George Herbert, “Jordan” (I)

Jordan (I)
George Herbert

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Comment:

The first stanza seems to keep questions directed at the problem of the truth being direct. Anything that isn’t truth must be fancy:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

“False hair” implies that beautiful verse is a mere covering-up of the past’s inability to last. Truth has no such problem. What is stranger is “good structure” and what follows. Truth doesn’t have “good structure?” Only Babel does (“winding stair”)?

Truth doesn’t consist of “lines?” No cliche sounds poetic? “Painted chair” might be a Platonic image. The form of the chair is invisible but makes the chair useful. Man rests in the chair. The paint is totally unnecessary. By implication, words and sight at this point are completely unnecessary.

You’re wondering why I say “words” given that the poem ends with shepherds who “plainly say.” Two thoughts: you don’t need to know the content of a name to use it. I can ask “Who is Aristotle?” and not know a thing about Aristotle. A similar argument can hold for “My God, My King.” Secondly, all words are “false hair” (they make the perishable seem lasting), grammar has structure, and one could say all prose is really just bad poetry.

If my thoughts are correct, Herbert might be leading up to a bigger question than the six he initially posed. Let’s say Christianity is a myth like any other. Why should someone believe it? What about “God is love” is the truth in an overpowering way, that the details matter precisely because they don’t? – If you say Christianity matters because of Scripture alone, to what degree is this praise of poetry? –

Herbert’s speaker dare not say something so blasphemous. He’s just going to imply it really, really strongly:

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

So it seems we have verse that is of pagan myth and most importantly pagan love. That verse brings us back to nature. But drop “enchanted” and you can see the “groves” have trees with “coarse-spun lines.” In a way, this is what the first stanza was calling for. “Purling streams” could be about nymphs and people like Narcissus. It could also be Psalm 23. For the practical purpose of finding the truth, paganism doesn’t get dismissed. Nature and Creation are both in question inasmuch they are verse of any sort. The real issue is how – or simply that – we read:

Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

“Veiled” is not a problem peculiar to verse. We live in a world of appearances. What is real and what is not is always the issue. The problem peculiar to verse is that of good reading. Good reading is in a way “divination.” You take a guess at what someone means – try to read their mind – and apply it as if it were wisdom, seeing if it makes sense in the world. I know, I’m making that sound like scientific method. You know practically that it is anything but. It’s more like fortune telling.

I do think Herbert was wondering where the truth of Christianity could possibly lie. That question has transformed, though. At first, it was the issue of whether truth is distinguishable from myth. It may be, but that still brings up who is reading in the first place. Questions of beauty and nature lead back to what one wants out of beauty and nature:

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Herbert’s speaker is no shepherd. How honest shepherds are generally is an open question. What’s important is that inasmuch they are distinct from the speaker, they are “honest.” They sing (themselves?). Our speaker is writing a poem. It seems he’ll take on being called a liar.

Truth has dropped out as a consideration altogether. When one focuses on who wants truth, it isn’t clear any of us really do. What we have are at least two sorts of people who like myth:

Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;

Instead of puzzling over “Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime” alone, I put it in context. Herbert’s speaker does not envy anyone else’s fancy. We know shepherds have some pagan fancies as well as part of the truth. What confuses the speaker is their “listening” and “pull for Prime.” He’s not clear on how they listen (don’t you have to be a careful reader to listen well?) and really not clear on “pull for Prime.” That can be getting a pump started – doing a lot of work for no immediate result – or trying to get a trump card to win a game outright. Herbert’s speaker does acknowledge that some kind of humility is important for Christian truth:

Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

But it isn’t the “humility” of smashing all the idols and trying to get everyone to conform to an impression of the commandments. Herbert’s poet has said the same, even plainly. What people don’t like is that philosophical problems are not terribly deeply buried under their more pious concerns. God is the Word, but words inform us about beauty and nature, which reflect on truth’s human aspect. There are only questions with that in mind. The declarative last stanza is a plea for privacy of conscience in the name of humility more than a call for unified belief.

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