “surface” and “depth” in a poem, and give the name “interpretation” to the act of moving from the one to the other—from the “surface” to the “depth.” In making this move we have, at least momentarily, an experience of getting at what seem to be the “real” concerns of the poem, as opposed to the merely “apparent” ones. (The “surface/depth” pair specific to the language of literary interpretation is related to the more generally philosophical “appearance/reality” pair.) But “depths” are also “surfaces,” in their turn—or they are “depths” only in relation to some other facet of a poem that we regard as “of the surface.” Which is simply to say: anything “real” is perhaps also merely “apparent” (though it in no way disparages “the real” to say so).
In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt has this to say about a passage from the (controversial) philosopher Martin Heidegger: “The everyday common-sense world, which neither the scientist nor the philosopher ever eludes, knows error as well as illusion. Yet no elimination of errors or dispelling of illusions can arrive at a region beyond appearance. `For when an illusion dissipates, [says Heidegger,] when an appearance suddenly breaks up, it is always for the profit of a new appearance which takes up again for its own account the function of the first. This dis-illusion is the loss of one evidence only because it is the acquisition of another evidence.’ That modern science,” Arendt explains, “in its relentless search for the truth behind mere appearances, will ever be able to resolve this predicament is, to say the least, highly doubtful, if only because the scientist himself belongs to the world of appearances.” For the terms “illusion” and “appearance,” substitute the term “surface”; for the term “truth” substitute the term “depth”; and for the term “scientist” substitute the term “literary critic”: and all at once, the outlines of the problem of “interpretation” begin to emerge. It becomes apparent that in any given poem there are many “depths,” and if there is no single depth—no “bottom” to the poem—then our “common-sense” distinction between “surface” and “depth” is not very helpful. Often we feel that we have moved from surface to depth in our reading of a poem simply because we have displaced one context in which to read it with another.
“Ah,” we say, “
Church Monuments' is only apparentlyabout’ mortality. Really it is an instance of, and so may be said to be `about,’ the language of patriarchy, which, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, everywhere holds ‘the flesh’ in contempt.” Here, we have merely displaced a “theo-philosophical” context with what might be called a “psycho-sexual” and “feminist” one, where the concern with “the body” differs remarkably from the concern the Church has with it (see the illustration to the right).
Or, again, we might say: “Clearly, the real interest in
Church Monuments' is the achievement ofpoise’ in the face of mortality—a poise embodied in the very disposition of the poem on the page. This achievement of poise—or in any case, this reaching for it—is an activity peculiarly
human,' and so not essentiallyChristian.’ The Christian elements of
Church Monuments' are merely apparent—merelysurface’ features beneath which any strong reading of the poem must penetrate in order to uncover its true, and more broadly ‘human,’ significance.” Here we have displaced the poem from a “Christian” to a “humanist” context—and moreover, to a “humanist” context in which considerable value is attached to literary art.
Readers are dedicated to this act of substituting a “real” for an “apparent” motive because it is what constitutes the psychological experience of discovery—the experience of having the scales fall from our eyes. But we ought never allow ourselves to believe that the bottom of the poem has been reached—that we have met with a meaning that is not also the “surface” of something “deeper.” A poem has no bottom. This is so not because it is infinitely deep, but because—like the men and women who read and write poems—it is infinitely superficial.
To put it still another way: it is only our habitual ways of thinking that suggest to us that a poem must have an “inside” or a “depth,” and that the business of “interpretation” is to get at it. In fact, a poem is all exteriority—all outsidedness. We say such things until we conclude that a poem is a kind of geometrical paradox: a many-faceted plane. (A “literary theorist” is someone who points out that the paradox spoken of in the foregoing sentence is a function of a metaphor inappropriately, and impossibly, imported from geometry.)
So, let’s set aside the word “interpretation” altogether, at least provisionally. Let’s speak instead of “non-controversial” statements and “controversial” statements about poems, bearing in mind that “non-controversial” does not mean “incontrovertible,” and that “controversial” means “open to debate,” not “scandalous.” It is about matters of the “non-controversial” sort that, for my purposes in a classroom, a reader can be “wrong.”
Below is a series of statements about Herbert’s poem “Church Monuments,” divided into the two categories just named—though, within those categories, the statements appear in no particular order. Before moving ahead, glance at a few of these statements and confirm that you understand the basis on which the two categories are (provisionally) distinguished. In a few cases, arguments implied by statements called “controversial” would, if taken to their logical conclusion, require us to move a statement or two from the “non-controversial” category to the “controversial” one: the boundary between them is not, and never will be, absolute. And if we were to arrange all the statements in a single list, running from the least to the most “controversial,” it might be hard to reach agreement about where to begin making a “qualitative” distinction. Skepticism about “validity” in interpretation usually addresses itself to statements of the sort called, here, “controversial.”
