Matthias Bauer – Herbert’s Titles, Commonplace Books, and the Poetics of Use: A Response to Anne Ferry

Herbert's Titles, Commonplace Books, and the Poetics of Use: A Response to Anne Ferry1)

Matthias Bauer

Published in Connotations Vol. 4.3 (1994/95)

According to Theodor W. Adorno, the demands on a literary title are made manifest by the fact that modern poetry cannot fulfil them.2 He regards the proper function of a title as paradoxical in that it is neither to be understood as being entirely rational and general nor as particular and hermetic. The title, he says, must fit the work like a name rather than openly state its purpose.2) It must be so close to its essence that it can afford to respect its secrecy. A successful title may be like an answer to the riddle of the text but it never drags to light its hidden qualities.3)

Even though they were submitted as remarks on Lessing, Adorno's ideas on the office of a title fit George Herbert's English poetry remarkably well. Herbert's English titles, taken as a whole, are different from most of the titles (if any) in Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry. All of them are short, in most cases comprising only one noun with or without article but always lacking the preposition which was usually part of poetic titles in Herbert's time ("Of …"; "On …"; "To …").4) In spite of their apparent similarity, however, all the titles in The Temple have their own particular quality, which can only be understood by way of closely reading the poems to which they belong. For example, titles like "The Bag"and "The Collar"may appear rather similar, as they both denote a material object. Both, by means of the definite article, refer to a particular bag or collar or, prototypically, to the bag or the collar.5) They neither refer to mere examples of their kind (a bag, a collar) nor a group of the same objects (bags, collars). Nevertheless, the function [page 267] of the two titles is not quite the same. No collar is mentioned in "The Collar"and, accordingly, the title assumes a riddling quality, inviting the reader to try and find appropriate meanings for it. In "The Bag,"the title word also creates a mystery but here it is its unexpected presence in the text rather than its absence which has a puzzling effect: the wound in his side is the opening of the "bag"in which Christ carries human messages to his father.

The fact that Herbert's titles, considered as a whole as well as individually, are highly characteristic does not mean, however, that they are in every respect dissimilar to earlier literary titles. Thus, when I began studying Herbert's enigmatic titles,6) I came to realize that they are, to a certain degree, reminiscent of the group−headings found in commonplace books or anthologies. Around 1600, several collections of quotations from English poets appeared in print, which were arranged by topic or subject−matter. Most of their group−headings are like those in Bel−vedére Or The Garden of the Mvses, e.g. "Of God,""Of Heauen,"or "Of Conscience,"7) obviously formed in analogy to the familiar Latin "De …"titles. One commonplace book or dictionary of poetic quotations, Englands Parnassus (1600) has titles like "Life,""Loue,"or "Vertue,"corresponding even more closely to Herbert's own.8) The affinity, however, is not confined to the titles. A number of "The Choysest Flowers of our Moderne Poets"9) bear a certain topical or verbal resemblance to Herbert's poems—which is only to be expected, as Herbert deliberately used and transformed secular poetry for sacred purposes. Under "Vertue"in Englands Parnassus, for example,10) we find lines from Spenser ("Whence is it that the flower of the field doth fade") and Thomas Dekker ("Vertue alone lives still"), which are both reflected in Herbert's poem ("Sweet rose … ⁄ Thy root is ever in its grave,""Onely a sweet and vertuous soul … ⁄ Then chiefly lives").

The most detailed study of Herbert's titles is Anne Ferry's stimulating and well−documented article on "Titles in George Herbert's 'little Book.'"Ferry compares Herbert's titles with those of preceding or contemporary English poets, especially with collections of religious verse, and convincingly points out the difference between them. At the same time, she draws attention to the similarity between the characteristic one−word titles of The Temple11) and the headings of Renaissance commonplace books. [page 268] Professor Ferry's main example is the Bel−vedére, which has an alphabetical table of subjects or topics resembling the list of titles at the end of The Temple. In the Bel−vedére, however, the actual headings are different from the list of subjects12) while, for example, in Englands Parnassus, as in The Temple, they are identical with the table of contents.

Professor Ferry makes a distinction between the "emphasis … on the individually 'expressive character' of [Herbert's] titles,"and the exploration of "other features,"which "can tell us about what he thought a poem should be or do"(314−15). But can this implicit poetological function of the titles really be separated from their "expressive character,"that is, from the title as "part of the poem's fiction"?13) For example, Herbert's titles resemble but are not identical with those of contemporary commonplace books, and I think it is only by taking account of the difference as well as the similarity that we can fully appreciate the function of this model in Herbert's poetics. Such a discriminating stance, however, can only be adopted when the title is regarded as part of the individual poem.

