In defence of poesy 2011: George Herbert

April 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

George Herbert’s poem “Jordan (I)” (1633) is, like Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” a poem about poetry, but its meaning is notoriously difficult to parse. Some critics have suggested that the poem rails against notions of pastoral poetry that were in vogue at the time Herbert was writing; other critics have suggested that what Herbert was protesting was the practice of bad poetry; still others have suggested that the poem is a condemnation of poetry itself. Certainly it appears to be a critique of metaphorical fancy in verse, of “fictions” and “false hair” that preclude direct access to truth. The reader of poetry, Herbert claims, only catches “the sense at two removes,” and the poet’s disavowal of “nightingales” can be seen as a protest against one of the most common poetic images around. (Herbert here anticipates one of Keats’s most timeless metaphors.)

And yet, Herbert himself complicates matters by referring to “shepherds” in the first line of the third stanza. Herbert was a metaphysical poet who was deeply involved in the promotion of a Christian attitude: is the word shepherds here meant to invoke the biblical shepherds, guarding their flocks in the Gospel story? Is it meant to invoke the Good Shepherd, Christ himself? Or is it, as the tenor of the time would have understood it, meant to refer to pastoral poets? Does the plea that they are “honest people,” along with the imprecation to “let them sing,” stand as a kind of veiled apologia for the practice of poetry (albeit a specific kind of poetry)?

In “Jordan (I),” Herbert has provided what one critic referred to as “attack and counterattack”: it is precisely the poem’s shifting meanings and refusal to be pinned down that render it such a fascinating piece for study and debate.

Jordan (I)

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
+++Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veiled while he that reads, divines,
+++Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime:
I envy no man nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
+++Who plainly say, My God, My King.