Whereas my birth and spirit rather took The way that takes the town; Thou didst betray me to a lingring book, And wrap me in a gown. I was entangled in the world of strife, Before I had the power to change my life. Yet, for I threatned oft the siege to raise, Not simpring all mine age, Thou often didst with Academick praise Melt and dissolve my rage. I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where I could not go away, nor persevere. Yet lest perchance I should too happie be In my unhappinesse, Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me Into more sicknesses, Thus doth thy power crosse-bias me, not making Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking
George Herbert, Affliction
When I was a teenager I bought a copy of Metaphysical Poets in the Penguin edition with an introduction by Helen Gardner. I think it is the only poetry collection I still have from that time. It’s got a little stained with age because I have taken it with me on my travels. When it was new it came on a walk with me up onto the Quantock hills and back over Exmoor. It joined me in Edinburgh and was one of the few books I took with me to America when I spent a year in Philadelphia. Now it is crumbling away on my shelf in Spain. I want to take it down now and draw from it.
When I bought it I suppose I was drawn to the image on the front. It’s a detail from a painting by John Souch in Manchester called “Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of His First Wife.” The designer, Germano Facetti, did a good job. The skull, the dying woman and the barely covered breasts of the young woman on the right speak of Sex and Death. The stark chiaroscuro is true to the world that produced the poems. That strange black cloth on the wicker chest looked phallic to my teenage eyes and the pillows buttocky and clefted. Carmen would say that I am “enrevesado” in my thinking: over complicated. But that is appropriate to Metaphysical Poetry with its twisting conceits, worked into tight forms. You can read in painting as you can read in words. Poetry and painting have always gone together in my mind. Painting, mind, not Art in general; steer away from the big bombastic. That was another appeal of this collection. They were all pretty short.
These three verses come from a longer poem, but it is not horrendously long: eleven verses. You can read it on the Poetry Foundation webpage. Neither is it difficult to read. Herbert is more measured than Donne, for example, whose chains of images could often leave me feeling dizzy and he doesn’t go for fancy vocabulary and classical references. Almost all the words in these three verses are monosyllables and few of the longer ones are hard to understand. You don’t need to know the biographical details to get the picture (though if you want them you can look at the George Herbert website). The seventeenth-century spelling doesn’t hold you up, but gives it character and the one word I don’t know- crosse-bias- is easily understandable in the context. I guess, since Herbert was an educated fellow, he wasn’t referring to cloth or paper but to a more modern sense of bias as a set of pre-set interests.
You can swallow this poetry smoothly
Herbert doesn’t labour his conceits. You are hardly aware of the images but they are there. I’d go so far as to say that it is the images that make it easy to swallow:
- take the way
- lingering book
- wrap me in a gown
- a siege
- melt and dissolve my rage
- sweetened pill
- take the ways away
This is all set in the larger metaphor of the poem: a conversation with God that ends with the line: “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.” When I was sixteen I found Herbert fascinating but tedious in his conversations with God. All the same there was something so heartfelt and genuine about this statement that it stuck in my head. It felt real, not just for a believer, but for anyone who has been stuck in a situation of wanting and not wanting, desire and repulsion, service and rebellion. There is a lot of doubling in this poem. The images are easy to swallow, but not so easy to digest.
The sweetened pill is a good example. You sweeten a pill to cover its bitter taste. So, on the one hand a bitter pill is something bad you want to reject, but it is also good for you. When I reread the images I am aware of the double load the poet places on them. Look at the melting rage. We don’t normally expect rage to be cold, but hot. It is unusual for it to be melted. He is wrapped in a gown, suggesting protection, but immersed in a world of strife. The purge could be turned to food, and he can be happy in his unhappiness if he weren’t so sick. This is more than just cleverness. It speaks to me of the uncertainties of life itself.
You digest it slowly
I’d say I haven’t digested the poem even after forty years. I don’t know how many times I have come back to it. Simpering certainly popped into my head as an apt description of academic life when I was doing research. If you have been to a university cheese and wine party, you will get that. But, as with many really good poems, the easy sense that this was a simple description is elusive. He is not saying that he would have been better for taking the other path or for raising the siege and moving on. He is not satirizing study.
When I wake up in the night because of a pain in my arm that means I have to change position, I might lie awake for awhile. In the middle of the night, when the efforts of the day drift out of focus, the peculiar reality of being right here, right now floats forward. How did it come about? What did I do to get here? It seemed intentional at the time, but looking back I only see a succession of improbable accidents. Even my intentions seem like ex post facto rationalizations. I am in a small village in rural Spain. Did I ever feel like I was on the way that takes the town? Now I am far from it.
I keep doing the things I have always done: reading, writing, painting and teaching. I keep battling with them- the siege- even though I may have the sensation that I could chuck it all in and go for a different life. Or, perhaps, I should say I could have done that when I was younger and had more energy. Have I been wrapped in a comfortable gown that has taken me away from bolder decisions and fluid movement?
Me from my own ways taking
I spent ten years walking along the Camino de Santiago. It is often badly translated as the Way and there was even a film about it with that title. This pilgrimage route is a trail, a path and, I suppose, a way. And, over time, the sensation that the there is a link between the trail itself and a way of being coalesces. The Way can become something like the Chinese notion of Tao.
There are volumes of guff written about this. People really want this way to have a greater transcendental meaning. There is a quaint innocence to accounts of self-discovery on the Camino, as though the act of pilgrimage could be more than just a walk to a destination. Could your ways and the way become one through an act of your own choosing? Or would that all be nothing more than another kind of simpering?
What do you think?