‘The Bunch of Grapes,’ George Herbert

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man
        Hath let thee out again:
And now, me thinks, I am where I began
    Sev'n yeares ago: one vogue and vein,
    One aire of thoughts usurps my brain.
I did toward Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red sea, the sea of shame.

For as the Jews of old by God's command
        Travell'd, and saw no town:
So now each Christian hath his journeys spann'd:
    Their storie pennes and sets us down.
    A single deed is small renown.
God's works are wide, and let in future times;
His ancient justice overflows our crimes.

Then have we too our guardian fires and clouds;
        Our Scripture-dew drops fast:
We have our sands and serpents, tents and shrowds;
    Alas! Our murmurings come not last.
    But where's the cluster? Where's the taste?
Of mine inheritance? Lord, if I must borrow,
Let me as well take up their joy, as sorrow.

But can he want the grape, who hath the wine?
        I have their fruit and more.
Blessed be God, who prosper'd Noah's vine,
    And made it bring forth grapes good store.
    But much more him I must adore,
Who of the laws sowre juice sweet wine did make,
Ev'n God himself, being pressed for my sake.

iNTRODUCTION

My intention in this essay is to introduce Herbert not only to the reader (if they are still unintroduced), but also to myself. I only recently began to read George Herbert’s poetry, and I have still not progressed very far. But I do believe I have managed to get a taste for its flavor, and it is a hard taste to judge. By this I do not mean there is any doubt that Herbert is a good and even a great poet; there isn’t. But, as is the case for any poet, the old question of just how the parts come together – like the ingredients of some rare and coveted dish – must be raised, and I have been struggling to word, for myself, what makes Herbert cohere. Since I haven’t read any criticism on Herbert (except for comments by C.S. Lewis), I am mostly alone for the moment as I voyage on here.

I am going to be taking a look at this specific poem today. And, as I do, I am going to try and explicate what exactly it is that Herbert seems to be doing in his poetry generally out of this specific example.

First, a couple points need to be aired. To begin with, you cannot take Herbert’s grammar for granted, given that he is writing in the 17th century. Probably most surprisingly, Herbert actually doesn’t use the apostrophe, as we do, to indicate the genitive type relationships in English, which sometimes refer to possession. The text I used was apparently a fairly unedited printing of Herbert’s poems without the usual updates to modern grammatical standards. So, I added the apostrophes. So, for example, “God’s works are wide” was “Gods works are wide” in the original printing. But the place where he does use them, for elision, such as in “Ev’n God himself,’ were present in the original. When reading it out to yourself aloud, don’t worry too much about overcorrecting your pronunciation; often elision tends to reflect the way we actually pronounce certain words in speech outside of print anyways.

The final point is to reckon with the archaic spellings in a few cases here, which is really all a part of the fun in reading old poetry. I won’t say anything in detail about this, just make note of it. I trust the reader will catch up on Herbert’s meaning.

ESSAY

When I was a teenager, I was given a book, The Valley of Vision, a collection of poems from within the Puritan strand of English Protestantism. It is characterized by nothing if not sincerity, which flows out of every page. But I will say it is not characterized by genuine artfulness. Indeed, I would go so far as to say there may even be an implicit suspicion of such art on the part of the simple Puritan figure, since such art might prove to be a foothold for pride. It might even separate the common Christian (the core of the Protestant worldview) from the prayer, or the poem that is a prayer. In other words, between piety and art, piety must always win; more than that, it must take full precedence.

Now, Herbert I know for certain (anyone who reads him at all will know it too) would have valued piety over art; goodness, so to say, over beauty. I haven’t come across the poem yet in Herbert’s oeuvre that expresses this quite, perhaps by reflecting on how God makes each creature uniquely to express praise in some different way (but I will bet a gander he wrote it). But Herbert was a poet, as any perusal of him will show, and he must have written the way he did, been compelled to it somehow, and in some sense he did not see his art as a block to piety but as its expression.

Now, the way that is done by Herbert is, I think, shown in the above poem. Its concern is completely about piety, that is to say, about the spiritual character of the author. What we are concerned about is the art of its expression here, though I will be addressing its content as well.

