f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Stanzas and Meter and Symbols, Oh My!—A Short Meditation on Poetry

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Stanzas and Meter and Symbols, Oh My!—A Short Meditation on Poetry

I was an English major. You don’t get through most colleges as such without doing a fair amount of reading across a variety of eras, authors, and forms. So in four years I crammed quite a few novels in, lots and lots of short stories, some non-fiction, and more poetry than I can even remember at this point. Four years wasn’t enough to convert me into a poet.

There are poets I’ve become fond of (Roethke and cummings come to mind), but too often poetry becomes about everything other than what is on the page that I twitchy around it. I will say that if you are a Christian who knows her Bible at all and you end up taking a poetry class focusing on the Elizabethan era, you’ll find yourself in a good spot. From Donne to Marvell to today’s subject, George Herbert, much of the poetry that has survived is spiritual in theme or, at minimum, uses lots of biblical imagery. I remember stunning my class by knowing that Esau was hairy.

Anyway, I pulled out my copy of Herbert, who I remember liking in college, to talk over one of his poems. I didn’t repeat yesterdays minor miracle. Today I sifted through his verse and found that one’s reasons for liking something may dissipate in time. I need to look through my old papers and see if I can find the theses I wrote on Herbert to remind myself.

I did locate one fairly accessible poem. It’s called “The Pulley” and I think we’re far enough into public domain with this one that I can reprint the whole thing. Mind, some of the formatting is a bit off, but it doesn’t look terribly important for this one.

The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Le us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flower, the wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

Yeah, so that’s it.

The poem seems to hinge on one theme—that of rest. And as I just typed that, the title of the poem may become a tad clearer. The poem is “narrated” from the third person limited omniscience POV, which is mildly ironic since we are limited to an omniscient God, so I’m not sure if that’s actually limited or not. God, as he does in the Bible, talks to himself a fair amount as we gaze at him creating Adam.

Blessed with “riches” that make the world’s offerings seem small, Adam is given every advantage. Except rest.

But what is “rest”? To me, it’s a contentedness or fulfillment. It might very well be Pascal’s God shaped hole. Man can search all he like among the riches of the world, but his efforts will lead him only to weariness. God is our only source for the rest that goes to the soul, the rest that Hebrews 4 mentions.

This raises a perplexing problem about people who are content without God, but that seems to be for another day. Tomorrow we’ll look a little further at the short story with a work by Andre Dubus’ classmate (I think) while they were in the Iowa Writer’s Workship together, Ray Carver. The story is called “Cathedrals” and can be found in a volume by the same name.