Jonathan Nauman – God’s Mending: Formal and Spiritual Correction in George Herbert’s “Deniall” and Henry Vaughan’s “Disorder and frailty”

God’s Mending: Formal and Spiritual Correction in George Herbert’s “Deniall” and Henry Vaughan’s “Disorder and frailty”

Jonathan Nauman

Published in Connotations Vol. 28 (2019)


George Herbert’s choice to present his devotional lyrics under a regime of unprecedented and demanding arrangements of rhyme and meter did not elicit general approval from the literary arbiters of his day. However, the formal strategies used in The Temple are successfully deployed to achieve Herbert’s literary and spiritual goals, and they reflect Herbert’s accomplishments as a musician. A careful reading of Herbert’s rhyme-mending strategy in his much-noted lyric “Deniall” shows the poem to effectively communicate, through a difficult and nuanced formal performance, a religious experience of divine alienation followed by reconciliation with God. When one turns attention to Henry Vaughan, one of Herbert’s most talented followers, one finds a different angle of approach toward challenging formal performance. Vaughan retreated from his less difficult and more fashionable classicist versifying in favor of efforts to emulate Herbert’s artistic and devotional accomplishments; and his adoption of Herbert’s stanzaic forms included an emulation of the rhyme-mending scheme of “Deniall” in his own poem “Disorder and frailty.” A reading of Vaughan’s verse shows how Herbert’s and Vaughan’s performances within similarly demanding verse forms differ both in motive and in outcome. Herbert presents the demands and results of poetic form as part of his poetic depiction of human collaboration with the divine, while Vaughan adopts similar formal constraints as an exercise of imitatio, enabling a voice of visionary union between God and the poet.

George Herbert’s devotional lyrics have been much recognized both for their articulation of an acute and searching Anglican Protestant spirituality and for their pursuit of an unprecedented range of original and demanding poetic forms. I would like to pursue further a topic that has much occupied Herbert’s readers, exploring some of the evident connections between the design of Herbert’s verses and their message. For Herbert, lyric form often functions as a vehicle figuring God’s external spiritual help, the poem thus becoming a verbal emblem of authentic Christian devotion. One noted example of this sort of experiential presentation in The Temple occurs in Herbert’s “Deniall” (79-80), a lyric which explores the connection between its form and message quite explicitly. I will provide a reading of “Deniall” here, relating its verbal methods to Herbert’s practices as a musician. I will then examine for contrast Henry Vaughan’s lyric “Disorder and frailty,” (1: 108-10), in which a similar form also indicates God’s external influence over the poet’s verse, but in a manner epitomizing the remarkable differences between Herbert’s verses and those of one of his most talented followers.

Herbert’s choice to present poems of Christian devotion under a variety of unusual and demanding lyric forms did not meet with general contemporary approval. Even in the earlier seventeenth century the humanist elites were gravitating toward the neo-classical ideals and preferences that would achieve almost unrivalled [→ page 114] ascendancy in the Age of Dryden; indeed, Herbert’s posthumous literary success clearly depended rather more on wide devotional appeal than on specifically literary recognition. When Sir William Davenant dedicated his Gondibert to Thomas Hobbes in 1650, Hobbes responded with praise for the use of pentameter lines with alternate rhyme in Davenant’s poem, adding asides probably intended as disapproving glances at Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and also at the lyrics of George Herbert.

In an Epigramme or a Sonnet, a man may vary his measures, and seeke glory from a needlesse difficulty, as he that contrived verses into the formes of an Organ, a Hatchet, an Egge, an Altar, and a payre of Winges; but in so great and noble a worke as is an Epique Poeme, for a man to obstruct his owne way with unprofitable difficulties, is great imprudence. So likewise to chuse a needlesse and difficult correspondence of Rime, is but a difficult toy, and forces a man some times for the stopping of a chinke to say some what he did never thinke [...] (47)1)

