Monday, October 28, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Sometimes you remember whole poems because they are memorable, and sometimes only individual phrases or stanzas stick in your mind because they seem so apt.

For years, the only lines I could easily recall from George Herbert’s Vanity were the opening four lines of the third stanza. To me, they still seem to point to something essential in modern thought.

To put the poem in context: George Herbert (1593-1633) was, at least for the last three years of his short life, an Anglican clergyman. He is usually ranked second only to John Donne when people discuss the misnamed “metaphysical” poets of early seventeenth century England. His tone is gentle and devout, the word “sweet” is often attached to him, his imagery is arresting, his rhythms and rhymes graceful - in a word, he is a brilliant poet and I am a damned fool wasting my time telling you what any student of English poetry already knows. George Herbert is a “classic”.

Vanity presents, stanza by stanza, the familiar Christian apologetic arguments  (a.) that it is one thing to investigate the physical mechanisms of nature, but quite another to understand why they are there, why they work at all or why life exists; and (b.) that nature is a text in which God can be read. This latter argument leads to a concept of “natural law”. The study of nature tells us that it is imprinted with God’s design, but also that we have an innate sense of this design. So, after the first three stanzas look at the explorations of astronomers, pearl-divers and [al-]chemists, the last stanza says “What hath not man sought out and found / but his dear God? Who yet his glorious law / embosoms in us.  God’s law is built into our very “bosoms”. This argument carries echoes of Aquinas (whether or not Herbert was a student of him) and looks forward to the rationalism of Descartes, who saw the imprint of God in human reason.

But it’s the opening of the third stanza that most resonates with me and that I carried around in my head years after I had forgotten the wording of the rest of the poem. “The subtle Chymick can devest / and strip the creature naked till he find / the callow principles within their nest: / There he imparts to them his mind. ” Fully aware that for Herbert “Chymick” probably meant “alchemist” as much as our modern “chemist”, I still find these lines an excellent description of an aspect of the scientific process, acknowledgment of which causes much annoyance to at least some scientists.

Herbert is in effect saying that after having unclothed (“devested”) the elements (“callow principles”) of nature, scientists often then impose their own interpretations upon them (“there he imparts to them his mind”) and make the reality of nature subordinate to limited human understanding. Granted this phrase could simply mean that the scientist lets his mind work on these things, I still think Herbert is shrewdly noting that there is no such thing as “objective” science. Even in rigorously conducted science, everything is seen from a human viewpoint, which has human limitations. We do not become substitutes for God because we have a limited understanding of how the mechanisms and processes of nature work. When we impart to them our mind, we are imposing this limited understanding. Richard Dawkins please note.

By the way, the term “scientist” in the modern sense didn’t exist when Herbert was writing. I believe early versions of what we now call scientists would have been called “natural philosophers”. Anyway, here’s the whole poem, my limited interpretation of which I have just imposed on you. If you have a different interpretation of it, please do say.


The fleet Astronomer can bore,

And thread the spheres with his quick-piercing mind:

He views their stations, walks from door to door,                   

Surveys, as if he had design’d

To make a purchase there: he sees their dances,                                

And knoweth long before

Both their full-ey’d aspects, and secret glances.                    

The nimble Diver with his side

Cuts through the working waves, that he may fetch

His dearly-earned pearl, which God did hide                   

On purpose from the vent’rous wretch:

That he might save his life, and also hers,                                

Who with excessive pride

Her own destruction and his danger wears.                    

The subtle Chymick can devest

And strip the creature naked, till he find

The callow principles within their nest:                   

There he imparts to them his mind,

Admitted to their bed-chamber, before                                

They appear trim and dressed

To ordinary suitors at the door.                    

What hath not man sought out and found,

But his dear God?  who yet his glorious law

Embosoms in us, mellowing the ground                   

With showers and frosts, with love and awe,

So that we need not say, Where’s this command?                                 

Poor man, thou searchest round

To find out death, but missest life at hand.

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