Dissent Of The Day

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes a very long dissent in response to the Poem For Sunday. For the poetry buffs:

I take strenuous exception to Pinsky's analysis of the Herbert poem, and I am a bit shocked by your approval of it.

I've gone through similar debunkings with Milton poems. They do not sing, they croak. They are not examples of perfected English grammar; they are perfections of rottenness. To be more precise, they are examples of poetry that is, in Pound's phrase, "chock-a-block with Latin".

Let me demonstrate this. Here is the poem:
While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust,
To which the blast of Death's incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust

My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble, put for signs,

To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting: what shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent, that, when thou shalt grow fat,

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.
The first thing to notice is that this poem is based on a "conceit"; all the stanzas make the same point. All metaphors, similes and other observations drive home the same assertion. Donne does this much better, because he realizes that a poetic conceit in several parts has to approach its subject using different tones and registers, or it becomes labored. To this end, a conceit handled by Donne often includes humor, irony, self-deprecation, etc., to relieve the monotony of the conceit. Herbert does not do this here.

Looking at Stanza 1, we realize that there is amphiboly between the act of meditation and the fact of death. The title allows us to infer that the poet is located among tombs in a cemetery. So the "crib" for Stanza 1 is: While I am praying or meditating in this cemetery, let me think about the frailty of my body.

However, there is "oddness" in Stanza 1. My soul "repairs to its devotion" = attends to its duty of prayer/meditation. (The term "repair" does NOT mean "to fix up"; the root is French, and a "repere" is a point of reference. One repairs to a certain place, that is all. So while Pinsky is correct in speaking of a few minutes of meditation, "a few minutes of repair", as he says in his analysis, is nonsense.) Following this, "my flesh" is to be momentarily held still, or "entombed"; that is all right, although we already see the labored nature of the conceit. We're in a cemetery, so everything has to be related to dust or tombs. This is what Donne rightly feels to be too heavy after two or three shots, whereupon he normally begins to take a lighter tone, to the extent that extended conceits have something in common with doggerel.

However, once the flesh is immobilized, it takes on mental powers and begins to think. The soul is in another sphere, that of "devotion", so we can't say that Herbert's soul is teaching his flesh about its nature. His flesh itself must "take acquaintance" of either itself as a heap of dust, or of the other presumed heaps thereabouts - whose stillness (and dustiness) rhetorically generate the notion of Death as "incessant motion", which motion is morally generated by "our crimes".

I consider this a prime error. It is one thing to load an observation with a metaphor or simile. You overload it when you append a moral conclusion - we come to dust not inexorably, but causally, by our crimes. We have only just stepped into the flow of Herbert's metaphors, when we see him step out of it in order to pick up a moral principle. This principle is even opposed to the metaphorical direction, since Death as an incessant "blast" of wind should scatter dust - not drive everything to dust - although the latter is grammatically implied: "this heap of dust...TO WHICH (Death) drives all at last."

This is what happens to conceits; they are conceited, and they begin to ignore the plain natural import of metaphors...without which we fall into deconstructionist-like ping-ponggery of opposites.

Now, beginning with Stanza 2, we are going to develop the conceit still further (the plot stickens): we are going to observe that the gravestones, etc., that seem more permanent than the heaps of dust, will eventually also be heaps of dust. Herbert has to reprise the separation between soul (meditating) and flesh (now "trusted" to the "school" of a meditation within a meditation, the flesh meditating on dust. And since he has used the term school (sighhh) he has to go on and put his flesh in the school, learning to spell, learning the genealogy and heraldry of dust. Perhaps to those better acquainted than we with heraldry, it might be piquant to observe that dust has no bars or chevrons or colors; but it seems quite a reach just the same, since there is nothing more to support this metaphorical extension. It remains rather as a "negative metaphor"; these are simply things that dust does not have. "...which dissolution sure doth best discern/Comparing dust with dust and earth with earth." In this line, where the beginning metaphors of Stanza 2 might have been colored in, we get a near tautology that seems almost padded out - a disaster in a conceit, which is already ginning up lines out of deliberately restricted material.

