Sep 16, 2009

An Obscure George Herbert Poem Well-Known to Wintersians

Robert Pinsky continues to put out some valuable short articles on poetry at Slate. Just a couple weeks back, he offered a very brief overview of the great poem “Church Monuments” by George Herbert, the 17th century Anglican priest who wrote a lot of top-notch classical poetry. Pinsky, as you might recall, was once a student of Yvor Winters’s at Stanford University in the 1960s. Though some have labeled him a Wintersian, of some sort, I have opined on this blog that he can hardly be so construed. Still, Pinsky has written well about poetry written in traditional form down the years, and even recently, and some of the poems he has focused on are works that Yvor Winters thought great or highly important.

I know I’ve been hard on Pinsky at times, especially for his poetry, which has descended into trivialities and downright bad writing in recent years, but I do appreciate Pinsky’s efforts to focus attention on some of the poems and issues that Winters thought crucial to the future of literary culture. Pinsky’s article on Herbert’s poem can be found at:

If you wish to dig deeper into this one poem, I also recommend John Fraser’s wide-ranging and sometimes very personal discussion of it in his on-line book Voices in the Cave of Being (which contains the anthology I have often touted on this blog as a highly significant, if not the single most important, development in the study of Yvor Winters in the past 20 years, the New Book of Verse). Fraser’s essay on Herbert’s poem can be found at:

Why all this emphasis on one 24-line poem? Clearly, Pinsky and Fraser deeply admire Herbert’s stellar achievement in this one poem, which has been overlooked or forgotten almost throughout the entire course of English literary history (most books and web sites offering selections of Herbert’s poetry do not include this poem). Having introduced both Pinsky and Fraser to the poem, as they both mention, Yvor Winters considered “Church Monuments” to be one of the half dozen greatest poems ever written in the language, as he made clear in several of those short lists of the greatest great poems that he put out from time to time in the midst of his essays. It was the only poem of Herbert’s that Winters considered to have achieved greatness. The poem is simple to find on the web, so I won’t reprint it here. In fact, it is reprinted at both sites I have linked to in this post.

My judgment on “Church Monuments”? I agree with Winters. It’s surely one of the greatest of the great poems, though it is still infrequently anthologized or discussed or paid attention to in literary culture. Because it is so great and because Yvor Winters “discovered” it are two chief reasons why I believe he is to be largely trusted and looked to as one of the greatest literary critics in the English language. This poem was one of the main reasons I became a Wintersian.

By the way, another modern classicist poet, David Middleton, who once studied with Donald Stanford at LSU, wrote in the 1980s that Winters failed to see the excellence of Herbert’s “Love (III),” which Middleton considered a great poem on a par with or perhaps greater than “Church Monuments.” Of note, John Fraser has mentioned not “Love (III)” but “Affliction” as Herbert’s other great poem. Winters, it is evident, did not judge either of these poems to have achieved anything near the canonical standard that “Church Monuments” and the other greatest great poems of English set. What do you think? For now I will forbear to reveal my own judgments concerning these poems. Here’s Middleton’s choice:


by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
. Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
. From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
. If I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here";
. Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
. I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
. "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
. Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
. "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
. So I did sit and eat.

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