Even when we do not take into account the individual expressiveness of Herbert's titles, however, we have to notice distinctions as well as similarities. Thus Ferry stresses the "consistent choice of the article the"(329) in titles like "The Answer,"where other poets would use the indefinite article ("An Answer"). Another example is "The Rose"instead of "A Rose,"or "On a Rose,"or "To a Rose." The use of the definite article, according to Professor Ferry, emphasizes "the category [a title] exemplifies"and signals a tendency "toward categorization, even abstraction,"which associates Herbert's titles with commonplace−book headings. Ferry obviously uses the word "category"in a wider or colloquial sense as a synonym of "species"or "class"(as distinct from the more specific or Aristotelian use of categories such as "substance,""quantity,""quality"etc.). A title indicating a certain class of things, however, under which several examples may be grouped, is not the same as an abstraction. Expressions like "the answer"and "the rose"are abstractions from specific cases, but they are by no means indications of a class or group. The distinction becomes clear when we look at comparable concrete terms in the commonplace books. In Englands Parnassus, for example, we find headings like "Fishes,""Satires,"and [page 269] "Trees."These are indeed group−headings but they are not abstractions. The reverse is true of Herbert's "The Flower,""The Posie"etc. A heading like "The Flower"(as opposed to "Flowers") does not indicate a series of examples but an idea or essential quality. It serves to introduce a definition rather than an illustrative example. The definite article, which is regarded by Ferry as a sign of affinity between The Temple and the commonplace books, is alien to commonplace−book headings.14)

Anne Ferry introduces, "for purposes of discussion"(323) a taxonomy of Herbert's titles, which is not derived from a consideration of the poems but from the titles alone. The taxonomy is useful but inevitably entails a number of simplifications. Thus, Ferry's first group of titles which "identify the poem explicitly by an aspect of its form"(323) or "identify the poem as a distinct mode of address"includes "The Answer."But the way in which this poem may constitute an answer of some kind is by no means obvious. "The Answer"may rather be called a poem about answering, whose very point seems to be that there is no answer: the speaker has to confess his ignorance.

The second and third groups comprise names for church rites, feasts, or seasons like "The H. Communion,""Easter,"and "Lent"and "titles taken from biblical texts or names or events"(324) such as "The 23 Psalme,""Jordan,"or "Dooms−day."In these cases, Ferry maintains, the titles "purport to identify the poem by its subject or by a key image or text associated with it rather than by its form."When we look closely, however, the exact way in which this is done is difficult to determine. In what manner, for example, does "The 23 Psalme"refer to Psalm 23? The Psalm is not exactly the subject of the poem, nor is it "associated with it"; the six stanzas of the poem rather paraphrase and transform the six verses of the psalm itself. Thus, since this poem is to be seen as a version of the psalm the title refers at least as much to the form or genre as to the subject of the poem.15) A particularly intriguing case is "Jordan."For one thing, the biblical river cannot be said to be the subject of the two poems under that heading. It is neither mentioned nor openly alluded to. Only in the first "Jordan"poem the river image occurs ("Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?"), inviting us to catch the sense of the title "at two removes"(l. 10). "Jordan"seems to fulfil Adorno's demand for a title which fits the work like a name rather [page 270] than state its subject. The name−like character of the title is underlined by the fact that "Jordan"is used without the definite article commonly attached to the names of rivers. Even though Herbert was not alone in doing so ("Jordan"is used, for example, without definite article in the A.V.), the usage serves to underline the personal nature of the name.16)

The definite article characterizes Professor Ferry's fourth group of titles, which comprises "nouns referring to other than biblical persons, things or actions,"purporting "to identify the poem by its subject or a key image associated with it"(324). This group includes "names for objects"such as "The Pulley"and "The Bag,"which she calls "emblematic titles"(325), as titles of this kind are to be found in devotional emblem books, most of which were published after The Temple.17) Titles consisting of a single noun with definite article are rather exceptional in emblem literature, which mostly follows the pattern of a pictura being superscribed by an inscriptio. Nevertheless, Herbert's titles may be called emblematic in that the complex relationship between title and text is not unlike the interplay between the different parts of an emblem, which mutually explain as well as mystify each other. "The Pulley,"for example, does not refer to an object discussed or presented in the poem, as the objects of the garden in Hawkins's Partheneia Sacra. Its meaning is not obvious but can only be approached by way of closely following up the verbal interplay between text and title.18)

Ferry's last type of title, which is the most frequent one, consists "of a single noun referring to an abstraction purported to be the topic of the poem, unmodified by an article, a preposition, or an adjective"(325). Professor Ferry again convincingly shows Herbert's originality here as she points out how these titles were altered in accordance with more familiar patterns by later anthologists (326). Such an "abstract" title, however, is not just "purported to be the topic of the poem"in that it indicates a certain subject matter. In its bareness, it also draws attention to itself as a word which may be defined, expounded, and transformed in the text.

