Selected Poem - 'Artillerie'

Artillery in the present day has come to mean specifically firearms, but the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that in the Middle Ages it had the meaning of implements discharged in war, to include catapults and slings. In the 16th century it had come to take on the modern meaning of large guns, ordnance (1533 OED). The central metaphor of this poem is that of shooting, in this case ideas in a debate beween God and the poet. Helen Wilcox tells us that the metaphor is Biblical.

'Artillerie'

AS I one evening sat before my cell,
Me thoughts a starre did shoot into my lap.
I rose, and shook my clothes, as knowing well,
That from small fires comes oft no small mishap.
When suddenly I heard one say,
Do as thou usest, disobey,
Expell good motions from thy breast,
Which have the face of fire, but end in rest.


I, who had heard of musick in the spheres,
But not of speech in starres, began to muse:
But turning to my God, whose ministers
The starres and all things are; If I refuse,
Dread Lord, said I, so oft my good;
Then I refuse not ev’n with bloud
To wash away my stubborn thought:
For I will do or suffer what I ought.

But I have also starres and shooters too,
Born where thy servants both artilleries use.
My tears and prayers night and day do wooe,
And work up to thee; yet thou dost refuse.
Not but I am (I must say still)
Much more oblig’d to do thy will,
Then thou to grant mine: but because
Thy promise now hath ev’n set thee thy laws.

Then we are shooters both, and thou dost deigne
To enter combate with us, and contest
With thine own clay. But I would parley fain:
Shunne not my arrows, and behold my breast.
Yet if thou shunnest, I am thine:
I must be so, if I am mine.>
There is no articling with thee:>
I am but finite, yet thine infinitely.

Commentary

This poem exhibits so many of the typical characteristics of Herbert’s poems. It is intensely compressed, with every word carefully crafted to carry the meaning forward. It is completely regular in form, 4 verses of 8 lines. The rhyming pattern has the first 4 lines in each verse rhyming in the pattern A, B, A, B with the last four lines in rhyming couplets. Each of the first four lines contains 10 syllables, the next three lines 8, and the final line of each stanza returns to 10 syllables, providing a rhythmic stop to the verse and the thought. The vocabulary is seemingly simple and direct but contains a wealth of allusion. And it is a conversation, an argument. The debate words but and yet recur 11 times in the 32 lines.

This is one of the very many of Herbert’s poems that is a conversation with his God, conducted with wit and humour and reaching a point of submission. He moves from the cell of the monk, suggesting quiet contemplation, to the domestic, personal setting in which a spark from the fire lands on his lap (or is it a shooting star in the heavens?) to the larger world of religious debate. He moves too from the military reference of the title, taking us to the epic scenes of the prophets' battle in the Old Testament, to the more direct and personal relationship of the poet with his God that is Herbert’s central preoccupation. Shooting has multiple meanings, from the military, to the shooting of arrows of argument, to shooting stars in the heavens.

The first verse presents the poet quietly musing: we enjoy the homely image of the poet, not really in a cell but comfortably before the fire, shaking his clothes against the spark, and knowing that from small sparks great fires can come. And then he hears the voice of temptation, self will, calling him to disobey and turn away from good motions. The next verse again reminds us of this common man, who has heard of the music of the spheres but really does not know about talking stars: but now the conversation with his Lord begins: the “starres” he has enjoyed musing about are part of God’s creation. But the poet is obstinate in his thought, not able to accept the blood of Christ that can wash away his own will.

 

There are two themes from the Bible that resonate through the poem, the arrows shot between God and man, the artillerie of the title, and the covenant that exists between man and God.The language of the poem is deeply bound up with the Covenant of both the Old and New Testaments, those of Abraham, Moses and David in which the prophets accept the command to worship one God in return for his special favour, and in the New Testament the direct and personal covenant between Christ and those who profess his name. “Whosever believeth in me shall not perish ........”. The basis of the NT Covenant is that of free will, and the responsibility of the individual to accept the gift of redemption and it is the constant theme of this as of so many of Herbert’s poems.

While the covenant between God and Man is biblical there is also a major historical context to the Covenant: the religious conflict of the day having been defined in Scotland, and to a lesser extent, the England of the time, by the Covenant movement of Scottish Presbyterians. The commitment of King James VI to the Covenant of 1560, and the articles of faith of the Church of England, are all part of Herbert’s world of profound religious debate and division on a national and international stage.

In this poem huge issues of the larger stage, and the ferment of the intellectual life of the period across science, art and religion, underpin the language of ideas in which Herbert operates. As always there are metaphors and allusion drawn from his breadth of knowledge and understanding of the ferment of ideas and beliefs of the contemporary world of the Renaissance. But the poem is − as always with Herbert − intensely personal. In the last verse the resolution of the argument is just as expressed more famously in Love (III), that of submission, of joyful acceptance. The pronouns fly back and forth like arrows − we, thou, I, thine, mine, but all is resolved in the last line. “I am but finite, but thine infinitely.” It is the personal nature of the debate, as well as the power and simplicity of his language that continues to resonate for a modern day audience.

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