Through his academic training and his practice as Orator at Cambridge, Herbert would have agreed with Hobbes’s assumption that certain poetic forms were conventionally chosen as optimal vehicles for certain literary and cultural functions—sonnets for courtship, for instance, or non-stanzaic pentameter for public heroic narratives; and he would have recognized that poets gained glory through eloquent performance within a hierarchy of genres. But the lyrics of The Temple were not written with a view toward attaining the kind of literary stature that especially interested the unofficial poet laureate William Davenant, nor with hopes toward gaining the individual glory that the cosmopolitan deist Thomas Hobbes desired to facilitate. Indeed, the mode of Herbert’s English devotional poems might be described better as enactment than performance, works effecting dismissals of worldly glory, literary and otherwise; dismissals often emerging from interactions between the poem’s speaker and God, and relayed to the reader for participation. Herbert’s point in “The Altar” (26) and in “Easter Wings” (43) was not to revel in preciosity, but to match lyric form to subject in the process of communicating messages that were, [→ page 115] in regard to the poet, self-effacing. As Herbert’s readers have long noticed, formal arrangements and accomplishments throughout The Temple are almost invariably designed to engage the artistic perceptions of the reader in support of Herbert’s major theme, his exploratory dialogue, simultaneously personal and paradigmatic, between humanity and the divine will. Breakages either literally described or formally demonstrated can be as helpful as continuities for Herbert’s ends, with fracture and restructure offered as necessary components in his speaker’s efforts to enter God’s service. In “The Altar,” Herbert characterizes the words of his poem iconically as fragments of his speaker’s heart, split by God and reassembled; and at the end of his poem “Repentance,” he looks forward after confessing his sin to a joyful experience of divine reassembly:

But thou wilt sinne and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of his praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cur’d make us more strong. (49, ll. 31-36)

Hobbes’s dismissals notwithstanding, the fulfillment of demanding literary forms, and their requiring a writer to scrutinize, reexamine, and recombine words, functioned for Herbert not as “a difficult toy,” but as an enabling discipline which Herbert believed analogous to spiritual disciplines by which God perfected the human soul.

Herbert’s lyric “Deniall” offers a demonstration of God’s powers of reassembly especially meant to highlight the analogy between poetic ordering through lyric form and moral ordering through divine grace. The speaker begins with a subjective assertion of God’s absence which unfolds through recriminations, expostulations, and expressions of despair.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent eares;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: [→ page 116]
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did flie asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the warres and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go any where, they say,
As to benumme
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To crie to thee,
And then not heare it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing. (79-80, ll. 1-20)

Herbert’s depiction of a state of mind alienated from God begins by drawing a parallel between brokenness of heart and brokenness of verse; and the final word of the first stanza, “disorder,” appropriately fails to rhyme with any preceding line, initiating a formal regime of incompletion that continues up until the last word of the poem. The speaker’s “bent thoughts” (l. 6) express a fractured and frustrated sensibility, and this motif crescendoes from the retrospective tenor of the first two stanzas, the speaker recalling how his thoughts “did flie asunder” (l. 7), how “Each took his way” (l. 8), to the immediate protests of the third and fourth stanzas which emerge into the present tense: “As good go any where, they say” (l. 11), “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To crie to thee, / And then not heare it crying!” (ll. 16-18). In the speaker’s repeated accusations that with God there is “no hearing” (l. 20),2) these oppositional stanzas in the poem’s center offer a clamorous counterfeit of formal unity, rhyming redundantly with themselves for an effect of emphatic frustration rather than resolution. The turning point of the lyric comes in the fifth stanza, which regains the earlier stanzas’s retrospective cast and prepares for [→ page 117] the formal success of the final line as the speaker analyzes and recharacterizes his separation from the divine presence.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung;
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,

Like a nipt blossome, hung
Discontented. (ll. 21-25)

Herbert presents his speaker’s soul as a disused musical instrument and as a frost-damaged flower, images of recurrent importance in The Temple. The “nipt blossome” recalls the plucked and passing bouquet that brings “Times gentle admonition” (l. 9) in “Life” (94), and also the “Killing and quickning” (l. 16) that restrains overgrowth and brings “recover’d greennesse” (l. 9) in “The Flower” (165-67). The soul “untun’d, unstrung” (“Deniall,” l. 22) strikes a resonance even more basic to Herbert’s artistry: the poet’s love for music and dedication as a musician, recognized by his biographers ever since Izaak Walton3) and evident in poems as different as “Church-musick” (65-66) and “The Quip” (110-11), seems in fact to have been of primary importance to the poet’s choice of pursuing inventive and demanding lyric forms, and to have contributed significantly to his strong interest in creating and fulfilling (or not fulfilling) his audience’s formal expectations in rhyme and meter.4) As John Hollander once observed, musical images are “seldom unconnected with some other, more central and governing one” in The Temple, but their underlying importance remains evident; “it is as if the image of music were always running along beneath the surface of all of Herbert’s poems, breaking out here and there like the eruption of some underground stream, but exercising always an informing, nourishing function” (294). Among such musical images, the experience of tuning one’s instrument seems especially important to Herbert, a collegial activity in which he often engaged, thinking, one might suppose, of the formal and spiritual implications as his own instrument and another’s honed in on an exact pitch; considering and contemplating the unity and [→ page 118] communion provided by the salubrious aesthetic objectivity of a synchronized tone.5) Human consciousness could perhaps join with the divine in an analogous manner, resulting in countless possibilities for divinely orchestrated human expressions of grace, a “way to heavens doore” (“Church-musick,” l. 12). In “The Temper [I]” (55), a poem which addresses like “Deniall” the problem of dry spells in the spiritual life, instrument-tuning is offered as an enlightened recharacterization of the discomfort of feeling spiritual “lows” and “highs.”

