Monday, June 1, 2009

Decaying More And More

Although many, maybe even most, poets occasionally experiment with non-standard meters, a few have made such experimentation a major focus of their work. Among them, George Herbert stands at the top, both because he was one of the first to do extensive experimentation in English meter and because his experiments went further than most before or since.

Despite the appearance of some of his outlandishly styled poems, he did not throw out the rules. He wrote according to the same understanding of meter that other poets have generally used. But he saw the rules of verse not as a limitation but rather as a playground in which there was ample room to romp and play.

The following poems are often credited as being the first "concrete verse." (This is not accurate, for the ancient Greeks sometimes applied the same idea in using poems as visual art. In fact they created poems in both the shapes of wings and of altars, which are the shapes of the two Herbert poems below. George Herbert was likely the first to create such poems in English.) However, much that is called concrete poetry today is written simply for appearance on the page, ignoring meter and most other tools in the poet's tool chest. George Herbert ignored nothing, the layout is simply a bonus.

In Easter Wings it is impressive to see how many kinds of symmetry Herbert employed. There is of course the appearance; there is a rhythmic symmetry, a partial symmetry in the rhyme schemes, and a careful thematic symmetry to the two wings of each pair. There are possibly others that I haven't yet noticed.


Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poor:

With Thee
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thin.

With Thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victory;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.


A broken Altar, Lord, Thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares,
Whose parts are as Thy hand did frame;
No workman's tool hath touch'd the same.
A heart alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy power doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise Thy name:
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise Thee may not cease.
O, let Thy blessed Sacrifice be mine,
And sanctifie this Altar to be Thine!

OK, so this second doesn't really look like an altar. That is the fault of my lack of computer skills. When he originally published it the typesetting was carefully adjusted so that there were three distinct line lengths, causing it to resemble the altar at the front of his church. I highlighted the text simply because it seemed to accentuate the shapes a little.


Teri said...

I LOVE Easter Wings. Thanks for posting this. I read somewhere that the meter causes an effect like a beating heart or flapping wings. Such a pleasing poem in so many ways!

Doug P. Baker said...


I read it again and I see what you mean. It does sound like slowly flapping wings. Cool!

The Masked Badger said...

I haven't got anything wise to say - just ahhhh! George Herbert. What a bloke.

Doug P. Baker said...

Amen, What a bloke! I remember when you went to his church and took those pictures of it. That must have been quite an experience! To see floor, and doors, and windows of which he wrote. That is a visit to remember.