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George Herbert's Christian Narrative.

Harold Toliver. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. ix + 275 pp. 37[pounds sterling]; $45.

The title of Harold Toliver's book is intentionally oblique, since his argument hinges on the irrelevance to Herbert's project in The Temple of narrative in the conventional sense. Toliver's book focuses on the rigorous exclusions that Herbert needed to practice in order to become a committed Christian poet--exclusions especially of the social and political concerns that form the basis of most conventional narrative, even that of the Hebrew Bible in its original state, unallegorized by Christian interpreters. Instead, Herbert's poems and the sequences they suggest take as their models emblems, parables, and some of the psalms, precursors that like his own work suggest the "silk twist" leading to transcendence, rather than less direct analogies between earthly and heavenly. Needless to say, the traces of secular interests and literary forms, including classical and Petrarchan ones, inevitably remain in Herbert's work; indeed he sometimes highlights them, dramatizing his ambivalence about the poetic (occasionally self-promoting3 wit that adapts them to religious purposes.

For Toliver, the most important cultural figure contrasting with Herbert is Bacon. As is well known, the two knew each other, and Herbert helped Bacon with the Latin translation of the Advancement of Learning. Herbert's university career also held the promise of worldly success, which at first he found attractive. In virtually every way, however, Bacon's scientific project with its sweeping social goals differed from Herbert's. For Herbert, the secondary and even corrupt nature of the quest for scientific knowledge became the subject of such poems as "The Pearl" and "Vanity I." The two writers especially differed in their use of language. Bacon's championship of a transparent language able to communicate its "matter" with as little distortion as possible--to "restore the cooperation of truth and apt language" (53)-- contrasts with the deliberate violence of rhetorical figures purposefully used by Herbert: "oxymoronic, metaleptic, aporetic, and catachretic metaphors" which "come abruptly into play to eclipse tropes drawn to mere human scale" (153).

Unfortunately, Toliver's readers who hope to have this potentially interesting if compressed idea (or several others toward which his book gestures) expanded upon with any care will be disappointed. The Herbert he presents --the writer who struggles to adjust wit and submission, personal ambition and religious vocation, or individual moods and the formal observances of the Church--is one with whom few are likely to take issue. But in the absence of a focus limited enough that it can be rigorously developed, the book offers few specific readings that will surprise those who already know some of the extensive secondary literature on Herbert. When they are not familiar, the author's commentaries often strain to be statements of such large and generalized importance that they are virtually useless as guides to particular poems. An example is his commentary on "The Discharge," the final stanza of which reads as follows: "Either grief will not come; or if it must,/ Do not forecast./ And while it cometh, it is almost past./ Away distrust:/ My God hath promis'd; he is just." In response, Toliver explains, "If God's presence is the fulness of time, his absence must empty it. If Jesus is the only high priest, as the hellenic writer of Hebrews argues, then the Holy of Holies and the mercy seat are paradoxically always and never occupied. Assurance of salvation, although comforting with respect to the future, does not change the details of personal narratives, which will be as deprived or as luxurious as their social and bodily life dictates. Inquiry into any secular field competes with the absolutism of that narrative." (109-10) Toliver's exegesis at such moments is hardly sensitive to the diction, tone, feeling, or even paraphrasable substance of the poem he is dealing with.

Toliver touches on many key issues about Herbert, but none are explored with much depth. The chapter on Herbert at Psalms and Sonnets, for example, mentions a few psalms but does not really examine Herbert's relationship to this complex body of poetry and prayer. Though some of the book's observations are suggestive, as a whole it is not a very satisfying treatment of its subject.
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Author:Lyons, Bridget Gellert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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