Dead life: George Herbert versus modern self-surrender

Mapp, N. 2013. Dead life: George Herbert versus modern self-surrender. Philologie im Netz. 65, pp. 37-79.

TitleDead life: George Herbert versus modern self-surrender
AuthorsMapp, N.

This reading of George Herbert holds off some received norms of early-modern poetry criticism. These include the discursivizing historicism that tends to obscure the view of the longer historical processes in which both the poetry and the contemporary reader are entangled as well as those 'demystifying' readings that relativize the metaphysical or theological purposes of the poems to their social or psychological functions. Herbert's devotional poems are instead here taken seriously for their truth-content; for their salutary resistance to the kinds of (usually tacit, pervasive) concepts brought to them. By measuring itself against false ideas of gain and loss, Herbert's poetry has in its sights some central features of reason, features reproduced in the criticism of his poems and in modern experience generally. Herbert's alleged ascetic is the nerve of this genealogical approach. The separation of motivation from justification and truth that critics find in Herbert is actually the poet's target. His rejection of asceticism takes many forms, including any acquisitiveness or self-assertion that blocks off the highest pleasures and purposes of life. The verse defends a paradoxical reconciliation of interests and reasons, prudence and morality, by expanding the idea of self-interest into ethical relationships, re-functioning economic figures as it does so. The knowing, suffering self is ethically composed from structures of giving and receiving, while what is given and exchanged determines ethical relations (and vice versa). Thus the social and devotional are mutually deciphering and domains often taken to be independent are brought into communication. The poems figure complex contexts of donation and a variety of poetic self-subtractions need therefore to be considered, not as outlay for selfish reward, but as opening up to this context and truer interests. So Herbert sounds out prototypes of modern, disenchanted subjectivity, authorizing affective values threatened by asceticism and scepticism. "The Holdfast" shows how self-unfixing identifies these satisfactions, rather than eliminating or emptying the self. Pain is not undergone in blind faith that a reward will come; the verse is not, despite one interpretative line, a celebration of an ineffable pay-off but a complex reasoning out, often through syntactical compression and manipulation, of the nature of such human satisfactions. For Herbert, overall, divine grace is the surplus animating all benefits; but it is always humanly recognizable, and accessible. Its opposite is death. The essay finally considers Herbert's apparent embrace of mortality, and rejects the critics' suspicion that he affirms life only through a death-denying 'ideology'. Indeed, his critique of restricted interests and of any rapprochement with death or depletion can be seen to reverse such suspicions, and is an intriguing resource for the secular critique of contemporary modernity.

JournalPhilologie im Netz
Journal citation65, pp. 37-79
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