Selected Poem - 'Jordan (I)'

Izaak Walton's 'Life of George Herbert' tells us of a letter sent in 1610 by the sixteen-year-old Herbert to his mother Magdalen. In it he resolves that 'my poor Abilities in Poetry shall be all, and ever consecrated to God's glory'. It was a resolution that he maintained throughout his life.

Jordan (I)

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.

Commentary

There are at least half a dozen poems in 'The Temple' in which George Herbert refers to his own verse, either directly or indirectly. The two bearing the title 'Jordan' are specifically about the devotional nature of his writings and, in the case of Jordan (I), effectively repeats and justifies his teenage resolution to avoid the secular and profane, and to channel his poetic skills in the direction of religion. The poem is also a plea for truth and simplicity.

Most of the English poetry that Herbert would have known in his youth was romantic in character, for example Philip Sidney's 'Astrophel and Stella', first published in 1591. This collection of over 100 sonnets was typical of the 'fictions' Herbert challenges here, as was Edmund Spenser's major work 'The Faerie Queene'. Herbert would also have been well aware of the contemporary popularity of the plays of Shakespeare, and of the elaborate court masques, the costumes and scenery of which may well have inspired his references to 'false hair' (female parts were played by males) and a 'painted chair'.

Herbert also has in his sights the fashion of the time for writers to display their cleverness by the use of complex and frequently obscure verse, which he compares with 'a winding stair', and he deplores the effort needed on the part of the reader to disentangle 'at two removes' what the poet is trying to get at.

Nor is Herbert impressed, despite their relative simplicity, by the popular pastoral poems of the period, with their rural Arcadian settings, shepherds and nymphs, which also featured in many of the court masques. He fails to see why such fantasies are regarded are the most suitable subjects for poetic writing; not for him the 'enchanted groves', 'purling stream' or (in the next stanza) 'nightingale'.

 

In contrast, his shepherds are not fictional but real ('honest people'), and here he could well be referring obliquely to the concept of Christ, The Good Shepherd (John Ch.10 v.14) as reflected in role of priests as the shepherds of their parish flocks. They, he asserts, are really the ones worth listenng to.

Herbert is not seeking to dismiss secular poetry. As he says, if readers prefer the more flowery and complex forms of secular verse, so be it; the choice is theirs ('pull for Prime'). But such stuff is not for him, and devotional verse must not be decried or regarded as inferior, just because it is more straightforward and religious in character. The simple words 'My God, My King' echo a phrase appearing in several of the Psalms, and are used by Herbert himself in other poems such as 'Antiphon (I)'.

The reason for Herbert's choice of the title 'Jordan' for two of his poems is not immediately apparent and has given rise to much critical speculation. Perhaps the must persuasive theory is that he wanted to contrast the purifying waters of the River Jordan with those of the River Helicon, conventionally associated with the artistic muse by classical scholars. In 1652 his first true biographer Barnabas Oley wrote that 'he made his ink with water of Helicon'. Perhaps he should have written 'Jordan'

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