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“… the simple conclusion suggests words are utterly inadequate.”

July 24, 2011
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In the back of ‘The Priest & A Priest To The Temple’ by George Herbert (1927, Everyman’s Library 309, London: J. M. Dents & Sons Ltd.) is a short essay.

In the front is:
H. M. McLuhan
Cambridge Nov/34

Marshall McLuhan seems to have acquired many books during his stay in England, as evidenced by the above notation. When I’ve completed my inventory of his library, perhaps I will publish a list of the books I’ve found which are so-dated… it would be a perhaps valuable list of what he was interested enough in at the time to buy, and ship home at some expense.

Here’s the essay:

“Herbert’s poems are each independent – even though
they are spiritual autobiography – because he states
his premise clearly, usually by means of an
image, in the form of a prose argument. The reader
is never befogged; the words represent clear-cut ideas
[rather than rousing vague emotions - they are isolated
and swift-] through which the poet’s emotion is
conveyed. The emotion is not less than that of
more nebulous poets but is presented in closer
association with thought. His feelings take shape
in the imagery of the poem and is articulated
with logical precision. There is a fusion of thought
and feeling at considerable heat:
Death thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing
c.f. p. 195
(The fourth line the fourth stanza contain
a serious wit which is yet humour – the
romantics derive wit and humour from poetry)

Contrast the statement of immortality in the above
poem with any stanza from In Memoriam
What art thou then? I cannot guess;
stars and
But tho I seem in ^ flowers and star
to feel the same diffusive power
I do not therefore love thee less:

My love involves the love before
my love is vaster passion now;
tho mixed with God and nature thou,
I seem to live thee more and more

“Seem” dominates the poem. There are hosts of
hopeless abstractions “vaster passions” etc.
Tennyson may have know what he felt – we may
doubt if he sincerely tells us – but he certainly
didn’t know what he thought.

Herbert is a master of tone and tension. As
in “The Collar” he can create a great crescendo and
then suddenly release the whole tension in a phrase. Or
as in “Love” the climax is in the middle and the
simple conclusion suggests words are utterly inadequate.

Grierson makes an interesting comparison
with Cranshaw: In Cranshaw neither
spiritual conflict controlled and directed
by Christian inhibitions and aspirations, nor
mystical yearning for a closer communion with the
divine, is the burden of his religious song, but
love, tenderness, and joy. In Cranshaw’s poetry as in
the later poetry of the Dutch Vondel, a note is
heard which is struck for the 1st time in the 17th
century, the accent of the convert to Romanism,
the joy of the troubled soul who has found rest and
a full expansion of heart in the rediscovery of a
ritual and a faith and order which give entire
justification to the imagination and the affections.
The Catholic poet is set free from the painful
diagnosis of his own emotions and spiritual
condition which so preoccupies the Anglican
Herbert. The Catholic poet loses this anxious
sense of his own moods in he consciousness
of the opus operatum calling on him only
for faith, and thankfulness and adoration.
Faith can believe
As fast as love new laws doth give.
Faith is my force, faith strength affords
To keep pace with those powerful words
and words more sure more sweet than they
Love could not think, truth could not say.”

I’ve included photographs of the pages so readers may look over the writing for themselves and, if so inclined, find any errors with my transcript. The number ’28’ at the bottom corner of the second page is a note indicating where in the library the book belongs (shelf 28).

Thanks for reading,

Andrew

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 12:34 pm

    A reader recently emailed me about this post, and I’m adding it as an interesting side-note:

    “Hi Andrew,

    Because some of the language of these notes didn’t seem to have your grandfather’s ring to them, I started to look around a bit in Google Books and found that most of the first part comes from Joan Bennett, Four Metaphysical Poets, CUP, 1934. Try a search for “The reader is never befogged; the words represent”…

    Most of the second part comes from Metaphysical lyrics & poems of the seventeenth century, Donne to Butler edited by Sir Herbert John Clifford Grierson, OUP, 1921. Here are sections from p xlvi-xlvii (which I can copy out of Gbooks using the available plain text)

    Neither spiritual conflict controlled and directed by Christian inhibitions and aspirations, nor mystical yearning for a closer communion with the divine, is the burden of his religious song, but love, tenderness, and joy. In Crashaw’s poetry, as in the later poetry of the Dutch Vondel, a note is heard which is struck for the first time in the seventeenth century, the accent of the convert to Romanism, the joy of the troubled soul who has found rest and a full expansion of heart in the rediscovery of a faith and ritual and order which give entire satisfaction to the imagination and affections. (…) The Catholic poet is set free from the painful diagnosis of his own emotions and spiritual condition which so preoccupies the Anglican Herbert. (…) The Catholic poet loses this anxious sense of his own mood in the consciousness of the opus operatum calling on him only for faith and thankfulness and adoration. (…)
    Faith can believe
    As fast as love new laws can give.
    Faith is my force. Faith strength affords
    To keep pace with those powerful words.
    And words more sure, more sweet than they
    Love could not think, truth could not say.

    Since McLuhan selected these passages and took the trouble to copy them out, these texts (particularly the second from Grierson) are a revealing indication of his thinking at the time. It is therefore important that you found them and made them available.

    All best,”

    Thanks to the reader for this useful post-script.

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