Herbert, Scriptural Superabundance of Significance, and Poem-Systems

        Scholars have long noted that Herbert gave the same titles to many poems on the same subject, so he has the titling instinct of a modern print-era poet but also the anti-commodification instinct of the aristocratic, manuscript-era poet.  One also can read these poems, as Herbert intended, together as a poetic "suite" or "cluster" with its own dramatic structureTo help you begin to understand this "suite" or "cluster" way of reading Herbert, modern editors (commodifiers of literature that they are) have added numbers to the identically titled poems to indicate which comes earlier or later in the larger structure of The Temple.  Of all these numbered poems, the Norton editors give you only one complete pair forming such a "suite": "Jordan I" and "Jordan II."  Logically, however, readers of "Affliction 1," "Prayer 1," and "Love 3" might want to seek the poems' suite-mates to see the whole significance of what Herbert is saying.  Like astronomers who, studying stars, sometimes discover the stars they are studying orbiting others in multi-star clusters, readers of "Affliction 1" are seeing 1/5 of a five-poem "star system," readers of "Prayer 1" 1/2 of a two-poem "star system," and readers of "Love 3" 1/3 of a three-poem "star system."  This highly intelligent aesthetic complexity is why even agnostic and atheist scholars find Herbert's poems too beautiful to ignore.

        Herbert, himself, may have had a similar astronomical figure in mind when constructing the poems and The Temple, itself, but since telescopes powerful enough to resolve double or triple star systems had not yet been invented, he understood the stars with the naked eye, as "constellations."  When the ancients named the patterns they discerned in stars' relationship to each other as constellations, they were reading the sky as if it were a divinely inscribed book.  The signs of the Zodiac are the only remaining shred of that wisdom most modern readers possess, but when we add to those "signs" the fact that individual visible stars also were named, the sky-book becomes filled with more potential significance than a simple, linear utterance like a sentence could contain.  Each constellation, and the stars within it, can suggest a narrative "syntax" or coordinating story that can coexist with or connect to stories suggested by others with infinite possible variations.  Herbert's twin sonnets, "The Holy Scriptures," use that celestial super-abundant significance as a metaphor for the interpretive possibilities found in the Bible under the interpretive rules followed by Seventeenth-Century Protestant scholars to decipher linkages between Old and New Testament, and to detect in parables and prophecies relationships to ordinary life and national history.  The Bible's "constellations" were its passages in distant but related books of scripture, and they formed, for Herbert, a sky-book as full of meaning as the one above his head.

        To see him make this point, both in the content and in the form of a poem, see "The Holy Scriptures," a double sonnet about the Bible as a "star system" filled with infinite meaning.  The poem, itself, pits one sonnet against the other in a duet that is, itself, part of the first "Jordan 1" sequence, where it is part of the reward for "crossing over" "Jordan 1"'s struggle between beauty as a poetic accomplishment and beauty as the Word of God.  In both sonnets, the Bible is said to outdo the sky, to contain the Heavens, themselves, and all the potential meaning in the Universe.  The second sonnet concludes by suggesting the Bible was God's second, better Creation: Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse: This book of starres lights to eternall blisse" (ll. 13-14 or 27-28).  The "book of starres" forms the model for Herbert's own book, The Temple.

[James Boyd White discusses this way of reading Herbert's poetry at length, using specific poem-suites, in This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1994) 826.3 H53Sw.]