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
Stretch or contract me, thy poore debter:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the musick better. (ll. 21-24)

Here in “The Temper [I]” the poetic form epitomizes what finally is identified as God’s tuning action: the lines of each stanza focus in to make pithy statements, shortening from pentameter to tetrameter to trimeter. “Deniall” on the other hand features an unruly variation in meter to reflect the speaker’s felt spiritual chaos, and in the end it is the image of God’s tuning that the speaker summons for a resolution simultaneously asked for and granted.

O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
Deferre no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my minde may chime,
And mend my ryme. (ll. 26-30)

On the verbal level the speaker’s petition remains a prayer for spiritual improvement not yet attained6); but the enabling and constraining force of poetic form here figures the presence of God’s grace within the speaker’s petition. “[A]sk, and ye shall receive” (John 16:24): the speaker’s emerging disposition towards grace is a sign of grace; and formal resolution here indicates God’s action, independent of and transcending the speaker’s consciousness, with the poem’s [→ page 119] multi-layered statement becoming implicitly a divine-human collaboration.13) The reader is made to witness a final success in spiritual tuning, represented in terms of poetic tuning, and the exercise halts as abruptly as the sounding of musical strings when tonal unity is achieved.

When Henry Vaughan turned to poetic emulation of George Herbert amidst his increasing religious seriousness in the late 1640s and early 1650s, he experienced, as Jonathan Post has noticed, a burgeoning expansion in his use of stanzas, often following specific formal cues from his new master in English verse (80). But these formal techniques, including the ones that were for Herbert especially analogous to divine ordering and emblematic of theological insights, were appropriated by Vaughan in the context of habits he had already developed through his poetic apprenticeship among friends and followers of Ben Jonson and Thomas Randolph. Vaughan’s transition when he became one of Herbert’s “pious Converts” (2: 558) was from classicist imitatio to sacred imitatio: Herbert’s words, thoughts, and forms were taken up, reworked, and quoted in unprecedented density in Silex Scintillans. But imitatio was in fact an approach to sacred verse quite distinct from Herbert’s. While influences from Herbert’s contemporaries are by no means absent in The Temple, there is no regime of formal emulation, quotation, or allusion in Herbert’s English sacred verse even remotely comparable to Herbert’s formal and verbal presence in Silex Scintillans. Similarly, while Vaughan’s new formal pursuits clearly emerged from his response to The Temple, his sacred verses tended to function quite differently from Herbert’s complex poetic experiments. Less tentative and exploratory than Herbert’s, their rhetorics gravitate toward a univocal classicist eloquence and emphasis. Vaughan’s use of Herbert’s words and forms certainly implies a desire to merge his sacred devotion with Herbert’s, but Vaughan shows inclinations (shared with such contemporaries as Barnabas Oley) to describe Herbert not so much as an accomplished verbal artist as a sacred luminary or mage.7)

[→ page 120] Nowhere is this exalted image of the earlier poet more evident than in Vaughan’s explicit response to Herbert’s paradigmatic enactments in “Obedience” (104-05), a serious lyric with a quietly humorous touch in which Herbert’s speaker first offers his lines as a legal document transferring his heart to God, and then gives his audience opportunity to sign it along with him:

He that will passe his land,
As I have mine, may set his hand
And heart unto this deed, when he hath read;
And make the purchase spread
To both our goods, if he to it will stand.