But it affects “non-controversial” statements too, and often puts in question the possibility of distinguishing “non-controversial” statements from “controversial” ones. We ought to address that more rigorous sort of skepticism as the need for it arises, but we won’t let it trouble us now. Our assumption at the outset is pragmatic: To say, “It is impossible to establish an absolute distinction between these categories,” is not to say, “Such distinctions have no use.” A provisional distinction is not “useless.” The steam-engine proved provisional, but it got us pretty far in its day.
So, our distinction between “non-controversial” and “controversial” statements is simply a means whereby we can go deeper into the debates that matter to us in the English Department. It should be possible to show that every interpreter of a poem works from some such distinction as the one we’re laying out here. We’ll use ours in a “vehicular” way—to get somewhere. If need be on any particular journey, we can tune the vehicle up, repair it, or even trade it in for a newer model.
One further point to bear in mind: Every poem is both a “statement” of an idea, and also the adoption of a particular attitude toward that idea. Two poems may “state” the same idea but adopt incompatible, or at any rate differing, attitudes toward it. Compare Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” to Herbert’s “Virtue.” Both poems tell us that life is short, but they draw very different conclusions from this perfectly commonplace notion, and adopt very different attitudes toward it. The one encourages us to embrace sensual pleasures, because these are so short-lived; the other would have us forswear them for precisely the same reason. Or—to take a somewhat more interesting case—compare Thomas Hardy’s poem “Transformations” to any number of passages in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” You will find that both poems say: “Our bodies, when we die, resolve themselves again into the natural elements of the world, the grasses, the trees, etc. And that is pretty much all there is to it—not one jot of us ‘personally’ survives, or has any real and lasting integrity. The `soul’ does not exist, certainly not as a unique and individuated thing, etc.” Whitman celebrates these facts, while their significance, as Hardy presents them, is decidedly dubious; it is not precisely clear what attitude he wishes us to take. So, in reading any particular poem we will want to know both what its essential “argument” is, and also what “mood” or “address” it adopts with respect to that essential “argument.”
What, then, do I “want” as a teacher of lyric poetry? I want students to learn how to make statements about poems of the kind called, here, “non-controversial.” I want them to make as many of these statements as they can, without being banal. Next, I want students to make what are, here, called controversial statements;—but only once everything “non-controversial” that really needs to be said has in fact been said (or at least gone into). A good essay in literary criticism has in it statements of both controversial and non-controversial kinds. (N.B.: At this point, skeptics of the rigorous sort might object: “The phrase
without being banal’ begs a question, as does the clausebut only once everything “non-controversial” that really needs to be said has in fact been said.’”We should always bear this interesting and profitable objection in mind, even if we defer consideration of it to other occasions—preferably classroom occasions—as they arise. It is better not to approach this objection in the abstract, and at the beginning of a course in lyric poetry.)
I suppose it goes without saying that the most productive “controversial statements” emerge from vitally personal commitments. It is fine to argue with a poem—with “Church Monuments,” for example. We have to take the poem seriously. We have to take it at its word. After all, this poem is, among other things, an effort to settle some fact about living and dying, isn’t it? And in that affair we are all interested parties. So, let’s feel free to ask even such argumentative questions as the following, but only once we have made a thoroughgoing effort to understand the poem in a “non-controversial” way: Should the prospect of Death “chasten” us—should it “tame” our flesh? Would it be better to think about these things the way, say, Robert Herrick—a very different sort of Anglo-Catholic writer—often thinks about them in his secular poems? And why must we think of sexual desires as “fat and wanton cravings”? Why should we be suspicious of desire, let alone hold it in contempt? What exactly is the authority of “the temple” Herbert speaks of in his book of the same name? Should it still have a purchase on us? If it shouldn’t, why not? When and how did we manage to leave “the temple” behind? And what happens if we take seriously the idea that is entertained only to be dismissed in Herbert’s poem “The Collar”—to wit, the Mark Twain-ish idea that “conscience” might well be nothing but a “rope of sand” our weakest fears have made “good cable”? Need we assume that “wilfulness” is a sin? What if, instead of thinking about “soul” and “body” as Herbert does, we say (with Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality that “the soul is the prison of the body”? What then?