"These laugh at jet and marble, put for signs," is undoubtedly the only line of poetry in the poem, since it compresses the view of the grave markers into an image. Even so, "put for signs" is rather obvious and lacks grace. This inartful conclusion to Stanza 2, though, is nothing compared to the indelicacy of Stanza 3. The crib: the gravestones are presumptuous enough to come between us and these LITERAL heaps of dust (which otherwise my flesh might wish to see??), and as punishment they will later fall down and kiss them (ick).

This is Herbert's problem. In trying to be forthright about death, he reifies it; in dourly comparing himself to a heap of dust, he cannot stop there but must at length rub his nose in it (and ours). Thus does a "metaphysical" conceit eventually turn itself on its head, getting stuck noting features of that which in essence is featureless.

A conceit, as in Donne, is supposed to be an airy thing, since you are in a sense spinning one thing out into many things. You are working with very little material, spinning out a concept. This is why the last eight lines are so sick-making. The soul has no problem suspending its meditation to stage-manage the instruction of the soul ("Dear flesh...") Then we have to endure the metaphorical mixture of dust with FAT, which is like the castor oil of the soul, something Herbert needs to administer in order to stop his flesh from "wanton cravings". The dust is "free from lust" - and Herbert's flesh is not? But since his soul has attained such separation, why not let the flesh fall already? The introduction of a new element into the monotone mix - glass - is curious. Should we really say that flesh is a glass that holds dust? Haven't we already said that flesh IS dust (and so needs no "glass")? Did he do this in order to drag an hourglass filled with sand within metaphorical hailing distance?

Grammatically speaking the referent of "which" in the last Stanza is "glass" (that is why there are two "which"es). So Pinsky is wrong in his comment on this - although I would gladly concede that all the mixing and bleeding through of metaphors he seems to value is "there", for him or Herbert. There is no poetic beauty anywhere to be found, and Herbert has to whack us across the chops with the "meaning" in the last two lines, a meaning that has already been stated three times.

In technical terms (in terms of prosody), there are no important poems that come to mind that have the rhyme scheme ABCABC. Herbert's rhymes are almost all masculine (one syllable) and unremarkable (devotion-motion is a feminine rhyme, and a bit stretched). This is bad, because the fact that rhymes occur at a rather great distance - not rhyming the following line or the one after that, but the third line, and then continuing to do that - means that the rhymes should be as loud or bright as possible, in order to revive the rhyme that was rather fading from our attention. Herbert does not do this, and most readers probably don't even notice that he is rhyming regularly until they look twice to figure out the scheme.

So Herbert might as well not be rhyming, since the sound of the rhymes doesn't carry over well. What about the scansion? It is nominally iambic pentameter - but as with many a tin eared poet, we find that the meter is more of a burden than a brace. This is clear from the first line, in which the "that" is grammatically licensed ONLY by Latinate syntax - or perhaps someone will claim Herbert was channelling "whanne that Aprille".

Another problem arises with "this": Herbert's flesh is to be "entombed" for the purpose of "taking acquaintance" with a heap of dust. But which one? It seems that it can only be ITSELF AS a heap of dust, since no (literally) entombed heap is identified (we don't know whose grave he's looking at). And so it looks like "this" is just a shortcut forced by the meter. Now, "Death's incessant motion" is an oxymoronic metaphor, really just a reverse simile, since in commonplace terms Death betokens stillness. This is very "meta-physical", but when Herbert adds the "moral wind" we are forced to assume, making dissolution a very prosaic process, it's more like some kind of kooky physics.

Nabokov in his notes on prosody did a very good job of explaining how iambic tetrameter can be saved from tub-thumping by the use of little words and longer words, which soften the rhythm without destroying it. He called these "scuds". It's much harder to do this for five-foot lines; but we can observe that the second line of Stanza 1 is rather well scudded: "Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes..." The first-foot iamb is "tilted", that is, normal stressing leads us to say (or verbally imagine) more stress on "Here" than on "I". So there is a first-foot tilt, and then four straight-on iambs without variation. The third line has a sort of scud on the second and third feet, thanks to the prosody of "acquaintance": "May take acquaintance of this heap of dust." "Acquaintance of" takes up two iambic feet, but does not tub-thump them. It makes the line run along until it bumps up against "this heap of dust". Not bad. But there is no softening in the fourth line; indeed, the position of "incessant" makes the pronunciation of the line so stilted that it erases the fact of the first repeated rhyme (from line 1). Line 5, as long as we stress "Fed" a little more than "with", produces a rather richly rhythmed line, but this effect is attenuated by the fact that we have to stop and figure out the physics of "exhalation" in this place. Line 6 is straight tub-thumping; there would be a slight tilt to "Therefore", IF it did not come after a semi-caesura in the middle of the line created by the sentence break.

