Sunday, August 17, 2008

"The Windows" by George Herbert

"The Windows"

/ / ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? A
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
He is a brittle crazy glass; B
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford A
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
This glorious and transcendent place, B
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
To be a window, through thy grace. B

˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, C
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Making thy life to shine within D
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
The holy preachers, then the light and glory C
/ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
More reverend grows, and more doth win; D
˘ / / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin. D

/ ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one E
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
When they combine and mingle, bring F
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone E
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Doth vanish like a flaring thing, F
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
And in the ear, not conscience, ring. F

- George Herbert (1593 - 1633)

While in the car, I suddenly remembered this piece I wrote as part of an assignment for my Introduction to Poetry and Poetics class. We were to analyse a poem by paying attention to how "form" relates to "meaning," for example, how metre, rhyme scheme, diction, alliteration and assonance etc. contributed to a poem's themes, its tone and the issue(s) it treats. (I have marked the metre and rhyme scheme in the poem above.) Inasmuch as modern poetry tries to do away with formal constraints, there has been an equal, if not, equally effective, reaction against "free verse," such as the advent of New Formalism. The analysis below does not pretend to explain which is better for us to write during our time, but in examining "form" and "meaning," make us rethink how we could write "free verse" by borrowing techniques from the past, how "free verse" cannot be sufficiently defined as a break from more traditional poetics, such as Romanticism, but as a logical extension from it; and how the more enduring poems to be written will consider tradition seriously while "making it new."

The poem begins by setting the priest up as an important architectural construct in the church – the window – which allows light to permeate through and illuminate the church. He is then transformed in the second stanza (incidentally the middle portion of the poem, as if dramatizing the process of light passing through the window) into a reliable vessel through which God empowers his congregation. Before the poem becomes nothing more than a primer for priestly conduct, the last stanza seems to advance a new argument: the marriage of ceremony and sermon, theology and rhetoric, the use of sacraments and speech, are what ultimately inspires the priest’s audience to have their “conscience, ring.” However, Herbert’s use of the conceit is not limited to the role of the priest. The reader is pressed to further interpret “the windows” as three mediating figures between God and his people, namely, the priest, the poet and Anglicanism with their via media (go-between) functions.

In comparing the two different windows that the priest might be: a “brittle crazy glass” or one which allows God’s “life to shine within,” the poem speaks of an imminent danger when a priest assumes the former’s faulty, breakable, distorting lens: he could mislead his congregation from living a holy life due to his flaws and imperfections, tainting God’s light as “waterish, bleak and thin.” The speaker proposes a transformative process whereby the emblem of God’s “story” is embed on the “window” of the priest, so that he becomes a living exemplum, a palpable symbol of godliness, through which God’s light could shine. To subtly mark this turn, the speaker uses solid, rounded ‘o’ sounds in words like “glorious,” “story,” “holy” and “glory,” in contrast to the weak, embittered ‘ee’ sounds, found in words like “brittle,” “waterish,” “bleak” and “thin”, which imply an unsuccessful transformation. Also, the internal feminine rhyme of “holy,” wedged between the end-rhyme of “story” and “glory” in the second stanza, physicalizes the “window” metaphor in which the priest allows God to take change of his process to “shine within.” By being outwardly surrounded by God’s promise of redemption (“story”) and his innate substance (“glory”), the preacher is motivated towards an inward conversion. The reader might also notice in the enjambment of “shine within/ The holy preachers” what might be the speaker’s intentional emphasis on the intimate encounter, as if the priest is cleansed by fire inside a furnace so as to concretize his function as a stain-glass window. This process, however, is not limited to a select few, as seen from how the speaker shifts from singular to plural in addressing his subjects – “he” of the “man” in the first stanza becomes the “preachers” in the second – God requires more than one priest to fulfil the function of “windows.”