In short, no student should ever be intimidated out of all judgment by a poem printed up in a book—at least not once he has made a productive effort to understand it. True enough, “all minds quote.” But Emerson also says: “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.”
Finally, I want to insist on one thing. Only ungenerous and dull readers assume that a poem like “Church Monuments” is about nothing very important at all, or is about things we only take account of as “English majors.” No one should ever read merely as an “English major,” or even as a “student.” We should read as men and women in conversation about things that matter to us as men and women. Why? Because that is, essentially, the spirit in which George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Frost (e.g.) wrote. Poetry of the kind Herbert (say) composed was written, and read, centuries before the phrases “Arts and Sciences English major,” or “Secondary Education English major,” were even intelligible to speakers of our language. We must bear that in mind, and be grateful for it.
CHURCH MONUMENTS (from the manuscript text)
While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I intomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent, that when thou shalt grow fat
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.
- “Church Monuments” was composed by an Englishman named George Herbert. 1a) Herbert included “Church Monuments” in a manuscript collection of poems, to which he gave the title The Temple. 1b) The structure of that book is meant to mimic, or to reproduce in another medium, the “architecture” of a church building. It helps the reader of The Temple to know a little something about church architecture in late-medieval and early Reformation England. 1c) The Temple was not published until after Herbert’s death.
“Church Monuments” is a “didactic” poem. It makes (or implies) arguments about the relation of the body to the soul, about the teachings of the scriptures (and of the church), and about mortality. 2a) We must trouble ourselves to understand these arguments as Herbert himself might have understood them, even if we cannot hope to do this perfectly.
“Monuments” are gravestones, tombstones, or grave-markers, etc. In Herbert’s time and place, a church typically had, on its grounds, a graveyard. The stones Herbert has in mind bear inscriptions.
In line 4 of the poem, the word “blast” likely means two things: “wind” (or “storm”) and “infection.” We establish this by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, which really does exist in the library. Scout’s honor.
“Church Monuments” associates mortality with “motion.” In Herbert’s day this wasn’t unusual. Everything “below the moon,” so to speak, changes—or is “mutable.” Death is “mutability” as such (as we know from reading Edmund Spenser and a host of other Renaissance poets); death is “motion.” Only the “soul” is “unmovable.”
The antecedent of the plural demonstrative pronoun “these” in line 12 is “earth and dust.” 6b) To say that earth and dust “laugh” is to speak “figuratively.”
The word “dust,” as Herbert uses it, has scriptural sources that it is helpful to know about; the same goes for the word “ashes.” To find these words in the Bible, we should consult a concordance, which really does exist in the library, and on the internet. Scout’s honor.
The antecedent of the pronoun “them” in line 14, and of the pronoun “they” in line 15, is “signs” or monuments (i.e., the stones of “jet and marble”).
The word “wanton” has to do with sexual desire. 9a) “Fat” and “wanton” “cravings” are appetites of a merely “sensual” kind. These appetites suggest the sins of gluttony and lust, though the general idea of “sensualism” is what is most important here.
In line 23 there are two metaphors: the metaphor of “taming” and the metaphor of “burning” (or of a fire exhausted into “ashes”). “Burning,” “heat” and “fire” are commonplace figures for “desire,” and more specifically for sexual desire (as Bruce Springsteen & the Pointer Sisters well know). That explains why “ashes” are said, here, to be “free of lust”: they are all burnt out.
“Church Monuments” is in “iambic pentameter,” with such local variations as are characteristic of accentual-syllabic poetry in English. 11a) We come to know this by “scanning” the poem, and by comparing its movement to that of other poems in the same meter.
“Church Monuments organizes itself into four 6-line stanzas by means of a recurrent pattern of rhyme that some would recognize as a “scheme”: abcabc. 12a) Only one rhyme sound is shared by more than one stanza—the sound in “trust,” “lust” and “dust,” which is six times repeated. 12b) If, in thinking about rhyme, we were to regard the poem as a whole, rather than as a single six-line pattern four times repeated, we might say that the rhymes follow this pattern: abcabcdefdefcghcghicjicj. However, the “abstract” pattern abcabc is all the while maintained. 12c) As for the possible significance of these patterns of rhyme: That is a “controversial” matter, and will be treated below.
The metaphor in line 20 is of an “hour-glass.” 13a) The “glass” which holds the “dust” will itself become “dust,” in time. 13b) The “glass” is a figure for our bodies.
