issue 23 > nonfiction > bishop > wilson
Some Thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop's Imitation of George Herbertby James Matthew Wilson
“I have never been religious in any formal way and I am not a believer,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Ann Stevenson in 1964. “I dislike the didacticism, not to say the condescension, of the practicing Christians I know . . . They usually seem more or less on the way to being fascists.” And yet, throughout her life and poetic career, Bishop turned and returned to the poetry of the Seventeenth-Century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert for his expressly Christian example of moral seriousness and poetic form. Scorning the therapeutic approaches to self-knowledge of modern psychoanalysis and its poetic analogue, the “confessional” practices of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and others, Bishop insisted she would “infinitely rather approach such things from the Christian viewpoint . . . the trouble is I’ve never been able to find the books, except Herbert.” She was a secular intellectual in a self-consciously secular age; elsewhere in her letter to Stevenson, she expressed the typical liberal pieties one might expect of a Vassar-educated, cosmopolitan poet in the nineteen-sixties.
Product of her time though she was, she saw that the Twentieth Century’s medical and artistic approaches to the nuances of the inner life did not mean it had found a superior means to self-knowledge and contemplation than that of the Christian tradition. To the contrary, Bishop’s favorite poets included Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, and George Herbert: voices in whom she found the “use of homely images and . . . solidity,” that is, an attention to the peculiarities of the concrete that finds expression in a peculiarity of phrasing. One of Bishop’s essays on Marianne Moore consists of a catalogue of such phrases, demonstrating how “concrete” phrasing draws forth concrete images in the memory. S.T. Coleridge and T.S. Eliot both also prized Herbert for just such imagery, offering these lines as striking in their modesty of metaphor:
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing . . .
As importantly, all these poets could be read as, in some sense, devotional poets. Herbert is remembered primarily as such, of course, and it is to Bishop’s appropriation of that legacy that we shall turn. But it is worth noting that even Baudelaire admits of such an identification. Or, at least, a certain reading of him. In Bishop’s day, T.S. Eliot’s had shaped the popular reception of Baudelaire so that he was regarded as a Christian in tendency—owing as much to the self-lacerating contemplation of the mystery of evil in Joseph de Maistre’s Les Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (1821) as he did to the fortuitous novelty of the modern city. To invoke Baudelaire was to conjure thoughts of moral seriousness in a decadent age. And so, all four of Bishop’s personal favorites wrote, in some sense, meditative lyrics in which the upward movement from the concrete “solid” image to Christian moral understanding is obvious. In particular, Herbert’s constant self-scrutiny regarding his sinfulness, his forgetful “unkindness” to God, and his miserable waiting for the rewards of salvation that seem almost infinitely deferred, was Bishop’s companion, she wrote, “almost all my life.”
On the whole, Bishop absorbed the formal structures and thematic emphases of their poems more than she did their phrasing. In this respect, she stands athwart the practice of many of her and our contemporaries, who often indulge in the Celtic alliteration, syntactical play, and internal rhyme of Hopkins and Dickinson without retaining the more substantive features of their poetry. Moreover, she adapts these structures to her own agnostic sensibility.
S.T. Coleridge once reflected on the unpopularity of George Herbert in modern times and drew a conclusion relevant to Bishop’s practice. Herbert’s book of poems had been reprinted many times in the Seventeenth Century, Coleridge observed, but had ceased to be much admired thereafter. Coleridge had not himself thought much of Herbert in his youth, but had later come to cherish the poems of The Temple. “I cannot avoid drawing the conclusion,” wrote Coleridge, “there must have been more religious experience, more serious interest in the Christian Faith as a business-like Concern of each Individual, than there is at present.” In 1826, the intelligent cared, at most, for the broad general truths of religion, but “When a man begins to be interested in detail, from hour to hour, & feels Christianity as a Life, a Growth, a Pilgrimage thro’ a hostile Country,” then he will come to love Herbert’s work.
All evidence indicates that Bishop saw the moral seriousness in Herbert amid the homely and solid phrases from the beginning. Despite her inability to share in the theistic beliefs of her favorite poets, she sensed that those beliefs had given birth to a marvelous technique of introspection and moral analysis. Herbert’s poems offer meditations on the sufferings of Christ, and our guilt in those sufferings as we re-crucify the Lord with our every petty sin. Further, they detail the anguish at spoiled worldly expectations, at unfulfilled desires to pray with confidence and joy in this world, and to be sanctified in the next. The experience of these specific forms of guilt and worry could no more be the object of Bishop’s concerns than they were of the men of the Eighteenth Century. But that need not render the meditative journey to God in Herbert’s poems sterile for Bishop. For, while his poems are rooted in Christian devotion and take the salvation of the soul in Christ for subject, they always speak from the side of our shared human experience as uncertain, reflective, and rational animals in search of the truth to whose light we would conform our desires. These “moral and universal” concerns in Herbert’s work should not, therefore, be alien to the non-Christian, even as the non-Christian will by definition refuse the end that guides Herbert’s reflections. Bishop’s work demonstrates that Herbert’s method of reflection is eminently adaptable to any poet concerned with the moral and the universal, and it is Herbert's method of reflection that guided Bishop in general as she slowly worked at her meditative, self-scrutinizing, and morally strenuous poems.
