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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

George Herbert, surrealist poet

 Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age, 
God's breath in man returning to his birth, 
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, 
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth 
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r, 
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, 
The six-days world transposing in an hour, 
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; 
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, 
Exalted manna, gladness of the best, 
Heaven in ordinary, man well dress, 
The milky way, the bird of Paradise, 
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood, 
The land of spices; something understood.


Someone on facebook was saying they didn't like George Herbert. I remembered this poem.  It is list poem, so the elements involved have no logical order: it is prosody and some invisible rhetorical principle that determine the arrangement of the elements. It has rhyme but not reason. 

It is a series of metaphors for prayer, conceived of as the union between the human realm and the divine, or the natural world and the supernatural. The surrealism comes in the juxtaposition of elements, and the way that, even though each element is a metaphor for prayer, there is very little connection between the apart from that. There are probably other metaphysical or baroque poems that are also surrealist in this sense. 

6 comments:

Leslie said...

What a marvelous and strange text!

And yes, this is why Carpentier liked the Baroque, and others too. I, of course, always thought La Galatea was psychedelic.

el curioso impertinente said...

Mere radical juxtaposition does not surrealism make. Perhaps it makes you Reverdy, but it doesn't make you Aragon.

Jonathan said...

Ma femme à la chevelure de feu de bois
Aux pensées d’éclairs de chaleur
A la taille de sablier
Ma femme à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre
Ma femme à la bouche de cocarde et de bouquet d’étoiles de dernière grandeur
Aux dents d’empreintes de souris blanche sur la terre blanche
A la langue d’ambre et de verre frottés
Ma femme à la langue d’hostie poignardée
A la langue de poupée qui ouvre et ferme les yeux
A la langue de pierre incroyable
Ma femme aux cils de bâtons d’écriture d’enfant
Aux sourcils de bord de nid d’hirondelle
Ma femme aux tempes d’ardoise de toit de serre
Et de buée aux vitres
Ma femme aux épaules de champagne
Et de fontaine à têtes de dauphins sous la glace
Ma femme aux poignets d’allumettes
Ma femme aux doigts de hasard et d’as de cœur
Aux doigts de foin coupé
Ma femme aux aisselles de martre et de fênes
De nuit de la Saint-Jean
De troène et de nid de scalares
Aux bras d’écume de mer et d’écluse
Et de mélange du blé et du moulin
Ma femme aux jambes de fusée
Aux mouvements d’horlogerie et de désespoir
Ma femme aux mollets de moelle de sureau
Ma femme aux pieds d’initiales
Aux pieds de trousseaux de clés aux pieds de calfats qui boivent
Ma femme au cou d’orge imperlé
Ma femme à la gorge de Val d’or
De rendez-vous dans le lit même du torrent
Aux seins de nuit
Ma femme aux seins de taupinière marine
Ma femme aux seins de creuset du rubis
Aux seins de spectre de la rose sous la rosée
Ma femme au ventre de dépliement d’éventail des jours
Au ventre de griffe géante
Ma femme au dos d’oiseau qui fuit vertical
Au dos de vif-argent
Au dos de lumière
A la nuque de pierre roulée et de craie mouillée
Et de chute d’un verre dans lequel on vient de boire
Ma femme aux hanches de nacelle
Aux hanches de lustre et de pennes de flèche
Et de tiges de plumes de paon blanc
De balance insensible
Ma femme aux fesses de grès et d’amiante
Ma femme aux fesses de dos de cygne
Ma femme aux fesses de printemps
Au sexe de glaïeul
Ma femme au sexe de placer et d’ornithorynque
Ma femme au sexe d’algue et de bonbons anciens
Ma femme au sexe de miroir
Ma femme aux yeux pleins de larmes
Aux yeux de panoplie violette et d’aiguille aimantée
Ma femme aux yeux de savane
Ma femme aux yeux d’eau pour boire en prison
Ma femme aux yeux de bois toujours sous la hache
Aux yeux de niveau d’eau de niveau d’air de terre et de feu.

This poem by André Breton uses a similar technique to Herbert's poem. The poem is a list of metaphors. Of course Herbert's text is less transparent to us than Breton's, more surrealist even, and certainly wilder than anything Reverdy ever did. Breton has to repeat ma femme every line to keep the reader anchored.

There is also a spurious effect going here which is historical defamilairization. Herbert's metaphors are strange to us because of their language, and because we might lack the religious and metaphorical codes to decipher them all, whereas for a contemporary reader the poem might have been more transparent (contemporary to Herbert I mean.)

My post was an exercise in creative anachronism. Obviously Herbert is not surrealist in any real sense, because he does not fit historically and his reasons for juxtaposing images have nothing in common with Breton's. It is only the subsequent existence of surrealism that allows us to go back and make this comparison in the first place. We could go back and look at Mozart's "dissonant" quartet and make comparisons with music 200 after Mozart. Although that is also a bogus reading of Mozart from the historical perspective, it does help explain things about the way we hear that piece of Mozart. Isn't our own reaction more interesting than the more accurate way of seeing things?

So yes, I stand by my original post. I'm pretty sure I found this in an anthology by Kenneth Koch, who probably chose it for similar reasons to those that make it strange and marvelous to us.

Ganga Quotes said...

Nice i like it.

el curioso impertinente said...

OK. But what about Neruda's "enumeración caótica"? Are Residencia I & II Surrealist? I thought in Apocryphal Lorca you thought not.

Jonathan said...

I don't remember saying that in AL. Anyway I'm not that interested in splitting hairs over Neruda's surrealism. That wouldn't even be anachronistic.