The definition−like relationship between title and text has made Robert B. Shaw ask "how Herbert's task as a poet compares with that of lexicographer."19) The affinity between Herbert's one−word titles and the lemmas in a dictionary is implicitly borne out by the fact that Anne [page 271] Ferry's argument for the similarity to commonplace books is mainly based upon indices or word−lists at the end of such collections. And indeed the boundaries between a thesaurus such as Simon Pelegromius's Synonymorum silua (first English ed. 1580), a hard−word dictionary like John Bullokar's An English Expositor (1616), and a commonplace book such as Englands Parnassus are fluid. In varying degrees, for example, these works all use quotations to explain or illustrate the headwords by which they are arranged.

Alphabetically arranged indices of abstract nouns could also be found in other works which were "used"(and not just read straight through). To give a continental example, a German edition of Esopus leben vnd fabeln (Freiburg, 1555)20) contains "Ein Register der schönen leren so aus diesen fabeln genommen werden"[An index of the beautiful lessons taken from these fables] (a iiir). In this index, terms like "Lob"[Praise], "Natur"[Nature], or "Undanckbarkeit"[Ungratefulness] are followed by relevant maxims and the titles of the fables from which they are derived. The table made it far easier to use Aesop's fables for didactic or rhetorical purposes.

The fact that the titles in The Temple are not arranged alphabetically need not detract from their index− or dictionary−like character, as the alphabetical order was by no means the only one in Herbert's time. John Withals's popular Short Dictionary for Yonge Begynners, for example, which was first published in 1553 and repeatedly reprinted until 1634,21) has a topical arrangement "going from the broad, general subjects to the specific but less well known."22) Just as titles may resemble entries in a dictionary, dictionary headwords could be regarded as titles. In the "Address to the Reader"of his Alveary (1573), John Baret explains that work on this English−Latin dictionary began with having his pupils take the Latin−English Bibliotheca Eliotae (1548) and "write the English before ye Latin, and likewise to gather a number of fine phrases out of Cicero, Terence, Caesar, Liuia &c. and to set them vnder seuerall Tytles, for the more ready finding them againe at their neede."23) The statement underlines the affinity between the dictionary and the anthology or commonplace book while it also stresses the usefulness of such a form of collection. It may be remarked in passing that the title of Baret's dictionary, Alveary (beehive) links up with the speaker's wish in Herberts [page 272] "The H. Scriptures (I)": "OH Book! infinite sweetnesse! let my heart ⁄ Suck ev'ry letter, and a honey gain"(1−2). Both poems on "The H. Scriptures"emphasize that the reader of the Bible is a collector or anthologist (a word that is of course related to the flower and bee imagery) who strives to know "how all thy lights combine,""Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine, ⁄ But all the constellations of the story"("The H. Scriptures [II],"1, 3−4). The poem is cited by Ferry as a comment on Herbert's own method of choosing the same title for widely "dispersed"poems (331) and on the common practice to create "harmonies"such as the "famous concordances of biblical texts … prepared at Little Gidding"(336).

*    *    *

Why did Herbert, by means of his titles, present himself in the role of anthologist, concordance− or dictionary−maker? Professor Ferry suggests that to Herbert the role of compiler or copyist was a sign of humility.24) She regards his choice of commonplace−book titles as "a means of escaping poetry associated with human invention and entwined with self"(337) since it enabled him to introduce personal experiences under impersonal topics (342). But setting aside the question whether introducing a personal experience under an impersonal heading is per se a sign of humility, I wonder whether Ferry's own reference to "The H. Scriptures (II)"does not already show that the commonplace−book or dictionary model served other purposes as well.

I do not think that Herbert's titles are afterthoughts, instruments "for achieving the qualities of 'transparency or self−effacement'"which "were not part of Herbert's original program for sacred verse."25) The tension between titles and texts is so much part of the poems' effect that it seems highly improbable that the titles were affixed at a later stage. On the contrary, quite often the title word with its different layers of meaning, its paronomastic and anagrammatic connotations seems to be the seed from which the poem develops.26) The fact that Herbert occasionally altered the title of a poem cannot be used as evidence to the contrary. The change from "Perfection"to "The Elixer,"for example, goes along with a substantial revision of the text.

