E211 GEORGE HERBERT QUESTIONS
Assigned: "The Altar" (1607); "Redemption" (1607); "Easter" (1608); "Easter Wings" (1609); "Affliction 1" (1609-11); "Prayer 1" (1611) "Jordan 1" (1611-12); "Denial" (1613); "Jordan 2" (1615-16); "Time" (1616-17); "The Bunch of Grapes" (1617); "The Pilgrimage" (1618); "The Pulley" (1620); "The Flower" (1621-22); "Discipline" (1623); "Death" (1624).
1. The speaker describes his heart as a stone altar; what else does the stone-motif refer to? What collaboration between the human and the divine is necessary to make a Christian poem?
2. How might Herbert be alluding in this "shaped" poem to the risk that his poetic craftsmanship will displace the doctrines and texts of the Anglican Church as mediator between God and man?
3. Who is the "rich Lord?" Explain the basic conceit of the poem.
4. Examine Herbert's use of a "courtly" context and of "narrative" -- are these uses somewhat unusual for a sonnet? (Think about our brief definitions of lyric and the sonnet.) Why?
5. Is Herbert's handling of the courtly context and narrative ironic? To explore the question, examine the final couplet -- what effect does it have upon the first three quatrains and upon the basic conceit those quatrains develop?
"Easter" ("The Song" is part of this poem)
6. What relationship does the poem suggest should hold between heart and word? How do you derive that relationship from the poem?
7. How does the "song" connect with the first three stanzas? How, that is, do they form a unit?
8. How does this poem reinforce the traditional theme that the individual's life should be an "imitation of Christ's life" (Imitatio Christi, after the text of that name by Thomas a Kempis)? How does the shape of the poem reinforce that theme?
9. What is the "flight" to which the speaker refers? How is this wing-shaped poem a prayer of sorts for God's blessing on the vocation of poetry -- The Temple as a book of religious verse?
10. How certain of the task's appropriateness does the speaker seem to be? Explain with reference to the poem's lines.
11. Briefly compare this poem that addresses God with one of Donne's Holy Sonnets. What differences in tone and procedure do you find?
12. The speaker suggests that he is affirming his life's course and declaring love for God? How might one qualify these claims based on the poem as a whole?
13. Why do you think that Herbert avoids using the verb "to be" throughout the sonnet?
14. Try to make some connections and contrasts between the various "descriptions" in the sonnet. Do you think these connections and contrasts make some statement when you put them together? (The phrase, "Church-bells beyond the stars heard" is particularly helpful here.)
15. Consider the phrase, "something understood." What is understood? How would you connect this little "summary phrase" that ends the sonnet with the subject ("prayer") and/or with the catalog of noun phrases throughout the sonnet?
16. Why is the title important to one's understanding of the poem's subject? Consider that in the Bible, the river Jordan is associated with Jesus' baptism. It is also the river that the Israelites crossed as they approached the Promised Land.
17. In what way is this sonnet similar in theme to Sidney's "Sonnet 1?" What argument about language, i.e. poetry, does Herbert raise and then, in the final stanza, try to answer?
18. Is Herbert's "answer" convincing? (Consider the language and style in some of his other poems.) Why or why not?
19. What does the title "Denial" refer to? What is being denied, by whom and to whom? Is it still denied when the poem is finished? Explain.
20. How does the poem's form underscore or illuminate the speaker's difficulty?
21. How does this poem relate to "Jordan (1)"? Does it assert the same thing, or something different? How does the poem compare stylistically to its predecessor?
22. What does the character Time understand about the speaker by the poem's conclusion, and how did Time come to know what it does?
23. How might this poem be taken as "metapoetic" -- a commentary on the writing of poetry?
"The Bunch of Grapes"
24. Here the speaker employs the New Testament's presentation of Jesus' redemptive sacrifice as a comfort over against the discontentment he is experiencing. Do you find the final stanza a convincing "rounding-off" to the poem? Why or why not?
25. What saves the speaker from despair on his journey? How certain is he of success in reaching the desired destination? Explain with reference to the poem's lines.
26. What image of God emerges from this poem? Respond with reference to the poem's lines.
27. What happens in this poem to the notion of original sin as a cause for human misery? (Not that Herbert denies this doctrine; the question is instead one of poetic emphasis.)
28. At what points does the garden or natural imagery refer merely to nature, if it does, and when does it refer to spiritual matters? Use this question to explore the poem's structure as a vehicle for the speaker's aspirations.
29. Compare this poem briefly to Donne's striking way of addressing God in one of the Holy Sonnets and/or in "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward." How does the approach taken by Herbert's speaker differ?
30. Compare this poem to Donne's "Holy Sonnet 10." How does the approach taken by Herbert's speaker differ?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Package 1 (Vols. ABC) ISBN 0-393-92833-0.