9 lines of 24 in the poem are strongly “enjambed” or “run-on” lines: specifically, lines 2, 6, 7, 8, 15, 17, 20, 21, and 22. 14a) Lines 12 and 18 are, though not enjambed, nevertheless “run-on” lines in the sense that they do not allow for a full “stop.” 14b) In this poem, “argumentative” and “rhetorical” units do not strictly correspond to “stanzaic” or “metrical” units, as they often dom say, in the poetry of Alexander Pope.
“Church Monuments” is a poem in which the conventions of English usage and grammar specific to educated persons in 17th century England are respected. In reading the poem, we have to respect these conventions too.
Paraphrase is not really a heresy, and “Church Monuments” can be (freely) paraphrased as follows: `While my “soul” enters the Church to practice its devotion to God, I will (at least in thought) leave my “flesh” here—outside the sanctuary, with the tombs and the gravestones. In fact, I will “entomb” my flesh, which is to say: “mortify” it, the flesh being essentially wicked. Here, among these tombs, I’ll let my flesh “acquaint” itself with the scattered heaps of dust that lie about—the swellings of old earth, which once covered the bodies that are now a part of the earth itself.
It truly is good that my flesh make this acquaintance, because to dust it will ultimately return. The “blast” of the storm called Death drives us all into this grim harbor. (Death is change, or mutability, or “motion”; its movements never cease—not on “earth” anyway. It touches everything that is of the world merely.) Think of this “blast” of wind as a foul, contagious “exhalation” of our sins and crimes. Sin “feeds” Death, increases it. But since my “inmost self,” my most essential “self,” is my “soul” [St. Paul teaches us this in the book of Romans, by the way] I need not be apprehensive. Therefore, I “gladly” trust my body to the teachings of this school of “dust.” Attending to the primer of these tombstones, my flesh will learn to know what really “elements” it, what really “makes it up”; it can find its source in these stones, all marked over by fading, dusty inscriptions; it can learn its genealogy. And the “dissolution” of the stones themselves is as good a lesson in mortality as any. (“Dissolution” is, in one sense, another word for “sin,” which is, as we have seen already, the fuel on which Death feeds.) In any case, earth and dust will “laugh at,” or triumph over, these stones of jet and marble that we put up for signs to memorialize our dead bodies. Even marble—as hard and firm a substance as we can lay our hands on—is really “dissolute.” It has no lasting integrity—not on God’s calendar anyway. Stones of marble and jet decay (all in good Time); and then the “fellowship” of dust is complete: bodies are dust, the earth in which bodies are buried is dust, the stones we set out to mark these burials are dust. No distinctions, and no rank, are admitted here. We have all seen it in the older graveyards: stones tottering, kneeling—“kissing” the dust they used to lord it over. We “entrust” our dead bodies to the memory of stone, but to no avail. If we want to remember what was here, we must eventually put up stones to mark the “burial” of the stones that marked the burial of the bodies; and then, later still, stones that mark the burial of the stones that marked the stones that marked the burial of the bodies. We can see where all that leads. So, dear flesh, while I—or rather while my soul prays—you remain as if here, outside “the temple,” and learn the true source, the true stem, of what you are: a handful of dust. Learn that lesson well, and when, from time to time, you grow fat and wanton in your appetites—when you indulge the pleasures of the senses and of the body—you shall always bear in mind that you are like the glass “body” that holds the sand in an “hour-glass.” It is you that allows Time to register its “incessant motion.” And in due course, when your Time is out, you too will run, incontinently, to dust—to that same ‘sand’ you once held in and managed (if we think of you as an hour-glass). The container will become one with the thing contained, all distinctions erased (again). So, dear flesh, look here and see how “tame” these ashes are, how free from the heat of desire this “dust” of old bodies is. Aspire to that condition of absolute rest. Make yourself less wild. Discipline yourself. Prepare yourself to fall, to be extinguished. As I say: “mortify” yourself.’
- “Church Monuments” is a “poem” and was considered a “poem” by Herbert himself. 17a) The evidence suggests that Herbert attached significance to the “structure” of each of his poems. We need to bear this in mind. (The “evidence” spoken of here is the body of Herbert’s work as a whole.)
- An “educated” person ought to be able to read Herbert with understanding. 1a) An “educated” person ought to be able to read Herbert with pleasure.
When reading “Church Monuments,” we ought chiefly to concentrate on its attitude toward sexuality. 2a) We ought further to
understand that if we read Herbert widely we may discern in his poetry habits of thought characteristic of “patriarchy.” 2b) In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir has much to say regarding “patriarchal” attitudes toward the “body,” “mutability,” and “mortality,” as well as about the Church’s teachings on all these things. She can help us read “Church Monuments.”
