Tue 11 Mar 2014
Last week a post of mine on the poets John Donne and George Herbert went up at First Things (entitled “In Praise of Dead Poets”). It begins by referencing a fascinating article by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in The Guardian, where she attributes her conversion to Christianity to the poetry of Herbert. I use her experience as a launching pad for a discussion of my own university encounters with Donne—with a particular focus on one class in which we read his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
The book was interesting, to be sure, but I wondered what my classmates would make of it. This was not poetry, even if it was poetic. Would they even consider it literature? I confess that as I went to class that day, I did not expect much. I had convinced myself that discussion of the book would be, at best, limited.
I was shocked to discover the opposite. My classmates were engaged—extremely engaged—by this centuries-old reflection on sickness and death. And this wasn’t merely academic reflection on the book; students were sharing their own griefs and fears about death. This was personal confrontation with Donne’s subject, deeply felt.
This is truly the point of poetry like Donne’s and Herbert’s—not merely to appreciate it, but to converse with it. To be changed by it. Indeed, as I go on to explain, this was Herbert’s own hope for his poetry.
Though it is but a “poore paper,” in Herbert’s own assessment, he nevertheless hopes that God might work through it to transform its readers. “How happie were my part,” he writes, “If some kinde man would thrust his heart / Into these lines.” Herbert wants them to make the words their own, and to likewise offer their lives and wills to God—recognizing that he has already purchased them by his “death and bloud.”
I wind up as follows:
Threlfall-Holmes’ article in the Guardian suggests that Herbert’s poetry continues to do just that: introduce others to faith. And such writing serves not only as an introduction; it further offers life-long encouragement and comfort to the faithful. The lesson we learn from Herbert and Donne and countless others then is that the voices of the dead are not silent. No, they are powerful and effective even now.
May God continue so to use dead poets.