How happie were my part,
If some kinde man would thrust his heart
Into these lines [...]. (ll. 36-43)

Vaughan’s poem “The Match” (1: 97-99) responds:

Deare friend! whose holy, ever-living lines
Have done much good
To many, and have checkt my blood,
My fierce, wild blood that still heaves, and inclines,
But is still tam’d
By those bright fires which thee inflam’d;
Here I joyn hands, and thrust my stubborn heart
Into thy Deed,
There from no Duties to be freed,
And if hereafter youth or folly thwart
And claim their share,
Here I renounce the pois’nous ware. (ll. 1-12)

Comparison of Herbert’s carefully offered “deed” with Vaughan’s impassioned acceptance does much to show how Herbert’s inventive prosody of form and scenario contrasts with Vaughan’s emulative and testimonial voice. Perhaps even more important is the evident contrast in how each poet employs the pressures of poetic form. As in “Deniall,” formal constraint provides a meaningful basis for Herbert’s entire lyric construction, the tight stanza form being especially [→ page 121] appropriate for the poem’s legal theme of property sale.8) With Vaughan, on the other hand, the lyric form is emphatically a borrowed strategy: here Vaughan forgoes, for the moment,9) the smooth transparency of tetrameter or pentameter couplets for which he had developed considerable facility in earlier classicist endeavors, embracing instead what Hobbes was concurrently dismissing as Herbert’s “needlesse difficulty” (47), demonstrating his ability to match a demanding form to his message while communicating his own relationship to the earlier poet. The divine trimming that Herbert requested and metrically depicted in “The Temper [I]” becomes a vehicle for Vaughan to simultaneously demonstrate and signify the strenuous mastery of his own sensibilities by Herbert’s spiritual and artistic talent: a tetrameter line in which Herbert has “checkt my blood” prompts a rebellious pentameter expansion in “My fierce, wild blood that still heaves, and inclines,” only to be reined back with the terse dimeter “But is still tam’d.” This dynamic is repeated and reinforced when the speaker thrusts “my stubborn heart / Into thy Deed.” But although Vaughan eloquently sustains these varying metrics for five more iterations in the second part of “The Match,” the strong connections between statement and line length do not continue. Imitatio is pursued and achieved, but Vaughan’s more and less intense use of the demanding metrical variety does not match the permeating appropriateness of stanza form to legal diction in Herbert’s “Obedience.”

Vaughan’s effort toward imitatio in “Disorder and frailty” (1: 108-10), a lyric meant to answer Herbert’s formal strategy in “Deniall,” is more successful and wide-ranging but also similarly diagnostic of the differences between the two poets. The emulation is ambitious, featuring a stanza form much more complex and lengthy than Herbert’s; additionally, each of the poem’s four stanzas is a descant on Herbert’s thought and imagery in another selection from The Temple. Vaughan’s first stanza sets out his theme of human insufficiency in terms taken from Herbert’s “The Glance” (171-72), where Herbert’s speaker recalls God’s healing regard transforming him “ev’n in the [→ page 122] midst of youth and night” when he was “weltring in sinne” (ll. 2, 4), a joyful change that has enabled Herbert’s speaker to withstand many storms of moral challenge since. In Vaughan’s rendition, however, the subject is not, as in Herbert, God’s “full-ey’d love” (l. 20), but man’s inconstant love in response.

When first thou didst even from the grave
And womb of darknes becken out
My brutish soul, and to thy slave
Becam’st thy self, both guide, and Scout;
Even from that hour
Thou gotst my heart; And though here tost
By winds, and bit with frost
I pine, and shrink
Breaking the link
’Twixt thee, and me; And oftimes creep
Into th’old silence, and dead sleep,
Quitting thy way
All the long day,
Yet, sure, my God! I love thee most.
Alas, thy love! (ll. 1-15)

The final line of Vaughan’s stanza, italicized to indicate that it is God’s response, also fails to complete the rhyme scheme, leaving the stanza’s fifth line, “Even from that hour,” equally unrhymed. The stanza’s dimeter lines (“I pine and shrink / Breaking the link,” “Quitting thy way / All the long day”) add a reminiscence of Herbert’s emblematic strategy in “Easter-wings,” where the shortening of lines is meant to indicate human diminishment through sin. Vaughan uses the corresponding lines in the following two stanzas similarly, but in his final stanza the shorter lines follow instead Herbert’s “With thee” in “Easter-wings” (ll. 6, 16), signaling human recovery with God’s help—a theme that leads back to Herbert’s “Deniall,” the poem that Vaughan’s lyric is primarily emulating.10)

A similar sequence of energetic enjambment, personal statement passionately commandeering the stanza’s meter, elicits another brief and rhymeless divine critique in the second section of “Disorder and frailty.” This time Vaughan amplifies the insights and imagery of [→ page 123] Herbert’s “The Flower” (165-67), a lyric whose speaker depicts himself as a blooming plant whose growth is sometimes excessive and vulnerable through pride.

