Thursday, April 10, 2008

George Herbert and the Dark Night

This is a favorite poem (transcribed here), one I feel close to because I feel I have lived it myself. I'm in the mood to re-read it today because the wind and rain are howling outside, big sheets of rain are striking the windows my writing desk is placed before, and the world is filtered as if by a wet windscreen. The trees are moving in the strong winds as though I was driving past at speed.

There is a great deal of literature available on George Herbert and his poetry; my purpose here is neither to reiterate nor rebut the scholarship. (I recommend to you especially C.A. Patrides' books on Herbert.) Of the Metaphysical Poets, Herbert and John Donne are my favorites, in that order. Both of them approach the experience of living with the Divine, and against the Divine, with passion, wit, and humility. My response to this poem, here and now, is a personal appreciation, and nothing scholarly.

What always speaks to me about Herbert's poems are their ability to make you feel as if it was all happening to you, right now. The poems draw you in, and you feel as though you were the actor in the poem, the speaker, the narrator. Herbert's poems were only published after his death, but obviously they spoke to readers then as they do to me now, as they were quickly reprinted a dozen times in as many years.

In The Collar, the spirit of rebellion against limitation and restriction is explicitly, even violently stated. Have we not all chafed similarly under some restriction? Have we not all tried to break free, push away, go out into the world on our own terms, by our own rules and laws, and reject the laws given to us by our forefathers? Have we not all questioned the received wisdom of our birth tribe, as we struggled to become individual, and develop our own ethic? Have we not all felt similar torment, and similar humility at the end? Have we not been so bitter, and so balmed?

When I was living in the trailer in the New Mexico desert, going through my monastic experience of the dark night, I turned to this poem more than once. It reminded me that, even when I felt most cut off from my contact with the rest of creation, there were things I didn't know; forces in operation I could not know about, that were moving things along in a path towards eventual release. There are truths that are only revealed in hindsight. One of these is that, when I felt most alone, most abandoned, I was not. There was still a presence there, aiding me, even if I rejected it or could not sense it except briefly.

That awareness of presence is the core of the religious and mystical experience. I reject conventional spellings for this core experience, although it is one I have had several times. Every established religion has a way of talking about it, naming it, encapsulating it; they are all true, and they are all lies. (Because words can't really contain it.) I am not a member of any established religion, yet I recognize that this kind of experience lies at the root of most of them. In that, they are all separate paths to the same goal, and the goal is to go Home. Me thoughts I heard one calling, "Child"—and one must reply, in whatever words, or wordless waiting, one can muster.

Herbert in many ways was a better poet of divinity than any since; including Donne. He was in many ways the high mark to which we might all aspire. His freshness of approach and metaphor endure, and are still shocking. A collar—what is that, a dog's collar? a priest's collar? a leash on which the spirit lunges, only to be reined in? All of these, and more. What an incredible conceptualization of the relationship between God and poet. The very idea still stuns me, and I have read this poem a hundred times.

There are two older poems from years ago, not among my better poems, that I wrote out of this same experience, which I recognize as having parallels to The Collar. I can rarely approach Herbert's raw power, or even his violent fury in this poem. I've written my fair share of miserable angst-poems about being caught up in the dark night, in spiritual crisis, in acedia. I have looked long in that abyss, and have felt the abyss look back into me. I'll spare anyone from being subjected to these most miserable poems of mine; you probably have similar, or worse. The cri de coeur poem has as many problems, as a genre, as does the intellectual/philosophical poem; although they are different problems.

Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.

Herbert speaks for all cris de couer with these few lines, that can be matched only by the limpid despair of Eccelsiastes, or by some few passages in Albert Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. Gerard Manley Hopkins comes close in some of his sonnets, but Hopkins was perhaps directly influenced by Herbert, and had surely read him.

The Collar ends with:

But as I rav'd, and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, "Child";
And I replied, "My Lord."

And the growing violence of the language, the writhing and clipped phrases, suddenly become still, quiet, centered, and contained. Are we reined in, or do we rein ourselves in, given that one word of calling? This is a symbol of what happens when you hear that inner voice calling: everything goes quiet, and the still small voice speaks clearly within you. The world takes on sudden brilliance, colors become brighter, your hearing sharpens as though your ears had become suddenly unblocked and you can hear the thoughts of Canadian geese across the drowned lawn.

Near the end of that dark night, in the desert, there was for me a similar quiet. A silence that appeared as, finally, everything else fell away. A silence that I can still find, in myself, a still point. It has become easier to locate it, even in the storm-stressed whirl of daily lists of things that really have to get done, or else. Even when I'm completely out of sorts, some part of me can still feel and hear that ringing silence that surrounds the call. Once you've heard it, it remains.

Still, I want to go back out to the desert, soon, and pull over to the side of a lost two-lane highway, stop the truck, get out and stand there just listening to the silence. That silence which is the most enduring poetry of all.

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