- It is essential that we consider the situation of “Church Monuments” in that most important “ideological state apparatus,” as the Marxists say, of Stuart England—the Anglican Church, which perhaps had a certain investment in fostering attitudes of “resignation,” and in which Herbert was a pastor. Of course, this is not to say that Herbert was a cynic. It is only to say that he, too, “invested in his own unhappiness” (to borrow a happy phrase from Terry Eagleton in his book Ideology).
“Church Monuments” should be printed without type-breaks between the stanzas. 4a) “Church Monuments” is best read in its original manuscript form, where no such type breaks appear.
“Church Monuments” is an illustration of the hatred of “becoming,” and the consequent adulation of “being,” that characterizes the Western philosophical tradition from Plato to St. Paul to Augustine to Kant. 5a) Nietzsche would find in “Church Monuments” a typically dispiriting expression of “Christian” moral perversion.
“Church Monuments” is itself a “monument” of the sort it describes. 6a) In “Church Monuments,” strong enjambments tend to mute the end rhymes, blur the division of stanza from stanza, and undermine the integrity of the line in such a way as to illustrate the idea of “dissolution” or “disintegration.” 6c) In “Church Monuments” “form” and “content” may be said to “merge.” 6d) “Church Monuments” is “organically unified.” 6e) Because it is “organically unified,” “Church Monuments” is a success.
“Church Monuments” is a “great” poem.
“Church Monuments” is a “minor” poem.
“Church Monuments” is a poem of the so-called “metaphysical” school.
Herbert was a man fascinated by “order.” His poems everywhere suggest this, in both theme and form. 10a) He must have been an easy child to toilet-train—or else a very difficult one. 10b) Herbert’s interest in disciplining the “body” (or the “flesh”) is discernibly “anxious,” and so is not explained alone by his devotion to the Church of England. In fact, his devotion to the Church of England is best understood as an effect of his “anxious” fascination with “orderliness” and “regularity.” 10c) Sigmund Freud might have something useful to say about this matter. 10d) Or then again, Freud might not have something useful to say about this matter.
Herbert “influenced” Robert Frost. 11a) Herbert “influenced” both Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, though in different ways.
“Church Monuments” is not so much a unitary “poem” as it is a part of a larger work called The Temple. We must read it in light of this fact. We do violence to the poem when we pluck it out of its original bibliographical context.
At the end of the day, it is misleading to speak of “George Herbert” as the “author” of a “work” called The Temple, or of the “poem” called “Church Monuments.” All of the terms here bracketed in quotation marks may be made “controversial.” The “authority” of The Temple is as much “social” and “institutional” as “personal” to Herbert. 13a) Herbert himself sincerely thought any “authority” his poetry had was of and from God; the poet is but God’s instrument anyway. (See his poem “The Altar.”) 13b) The Temple is continuous with the discourse of the Anglican Church itself, and therefore also continuous with the “discourse” of the State. 13c) Point 13b is a restatement of “controversial” point 3 above.
The theme of “Church Monuments” is “universal,” or of interest to all men and women, and at any point in time. The specifically “Christian” aspects of the poem’s thinking are really just local, idiomatic nuances, which we can, in the end, transcend.
“Church Monuments” makes no sense when not read as Christian doctrine. It is irresponsible, and uncharitable to Herbert, to read it in any other way.
Francis Bacon wrote “Church Monuments.”
Herbert writes with unimpeachable “equanimity”; he is not at all troubled at the prospect of Death. 17b) Herbert protests too much, methinks.
In this poem, the “soul” repairs to the deep “interior” of the church, while the body remains “outside” (so to speak). The idea of an “interiority” untouched and untouchable by Time and Death implies a series of parallel binary oppositions, which structure this poem’s thinking, and which are essential to the theology and teachings of the Church, and indeed to the Western philosophical tradition as a whole: inside/outside, soul/body, Eternity/Time, Real/Apparent, and so on. 18a) Jacques Derrida might consider this poem an example of the sort of “metaphysical” or “logocentric” thinking that we need to abandon. Whether or not the poem is also “phallogocentric” is a matter to be considered in connection with controversial points 2-2b above.
“Church Monuments,” and other poems like it, show Herbert to be a “better,” because more “serious,” poet than Robert Herrick. 19b) “Church Monuments,” and other poems like it, show Herbert to be a “worse,” because more “serious,” poet than Robert Herrick.
This commentary could go on forever. 20a) This commentary must go on forever.
This commentary could not go on forever. 21b) This commentary must not go on forever.
N.B.: For another example of an exercise of this type within The Era of Casual Fridays, click here.