I threaten heaven, and from my Cell
Of Clay and frailty break, and bud
Touch’d by thy fire, and breath; Thy bloud
Too, is my Dew, and springing wel.
But while I grow
And stretch to thee, ayming at all

Thy stars, and spangled hall,
Each fly doth tast,
Poyson, and blast
My yielding leaves; sometimes a showr

Beats them quite off, and in an hour
Not one poor shoot
But the bare root
Hid under ground survives the fall.

Alas, frail weed! (ll. 16-30)

Vaughan’s third illustration of human spiritual failure develops another of his favorite natural images11) from Herbert’s poems, the water vapor of the “young exhalation” that settles to a tearful cloud in Herbert’s “The Answer” (169).

Thus like some sleeping Exhalation
(Which wak’d by heat, and beams, makes up
Unto that Comforter, the Sun,
And soars, and shines; But e’r we sup
And walk two steps
Cool’d by the damps of night, descends,

And, whence it sprung, there ends,)
Doth my weak fire
Pine, and retire,
And (after all my hight of flames,)
In sickly Expirations tames
Leaving me dead
On my first bed
Untill thy Sun again ascends.
Poor, falling Star! (ll. 31-45)

[→ page 124] The last stanza of Vaughan’s poem, like the last stanza of “Deniall,” turns from description of the speaker’s situation to a petition directed to God. Here Vaughan descants on Herbert’s lyric “Whitsunday” (59-60), which opens with this invocation to the Holy Spirit:

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee. (ll. 1-4)

Vaughan’s prayer in response to the censures of the divine voice asks for grace in terms which recall Herbert’s longing, reprising his horticultural metaphor and touching finally on Herbert’s musical theme as well.

O, is! but give wings to my fire,
And hatch my soul, untill it fly
Up where thou art, amongst thy tire
Of Stars, above Infirmity;
Let not perverse,
And foolish thoughts adde to my Bil

Of forward sins, and Kil
That seed, which thou
In me didst sow,
But dresse, and water with thy grace
Together with the seed, the place;
And for his sake
Who died to stake
His life for mine, tune to thy will

My heart, my verse. (ll. 46-60)

Vaughan’s rhyme-mending conclusion to this stanza emulates Herbert’s artistry both technically and theologically. The word “verse” not only rhymes with its antecedent in the fifth line, the word “perverse,” but also subjects that earlier word to a salutary trimming12); and although Vaughan’s request that God “tune to thy will / My heart, my verse” is not quite as succinct and provocative as Herbert’s request that God’s favors “and my minde may chime / And [→ page 125] mend my ryme,” it does similarly imply grace already present in Vaughan’s speaker’s desire for grace. Furthermore, Vaughan’s re-situation of Herbert’s rhyme-mending has implications distinctly appropriate to his own enabling artistic experience of Herbert’s poetic forms, which he saw as opportunities for imitatio higher than the earlier sort he had pursued, more intense in its formal demands and more admirable in its spiritual results.

Finally, in terms of the particular poems we have examined here, it can be noted that Herbert’s “Deniall” presents the rhyme-mending device as a superimposition of divine and human actions, complementary and simultaneous but still separate. The conclusion of “Disorder and frailty,” on the other hand, makes the earlier stanzas’ division between the divine voice and the speaker’s disappear, presumably testifying to an aesthetic situation distinctive to the younger poet, one in which Vaughan might feel enabled to speak of having seen “Eternity the other night” (1: 131) or of departed friends “walking in an Air of glory” (2: 568). Vaughan, by approaching Herbert’s more difficult formal accomplishments under the ethos of classicist imitatio, gained the sort of authoritative voice in the sacred sphere that classicism would cultivate in the secular. The divine mending that had yielded a poetry of collaboration in The Temple was able to yield in Silex Scintillans a poetry of inspiration.

The Vaughan Association

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Vaughan, Henry. The Works of Henry Vaughan. Ed. Donald R. Dickson, Alan Rudrum and Robert Wilcher. 3 vols. Oxford: OUP, 2018.