Review of Rosamund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert.

[Review of Rosamund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert. Queen's Quarterly 40.2 (1953): 265-7, 282-3.]


How can one most faithfully read a poem, assuming that the poet meant one thing and not all the possible constructions that can be contrived in its presence?  This question has been thrown into fresh prominence by those critics who have sought to counteract pedantry by urging upon the reader an unbiased sensitiveness of response.  But an even more insidious pedantry has crept in – a sort of literary fundamentalism – nourished by semantics, psychoanalytical jargon, a taste for interpretative formulae, and much emphasis upon the light untutored mother wit.  With Eliot, Yeats, and Pound we were on relatively safe ground: they belong to our own century.  With Donne we are in some difficulty because, despite an erotic candor that we happen to find sympathetic, he sometimes writes out the heart of an informed Christian belief.  Much of Eliot’s work submitted satisfactorily to secular analysis along the lines of anthropology, comparative religion, and the biplanal use of literary references – all easily verifiable and within the scope of the old scholasticism.  But Eliot’s religious and devotional work has been less patient of interpretation.  George Herbert offers a challenge to the critic in a secular age.  The Collar and a few other poems seem to be standard metaphysical poems; but most of his work is unashamedly religious.  How are we to read his poems as he meant them?  Can scholarship help us with that?

Miss Tuve needs no introduction as a sensitive critic and minute scholar.  This book grows out of her more comprehensive study, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery.  It is written in a more relaxed and companionable style, as though – guided by the accumulated knowledge and confidence of her earlier work – she relished the luxury of moving within a clearly defined range.  The work is presented in two sections: a long essay (previously published in part in the Kenyon Review) on Herbert’s The Sacrifice and William Empson’s interpretation of it; and a close study of Herbert’s poetic method in The Temple.  She is primarily interested in Herbert; her way of interpreting him is “not by bringing new light but by letting the old shine through again.”  In the second section, however, she allows herself to consider Herbert’s practice “as a demonstration of what characterizes writing in the symbolical mode.”

Whenever reading poems written in the past, the critic has a responsibility to be “knowledgable” about the traditional soil that the poet’s metaphors and symbols sprang from.  One needs to get somehow inside the poet’s mind, to discern not only what he knew, but also what he did not know, and what he took for granted.  For “a poem is most beautiful and most meaningful to us when it is read in terms of the tradition which gave it birth.”  Miss Tuve sketches out the widely diffused literary and iconographical climate in which Herbert lived, though, worshipped, and wrote – books of devotion, collections of mediaeval lyrics, sermons, the liturgy, church music, encyclopaedic commentaries on the Bible, illuminated and illustrated books and manuscripts, and (not least pervasive of all) the stained glass in churches.  These widely diffused physical materials show a taste for irony, a flair for an almost cuelly terse compression of statement and for compact allusions and identifications which (if one knew no better) one might easily ascribe to Herbert himself as distinctive features of his genius.  But Herbert was not for a tortured obscurity:

Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

We find then, not the baffling Herbert, capable at times of a style limpidly clear and at times of a wrenched, impacted “metaphysical” manner; rather we find his poems gaining richness, depth, and clarity when we recognise what he took from the tradition, and how he varied that tradition.  It is when we can watch him transmute, or depart by a shade from what were for him and his contemporaries commonplaces of exegesis and liturgy – then we can see his distinctive genius.  Furthermore, Miss Tuve emphasizes something difficult for a secular and scientific age to grasp: the poetic importance of belief.  Even the poet’s metaphors depend upon that; “the life of truth in the aesthetic realm depends upon belief.”  The iconographical background is essential to a faithful reading of Herbert; not because (like Pogo) it was in the air, but because it was the body of what he believed.

As Miss Tuve unfolds her discourse, drawing the traditional anachronistic relations – (for example) between Christ and Moses, Samson and the Resurrection, the grapes of the Promised Land and the Mass, the birth of Eve and the piercing of Christ’s side – we discover Herbert’s light to read by.  The book is elegantly written by a scholar who wears her erudition lightly.  There are two illustrations in colour and a number in monochrome.  This book is to be commended, not only to students of Herbert and the Seventeenth Century, but to anybody who is interested in the way a great poet’s mind works and the way his method fashions out of materials readily at hand the expression of a unique personal belief and vision.