Only one of Bishop’s poems stylistically resembles Herbert’s, however. “The Weed,” an early effort, appears almost as a pastiche of Herbert’s “Love Unknown.” But these surface similarities make a comparison of the poems especially revealing of a profound commonality of method and a divergence of purpose. The style of Herbert’s poem is unusual for him; it is highly enjambed, and strikes the ear more like blank verse or prose than the closely rhymed iambic pentameter that it is. It begins like a memory to be spun by the fire: “Dear Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad.” But we are soon in the land of allegory; the narrator tells us of his landlord, to whom he brings “a dish of fruit” with his heart in the middle. The servant of the lord no sooner sees the gift than, knowing his master’s wish, seizes the heart alone,
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issu’d from the side
Of a great rock . . .
The interlocutor replies, “Your heart was foul, I fear,” and the narrator concurs. But, with a clean heart, the narrator finds himself out walking and passes a boiling cauldron, with “AFFLICTION” stamped about its lip. The narrator brings some livestock to sacrifice to it, but, in another reversal, “the man / Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand, / And threw my heart into the scalding pan.” The interlocutor comments, “Your heart was hard,” but the cauldron’s heat tenderized it. Exhausted from this boiling, the narrator goes home to find that the one being to whom he had given his key has stuffed the bed with thorns. “Your heart was dull,” he is told.
For the narrator, his is but an episodic tale of thwarted expectations and recurrent suffering. But his listener tells him, “your Master shows to you / More favour than you wot of” and advises that he should “be cheer’d, and praise him to the full” who “would have you be new, tender, quick.” On the side of earthly experience, the allegory is one of continued pain, but from the perspective of salvation, it reveals itself to have been a journey of purification through the gifts of repentance, penance, and grace.
Bishop picks from Herbert’s imagery what she describes as the most “surreal” elements, and appropriately embeds them in the form of a dream rather than an allegory. “I dreamed that dead, and meditating, I lay upon a grave, or bed,” she begins. In the frozen, unchanging darkness, she lies, until, “Suddenly there was a motion . . . A slight young weed / had pushed up through the heart and its / green head was nodding on the breast.” She then describes the slow, disturbing growth of this weed as it emerges from her body:
The nervous roots
reached to each side; the graceful head
changed its position mysteriously,
since there was neither sun nor moon
to catch its young attention.
And then, the heart begins to change: not beating but splitting apart until two streams of water gush forth. Bishop parenthetically notes that these waters bear with them all the reflected knowledge of experience, before she at last addresses the weed:
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
It lifted its head all dripping wet
(with my own thoughts?)
and answered then: “I grow,” it said,
“but to divide your heart again.”
Rather than following the method of Herbert’s poetry, “The Weed” explains why Bishop required the strict method and definitively moral reflection found in it. For Herbert the record of experience gathered into the memory makes itself available for recollection, reflection, and understanding. When we understand our experience fully, “Love Unknown” teaches, we discover that our original perspective on it had been inadequate, had been too bogged down by the smarts of suffering. We must come to accept a richer account of it that is capable of seeing the hand of God at work on our souls, preparing us for salvation. In brief, the steps of Herbert’s poetic meditation gradually gather the multiplicity of experience into a coherent meaning that, in turn, will lead our reformed selves to life in unity with the Lord.
Bishop’s poem tells a different story. The pierced suffering of our hearts severs us, splitting the unified current of a life into separate, incoherent streams. Experience does not accrue to a unity—that of a single, meaningful life, whose significance can be stated. Experience divides and divides the longer it goes on. It is as if Bishop has replaced the faculty of memory in our souls with the state of trauma, in which broken fragments of suffering simply repeat themselves without issue in the understanding.
This is her natural condition, Bishop dreams. Unless she can find a means to bring order to her experience, to hold it together for analysis, she will have not a life but a fragmented mass of suffering. And that is just what Herbert and her other favorite poets offer: a means, a method, to make the divisions of the heart cohere. A life that would be otherwise inscrutable becomes intelligible, instinct with moral significance. The therapeutic path to “self-adjustment” found in modern psychology cannot give us entry into this sort of understanding, but the devotional methods of Herbert’s meditative lyrics can do so. It was Bishop’s contribution, therefore, to show that those insensible to, or uninterested in, the “business” of redemption still require the form of the Christian devotional and meditative lyric. They need it not to bring their souls to heaven, but to keep their senses from falling apart.