November 22

Talking to God
The Poetry of Religious Meditation

Once again, we encounter the complicated business of the mutually entangled language of sacred and secular love.

Love and Marriage

In Edmund Spenser's Amoretti (1595) we have a sonnet sequence which (most unusually) celebrates a woman the writer finally marries. Sonnet #68 of the Amoretti is an Easter Day poem (compare Petrarch's Good Friday poem) that first addresses God and only in its 13th line turns to the lady. It is suggested that in the very act of remembering the supreme love which made Christ die to redeem humanity, the lovers are given a new inducement to love one another as deeply as possible: married love, thus, becomes an aspect of divine love.

English Protestant belief in the late 16th century: Marriage is no longer a necessary evil but a divinely ordained condition (which, of course, could now be enjoyed by the clergy as well). Chastity is no longer equated simply with celibacy but more broadly with faithful love within marriage.

John Donne and Sacred Love

John Donne's "The Canonization" provides a rather different appropriation of religious vocabulary: the lyric "canonizes" the lovers as saints or martyrs whose "legend" will be the model for other lovers, and whom other lovers will invoke in their own prayers.

Donne's poetry is characterized by

Donne's poems were not published until two years after his death in 1631. He dies Dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral, a highly respected cleric, but only takes holy orders in 1615 after a checkered early career and much examining of his conscience. As a churchman he is famous for his sermons and spiritual meditations (see in particular the famous Meditation17, pp. 1123-24 in Norton)

But What Do You Call It?

The label subsequent ages have applied to the poetry of Donne & other early 17th century poets (e.g. Marvell, Herbert) is "Metaphysical" (literally, transcending the physical; refers in particular to the use of surprising, even shocking metaphors to make connections between microcosmos and macrocosmos).

The term is first applied (somewhat disapprovingly) by poet-critic John Dryden in the later seventeenth century. Perhaps a more useful description for their poetry might be "the poetry of meditation." Much of this poetic meditation is on spiritual matters: specifically directed at God or addressing the poet's relations with God. See George Herbert's sonnet "Prayer," with its multiple metaphors for human attempts to communicate with God. ( The religious's lyric's spin on the Petrarchist's attempt to win the attention of his lady?)

The ideal is the near wordless communication of "something understood," but the devotional poems of this period are often rather more anxious.

Protestantism's emphasis on the individual believer's wrestlings with his or her own faith and conscience, unmediated by any other authority, is reflected in poems which can seem like fragments of a spiritual autobiography. We are offered representations of the speaker in various postures of faith, doubt, resistance, surrender, celebration. They are rarely crudely didactic, and they are rarely static records of the spiritual state of the poet. The lyrics tend to depict an intellect in motion, tangling with questions of belief.

Such lyrics inevitably complicate any notion that man supplants God as the center of the universe in Renaissance: in these poems it is the dialogue BETWEEN a human being and God that is central.

In Donne's holy sonnets and religious lyrics, there's a carry-over of techniques from his love poetry to his devotional poetry.

George Herbert's technique is less self-dramatizing: "the heart in pilgrimage."

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Herbert had the abilities and the connections to play a major role in public life, but he chose to become a hardworking country parson; an active Christian who rebuilt his parish church with his own funds and was much loved by his parishioners. His collection of religious lyrics, The Temple, published shortly after his death in 1633: he builds a holy edifice out of his lyrics.

Like Donne, Herbert often uses surprising metaphors or engages in witty wordplay; he will also use poetic form in ingenious ways to underscore his message (see, e.g., the use of rhyme and non-rhyme in "Denial", a poem haunted by a fear of spiritual barrenness, of being "out of tune" with God). But Herbert's poetry displays a quieter & a less turbulent mind in action than Donne's.

Herbert opts for simple yet powerful effects--see, for example "Love 3," the dramatized dialogue between the weary journeyer and the welcoming host which turns out to be a conversation between the soul of the believer and his God. The poem's quiet ending, its release of tension in the last line, suggests an important contrast between Herbert & Donne.

Donne tends to be waiting, for resolution, for reassurance, for a divine gesture, at the ends of his poems. For Herbert, resolution, reaffirmation, has usually been achieved by the end of the poem. God's voice intervenes: or rather, Herbert the poet lets his voice be replaced by that of God. Herbert replaces self-ENUNCIATION with self-RENUNCIATION.