Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Something Understood: On George Herbert's "Prayer"

Flannery O'Connor's Prayer Journal, new out from FSG, is a gorgeous little volume – the book includes facsimiled pages in O'Connor's longhand – made all the more remarkable for the vulnerability and breadth of spiritual expression in the prayers.

Composed while O'Connor was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the journal entries are aggrieved, contrite, confused, prolix, playful, sincere, self-obsessed, self-obliterating, nit-picky, breezy, complex, severe. "[O'Connor's] mind is examined, faith questioned, weakness confessed, powers tried as they might not have been under the eye of any human observer," wrote Marilynne Robinson in a recent review.

Indeed, for those of us who might relate prayerfulness to quiet meditation, mindless incantation, or the pat recital of traditional forms, O'Connor's philosophically discursive, emotionally bracing brand of hand-scripted devotion, even if a fount of consolation, can hit as something of a shock.

But the young writer's prayers would not have surprised the 17th century British poet George Herbert. Herbert's "Prayer," a sonnet included in the posthumous collection The Temple, remains one of the great essays on the spiritual discipline in English. The poem makes for an interesting abstract to O'Connor's journal. I might have printed it on the first page.

I call Herbert's poem an essay cautiously but not without intention. To my mind "Prayer," much like Herbert's entire poetic enterprise, has that sense of mental peregrination – that feel of a deliberate thrust in a general direction, that overture at discovery – that we associate with the essayistic mode.

"Prayer," in particular, seems far less concerned with lyrical derring-do (of which it has plenty) or thematic prognostication (Herbert, after all, was a preacher for the last three years of his life) than with the experience of mapping the trajectory of an idea.

In other words, the surrender to content, more than the wielding of craft, is what gives weight, and a certain clairvoyance, to Herbert's verse. "These poems," said T.S. Eliot of The Temple, "form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling and enlarge the understanding of those readers also who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion."

The Scottish novelist George MacDonald: "It will be found impossible to separate the music of [Herbert's] words from the music of the thought which takes shape in their sound."

Spiritual struggle is everywhere present in "Prayer," as is the "music of [Herbert's] thought." At first we think he may be angling toward a conventional definition. The sonnet begins: 

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage

Prayer, at least in this opening salvo, is ancient and angelic, akin to a victory feast, a life-giving exercise that engages the lungs, the heart, the soul. But the glorious appraisal is quickly complicated. The descriptive catalogue continues with a snarl:

Engine against th' Almightie, sinners towre,
            Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear

The banquet, once so satisfying, has become a griping session. The pilgrim has grown homesick and sore. No sooner does he bless than he questions and tests, raging against the numinous with murder in his heart. And this, too, for better, for worse, according to Herbert, and in accord with lived experience, is part of the heavenly tête-à-tête. Prayer occasions praise; prayer occasions repentance. The failure to concede as much makes prayer into a kind of prayerlessness.

The turns in the poem, of which the above is only the most dramatic, have the effect of shifting our perception of Herbert's aims. We feel the poet reaching to find expression for something deeper and more inchoate, not for a definition per se but rather towards an essence. Seamus Heaney, in his Oxford lecture on Herbert, called the poet's method an "impulsive straining towards felicity."

The phrases accumulate, the contradictions accrete, the scope widens ("the milkie way") and contracts ("man well drest") until we arrive at what Eliot called one of the most "magical" couplets in English literature, a pair of lines that W.H. Auden said foreshadowed the syntactical experiments of later poets such as Mallarmé and which Auden himself seemed to have channelled for his description of poetry ("it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth") in the second stanza of his elegy for Yeats. "Church-bels," writes Herbert:

               beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

What began with the vaunted language of feasts and seraphs has come round, has been been boiled down to the prosaic and yet infinitely more mysterious "something understood." In two lines we have moved from deafening music to deafening silence, from the outskirts of the universe to the marrow of the spirit, from awe to some sort of comprehension, from the shake of the head to the nod of the head.

The coda does not elide the preceding phrases. No, in "something understood" we hear the alliterative echoes of "souls bloud," even "Churchs banquet." We get the feeling that we would never have reached these quiet waters without weathering the preceding rapids. The tension in the lines, the meandering nature of the composition, the mix of highbrow and lowbrow diction, the sense of change and arrival  here the poem seems to engage the very exercise it essays. With prayer, as with writing, Herbert suggests, the experience, the wily half-discipline of it all, often supplies its own solution.

"Prayer," Flannery O'Connor wrote in her journal, "should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without an exegesis.”

She wrote: "I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even.”

And: “My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.”

We can almost hear Herbert say "Amen."

Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor who divides his time between Iowa City and Washington, DC.

No comments:

Post a Comment