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man

        Hath let thee out again:

I puzzled at first as to the meaning here, but I think that Herbert means by locking Joy up is having secured it for himself in his heart. There is no doubt that the “bad man” is himself. He continues in the first stanza till he begins to compare his failures with the failure of the children of Israel in the Exodus narrative when they wished to return to Egypt instead of go on to the promised land of Canaan. And this analogy is followed through till the end of the poem. Thus, the tone of the poem is reflective, attempting to in hindsight understand the relationship of the author’s spiritual experience with those in the past. Ultimately, Herbert seems to conclude he is not bound to the errors of Israel because of the Incarnation, if only he could grasp onto it sufficiently.

Take away the second line of each stanza, which is a short trimetric line, and the stanza is made of three couplets: the first and the last being pentametric, with the middle couplet being tetrametric. I think it is difficult in the case of this poem to pin down why the structure works instead of another. Herbert seems to have gone for something like a standard invention in this case, nothing to distinctive beyond the general balance of repetition and variety that should be pursued in writing a poem. And he was rather inventive with stanzaic forms (if you have not done so, read his poem “Easter Wings”). Besides, in most cases, the choice of stanza structure (when inventing and not adopting some traditional form) is rather intuitive. Sometimes the poem is written by its matter in accordance with the form, rather than the form in accordance with the matter. That might actually be the case more often than not, but I’m not so sure.

When making an analogy of any kind, it is precisely where one draws the distinctions in it that make the effect. Herbert does this turn thrice. After listing the commonalities of the Christian’s experience to wandering Israel, he states, ” Alas! Our murmurings come not last.” Besides the pleasant phonetic thrust of going from “Alas!” to “not last,” this is a humbling strike. Their murmurings, he muses, came after the trouble had all come, but perhaps he is not so patient as that (I think Herbert may be underestimating how soon the complaints came in the narrative he refers to).

But, immediately following this, he provides the second turn, “But where’s the cluster? Where’s the taste?/Of mine inheritance?” This is a clever embodiment. The boldness of these questions perhaps almost approaches the tone of complaint on the part of the Israelites. To move from a humbling observation of his own character to embodying it is, I think I find, a kind of deep affirmation of both his own pride and also his willingness to be more humble. Indeed, pride might tend to conceal itself out of a kind of self regarding shame; Herbert allows his own to show and not hide away.

The third and final turn of distinction comes in the final stanza. Having built up to it, Herbert then waxes on a familiar Christian theological theme: that the Incarnation provides a better manner of being for the Christian in the present than the dispensation experienced by those in the time of Israel. But he doesn’t put it so technically. Instead, he relies on the analogy of wine grapes, which tend to be sour until they are turned into wine, which is rather more palatable. This isn’t so much an image as a process that he presents, and it involves the use of the imagination not just for an image, but for the taste of a sour grape compared to wine. That essential part of the wine-making process – the acquisition of the grape’s juice by pressing – becomes the image of Christ being crucified; thus, transforming the situation of Israel into the situation of Herbert.

Notice that Herbert has committed himself to a poetic version of a rhetorical development that is common enough in Christian homiletics. He begins with his own unfortunate situation as a man lacking in piety, and then comes to end with Christ, while not precisely providing a resolution of how to change his own circumstance. This is the central paradox of the entire Christian tradition: that what must be done cannot be done (indeed has been undone), and yet has been done. And yet I hope I have provided some small analysis of some of the ways that Herbert communicates this with poetic art.

What I think can be learned from Herbert is that the reason for the poetic context, for the space in which language is used in this way, is because it is inappropriate to be poetic most of the time. Herbert was also a parish priest in England, and so would have delivered many a sermon in the short course of his career (he died fairly young). I think it is right to hypothesize that there is a relationship between his poetry composition and his sermons. And while no doubt much of the time the content of his poetry might be explained by what he considered important to preach, it is also probably the case that he determined to write certain poems precisely because of the limitations of prose rhetoric, to say things in a way he might have thought, if not better, more fitting to a poetic context. So to, when demanded by our contexts to speak so directly, without an oblique sense at all or any form of complexity, we might also turn to poetry as a way of finding a more perfect sense to speak.

Featured image: ‘Still-life with Grape,’ by Geza Peske (c. late 19th-early 20th centuries), image in the public domain.

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Poetical Fragments