Given Herbert’s preoccupation with using form to express religious meaning, it comes as no surprise that the “windows” appear in stanza form. The interlocking quatrain and couplet of each stanza (suggesting the frames of a window), is end-stopped, a new sentence after each turn, suggesting the conventional triptych structure of tinted windows in a church, where each window paints a different “story.” After the first two stanzas contrast the efficacy of priesthood with and without God’s anointment of prevenient grace to his priests, the third stanza seeks a denouement by yoking opposites between preaching the life of faith and being it (“Doctrine and life”), which mutually enhance and cooperate (the “colors and light” must “combine and mingle”), just as God relies on the priest as a mouthpiece – the window – to interpret and transmit the word inspired by Him – light, and also the dependence of the priest on God’s grace to build his church (“More reverend grows, and more doth win”). In this light, it might be useful to know that not only do the “windows” allow God’s light in; it has the potential of exposing the collective sins of the congregation, which reflects badly on the priest. Such a symbiotic relationship between God and priest is externalised for the first time in the poem, where there is a sudden metrical regularity (iambic) in the third stanza until the end, after the two choriambs which posit opposites (“Doctrine and life, colors and light”), both in content and sound (the ‘o’ sound is pitted against the ‘i’ sound). If this constant meter of the poem appears to be trite, the speaker interrupts it with a caesura just before the end, at “but speech alone...” as a warning to the priest to beware of relying solely on fiery words, which are “a flaring thing” that echoes in the “ear” as theological abstraction, instead of a successful probing into his audience’s “conscience,” in which he would have had incorporated his life as example and symbolic rank in the community. This idea is shored up by the speaker’s mingling of visual and auditory metaphors: “speech...vanish(es),” “colors and light...ring” and the separation of “ear” and “conscience,” which are antithetical concepts, by only one word apart. The unconventional use of synaesthesia and syntax highlights the fluidity in which the priest moves between his roles as preacher and symbol of the church.

Apart from the priest, the “windows” conceit is useful in framing the position of Anglicanism, which Herbert espouses as a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. At the end, he rejects the Protestant belief in the effectiveness of the spoken word (“speech alone/ Doth vanish like a flaring thing”), and proposes the path of mediation – pure worship (Protestant) must be aided by ceremonial forms and sacraments (Catholic) – he celebrates the physical “window” structure as a means in which God’s “light and glory/ More reverend grow.” The metaphor is apt insofar as the ceremonial elements are valuable in drawing the worshipper closer to God: to know God’s presence, the sacrament cannot be divorced from its material aspect. The physical “window” belongs to the priest’s outward projection of his moral authority, which is complementary to his teaching.

Furthermore, Herbert seems to imply another layer of “window,” found in the mediating figure of the poet who straddles God and priests. As a “window” to the “window” of the priests when he instructs them, the poet resorts to using an art form which, in contrast to God’s “eternal word,” appears to be more limiting and ephemeral, just like the “speech” of the priest he warns of at the end. In his beginning plea, “Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?”, he accepts his tempered position as the “window” through which human invention filters the need of devotion from both sides – God and man (priests), and so despite the architectural unity of his poem, Herbert wants to point out that his role as a poet is less important than his role as a priest that he sets out to be in the poem. Because of the indirect approach the poet uses in addressing his audience (“window” of a “window”), the poet in him is legitimate as long as he engages God in poetic collaboration, and for that he succeeds; his artisanal diction as a poet in constructing this poem is the same as that describing God’s creative craft of creating stained-glass windows (“anneal,” “mingle”) – both deploy similar tools for creation. Conjoined with the ultimate Maker in creating manuals for priesthood, he is both vessel and creator, but more importantly, just another “window.”

Labels: , , ,


Blogger ash said...

Even in reading this poem, indeed poetry in general, we seem to be drawn into a window - and when it ends we float safely out. That seems to be some people's (if not mankind's) relationship with God, isn't it. Nice to know the window is there. And by George, it's a treat to look at those paintings. First's my favourite. Nice one, Nick.

3:28 AM, August 22, 2008  
Blogger msiagirl said...

I have a great affection for Herbert and Traherne who wrote similarly in the same time period: simply because they were such shining examples of their faith. This longing to be a receptacle of light is so touching and sincere, compared with so many examples of priesthood, which were not. I love his humbleness.

1:29 AM, August 26, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home