Saturday, 1 August 2009

Easter Wings

Easter Wings
George Herbert

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
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 thinne.
With Thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Thinking again about my earlier entry on the ICA's show I want to look at Herbert's Easter Wings, a poem often claimed as an early example of concrete poetry.

What to call such poems technically? Sometimes they are known as shaped verse or visual verse (Lewis Caroll's The Mouse's Tail is another well-known example). The term 'carmen figuration' has also been used.

I don't think it matters much about the name or who claims it as what. It is certainly a precursor of other poems such as Dylan Thomas's 'Vision and Prayer', or indeed my own 'Winter Wings', the half-wing that was the last poem in Reel. Concrete Poetry has a perfect right to it. I would however want to reserve a reading of Herbert's poem that does not sit comfortably with one of the central notions of concrete poetry: the reorientation, or disorientation, or at least questioning, of language as word and - more specifically, and much more crucially - as syntax.

There is no syntax-breaking project in Herbert. On the contrary, the poem's entire drive, or mission, is to confirm syntax through breath. Let's be very simple here and read the poem aloud. It demands reading aloud.

Each line is a unit of sense as well as a unit of breath, The long first line sets out the figure addressed by the poem; the second posits an event (the Fall) as the problem; the third explores the consequences of the event and enacts the process by shortening the line and hence the breath. At the point man becomes 'most poore': he is out of breath, exhausted, worn away to a mere skeleton by his sins. Now God comes to the rescue and, as the lungs were emptied, so now they begin to fill out with God's breath. Kingsley Amis once asked in a poem "Should poets bicycle pump the human heart / Or squash it flat?" Well, here comes God with his mighty afflatus pump to fill the heart again. The units of sense expand, as does the breath. It is as if we had dived to the bottom of a pool and were now ascending. Those f sounds in 'Then shall the fall further the flight in me' is the sound of the divine pump at its inflating / afflating work. I hear an athlete puffing then finally relaxing on the flat eee of me.

Then down we go again, this time not man in general, but the speaker in particular. The lines shorten once more as he heads for exhaustion and - glorious metaphysical pun - waste away, like the speaker, until he (and the line) is thinnest on 'most thinne'. Then it's revival time again, revival as work, step by step raised towards God, each time taking longer swoops in the air, rising and rising, beating the wings then relaxing, almost hovering. Then one final effort, with three great grunts: imp, affliction, advance. The ff's in affliction remind us that there is till some puffing to be done, but at least we are on some plateau of air.

The poem is an enactment of the process of salvation. The visual shape, a rough pun on the shape of a wing, seems to me secondary to the aural and syntactical drive. Herbert does not question language. He demands a great deal of it. He thinks it can do the job of conveying God's power in words. To put it simply and crudely: Herbert believes in the God that ordained syntax. The shape of the poem is auxiliary in that project, more than a pretty toy of course, since the shape of wings has meaning too, but still auxiliary. What matters is that language should be an aspect of faith. You don't pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. God picks you up, unworthy as you are: he crams your mouth with language and breath and says: now live.

If I could be persuaded to be of a God's party, it would certainly be of Herbert's God. Aldous Huxley called Herbert "the poet of inner weather". In Herbert God is almost human. He inhabits syntax in much the same way as he inhabits weather.

1 comment:

equivocal said...

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