[page 273] As the subtitle of The Temple points out, "Sacred Poems"and "Private Ejaculations"go together and sometimes they do so in the very same poem—when the title, for instance, appears to introduce a general, "sacred"subject while the text speaks of "private"experience.27) An example is "Justice,"where in twelve lines the personal and possessive pronouns "I,""me,"and "my"occur no less than nineteen times. Herbert's practice thus points to the general significance of individual experience—not as a celebration of "self"but as a recognition of the divine likeness of the human soul which makes even its fallen state a matter of universal import.28) Thus, paradoxically, Herbert's "general heads"are signs both of "Humilitie"and "Assurance."This concept is such an essential feature of Christian belief that its expression in Herbert's title−poem relationships hardly seems to be the result of a change of mind at a later stage.

Quite convincingly, however, Ferry refers to the psalter as a parallel to the union of the abstract or general and the personal in Herbert's titles and poems: "To aid private use of the psalter as 'a harmony of holy passions' … it was often printed with some sort of 'Table, shewing wherevnto euery Psalme is particularly to be applied,' where the reader could find psalms collated like passages in a commonplace book."29) Even though the entries on such a table were different from the titles in The Temple, the idea of "private use"links them with the names of Herbert's poems as well as with the lemmas of a dictionary, the topoi of the ars memorativa, or the headings of a commonplace book. Moreover, Herbert was certainly aware of the fact that the headings of the Psalter were the prototypes of titles in a collection of poetry and that his own titles, however different in detail, would inevitably evoke this background.

Herbert himself stresses "use"as a central feature of his poetics in "The Quidditie,"a poem which, as its title ("quid dittie?") says,30) is concerned with the quidditas of poetry: "… A verse ⁄⁄ … is that which while I use ⁄ I am with thee"(1, 11−12). "I use"is the essential part of the definition as it forms the condition of being close to God. The speaker is with Christ not when he makes a verse (the poet as maker) nor when he is inspired by it (the poet as prophet) but when he uses it. The poet's material or talent is all there (in the Book of Books) but must be employed; the Lord must receive his own "with usury"(Mt 25:27).31) [page 274] The truth of Herbert's statement becomes evident in the very act of making it, for when the poet says "I use"he uses the letters of the Word to express his being with "Iesu."(This corresponds exactly to the idea of a verse being used to serve him.) The "literal"use of the Lord's name is a prototypically poetic one, as Herbert makes explicit in the poem "JESU."Herbert's "christological"understanding of the letters I−E−S−U is confirmed in "The Banquet,"where the speaker sees "What I seek, for what I sue"(46, emphasis added), as well as in "The Sonne,"where the son who is "parents issue"(6, emphasis added) is of course Jesus.32) In his "Briefe Notes on Valdesso's Considerations,"Herbert emphasizes that the Holy Scriptures do not just incite faith and are then "to be left."They

have not only an Elementary use, but a use to perfection, neither can they ever be exhausted, … . Indeed he that shall so attend to the bark of the letter, as to neglect the Consideration of Gods Worke in his hearte through the Word, doth amisse; both are to be done, the Scriptures still used, and Gods worke within us still observed, who workes by his Word, and ever in the reading of it.33)

The right use of the Scriptures does not consist in a dismissal of the letter but in concerning oneself with more than its bark. The core of the letter must be grasped and employed and (to continue Herbert's seed image) become fruitful.

Herbert's poetics of use is related to idealist concepts familiar to readers of Renaissance literature. His "use"is not utilitarian but functional; he shares, so to speak, Pamela's (as opposed to Crecropia's) view in Sidney's New Arcadia (III.10), who holds that the "use"of beauty does not consist in making it serve a specific purpose but in doing it justice as the most perfect state of that which it adorns.34) In a comparable sense, Herbert uses the words of the Bible not, for instance, as proofs in an argument about religious dogma but, poetically, as an end in themselves, as the never−to−be−exhausted subject of his own work. This is a highly appropriate use since, as the quotation from Herbert's comments on Valdesso's Considerations has shown, "to work"is the very essence of the Word. In The Country Parson, Herbert employs the simile of the successful farmer and his "well inned"harvest to point out that the "use"of God's word means utterance: "… yet if God give him not the Grace to use, and utter this well, all his advantages are to his losse."35) This [page 275] goes together with the meaning of the verb use itself as a synonym of to say, utter (OED 16.b.).

The use of the word in the poet's utterance brings us back once more to the commonplace book. Apart from the printed examples of the genre, the commonplace book was a very personal or individual kind of work. We remember that Herbert recommended the country parson to compile "a book, and body of Divinity"out of his reading of "the Fathers … and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers,"which was to be used as "the storehouse of his Sermons… . For though the world is full of such composures, yet every man's own is fittest."36) On an even more basic level, humanist educators recommended their students to make a collection of their own which contained both quotidian and rare or exquisite words, as well as idiomatic expressions, sayings, proverbs, or difficult passages from authors, and could be used for purposes of inventio. Thus Ludovicus Vives recommends:

Compones tibi librum chartae vacuae, iustae magnitudinis: quem in certos locos, ac velut nidos partieris. In uno eorum annotabis vocabula usus quotidiani, velut animi, corporis, actionum nostrarum, ludorum, vestium, habitaculorum, coiborum: in altero vocabula rara, exquisita: in alio idiomata & formulas loquendi.37)

Vives metaphorically refers to the heads or titles under which linguistic material is to be grouped as "nidos,"nests. This expression is obviously taken from Erasmus, who recommended a similar use of the (classical) authors in De copia verborum ac rerum:

Postremo vtcunque postulat occasio, ad manum erit dicendi supellex, certis veluti nidis constitutis, vnde quae voles petas.38)

Certainly Herbert regarded the Scriptures as more than just supellex, equipment, but the concept as such plays a central part in his poetics. He verbally echoes Erasmus and Vives in "Longing,"where the world not only appears, in the traditional metaphor, as God's book but is more specifically described in terms that characterize the commonplace book:

   Indeed the world's thy book,

Where all things have their leafe assign'd:


Yet a meek look

Hath interlin'd.

[page 276] Thy board is full, yet humble guests


   Finde nests. (49−54)

The expression "nests,"which comes as a surprise in the sacramental context of the board as communion table, can now be identified as a term connected with the practice of commonplace−book making (where there are, of course, "tables,"too). The "nest"signifies the topos or title under which related entries are grouped together. The speaker thus literally hopes to be anthologized, to be (s)elected and find a place between entries already made ("yet a meek look ⁄ Hath interlin'd"). The poet who longs to be called to the table of communio or common place, prays, in the words of "Sighs and Grones": "O Do not use me ⁄ After my sinnes"(1−2)—words which are themselves an example of how the Book of Books may be "used."39)

"The Table"(or "A Table of …") was the most frequent heading of an index or list of contents in Herbert's time,40) a usage which is related to the tablet on which an inscription is made (such as the ten commandments). In the contemporary climate of increasing denominational dispute, however, table was also a highly controversial term; it was preferred by dedicated Protestants to that of altar. John Williams's pamphlet on The Holy Table, Name and Thing, More Anciently, Properly, and Literally Used under the New Testamant, then that of an Altar (Lincoln, 1637) is only one of a flood of publications concerned with the question.41) Herbert does not take sides in the dispute but, so to speak, strives to transcend it poetically. In the light of a heightened public awareness to the meaning of table and altar, the first title in "The Church,""The Altar,"becomes the heading of all other headings: it is "The Table"on which the poet presents the offerings of his work, indicated by their names.

Herbert's combining the images of the communion table and the index or commonplace book points to the fact that in The Temple the use of the Word does not merely serve didactic purposes but is seen as a sacred event. Herbert's model in this respect is the rite of the communion itself, in which the consecration of the bread and wine takes place through the use of the Scriptures. The priest performs the sacramental act not, for instance, by speaking a magic formula but by quoting Christ's words at the Last Supper ("Take, eat, this is my body …").42)

[page 277] Both Herbert's titles and the poems themselves indicate that the commonplace book and the dictionary as aids to poetic or rhetorical invention are of considerable influence on Herbert's poetics. Inventio to Herbert means what the word says: finding. Accordingly, one of the characteristically "original"features of Herbert's poetry, his titles, point to an "imitative"technique. What Herbert refers to, however, is not so much the imitation of a genre, style, or subject matter but the "use"of exemplary linguistic material, the fruitful employment of the Word. This goes together with the dialectic of enigmatic or hieroglyphic titles simultaneously pointing to "common"places, or "private ejaculations"becoming "sacred poems."

Westfälische Wilhelms−Universität