In the second stanza we find the meter generating some grammatical irregularities that do not seem really to contribute to the poem. The first two lines of Stanza 2 are somewhat scudded (it is far easier to scud the first three feet than the last two): "My body to this school" and "spell his elements" run along all right, reverting to straight rhythm at the lines' ends. However, the referent of "his" can again be nothing other than the same "flesh", and so the crib for "his" is "its own"; the body will attend the school of heaps of dust while I meditate, learning about ITS OWN elements and ITS OWN "birth" and "lines". There is a pretty disjointed sequentiality leading from the unmotivated introduction of the "school" (why does this come in? is my flesh my child or my charge?) to the introduction of "heraldry", which appears to be another reverse simile: dust has no heraldry. You might think: wow, reverse similes. But in fact these are things I have to stop and think about. They have to be worked out in terms of the "physics" of the leading conceit, and so function more as distractions than anything else. I think this is especially obvious with the use of "lines", which can only refer to lineal descent - but "lines" is a weak device for bringing this in, and it's hard to avoid the impression that the word is there merely in order to rhyme with line 12 ("signs"). Line 9 not only tub-thumps - it rattles. "Written in dusty heraldry and lines" Think of a tap dancer, and then speak that line. Bop-a-dee-bop, dee-bop-dee-bop-dee-bop. Poets WORK to avoid such things.

I realize that "sure" in line 10 means "certainly", but it still comes off as rather silly. "Which dissolution sho' do best discern"! Leaving aside the minstrel speech, this line has a nice consonantal pattern - and again, it's dissipated by the meaning that clouds around "dissolution", both nebulous and over-precise. Is dissolution Death's wind, already mentioned? Is the process of dustification a sort of analysis? Or is discern just a rhyme for learn? Interestingly the rhymes work a little better in this stanza precisely because two of them are similar - learn-discern and earth-birth - and as a result we get a near-rhyme where we expect to find it (the ABCABC rhyme scheme's artificiality breaks down for a minute).

"Put for signs": Pinsky gushes over Herbert's use of some unnecessary words, and misses the fact that this is an awkward compression; the meaning has to be glossed in lines 13 and 14, and still has to be figured out rather laboriously. The gravestones, we must consider, are out of place (!) in the sense that they are not dust or earth. They "sever the good fellowship of dust/ and spoil the meeting". This is another reverse simile - that is, something we can clearly see (jet and marble) is taken in a sense that is unaccustomed (gravestones are spoiling something). You can argue that this is intentional, but you cannot argue that it is successful, because while I can grasp the Puritan terror of the leading metaphorical stream (in life we are in death), it takes a lot of metaphysicking to decide, finally, that Herbert is communing with the earth and dust, and experiences the gravestones as a rather (Catholic) excrescence. ANd again this is "meta-physical", because he is intellectually wrestling with the notion of himself as dust - so far from instructing his poor dumb flesh in the way of all flesh.

And finally we may argue that this thought process is simply not poetic, because it gives rise to a grammatical and prosodic freak: "what shall point out them". Herbert is incapable of departing from his own metaphor - that is the definition of an extended conceit - and also incapable of varying his own rhyme scheme. "Them" is there to rhyme with "stem".

I have already pointed out the ickiness of the last lines, with their indiscriminate comparison of fat, dust, crumbliness, lust, and glass. With Milton, I have found that the best way to refute a bad poem like this is to rewrite it:

Be still, my flesh. I meditate and pray.
Do thou attend these graves, this earth in mounds,
This earth, enfolding dust, without a sound,
Remainder of a now departed day.

They rested not, and driven by their lust,
They ran from Death, and ran into his arms.
Make the acquaintance of these heaps of dust.
Hear thou the echo of their shrill alarms.
Your substance and your birth are here displayed
Your heraldry a field of sable, bare
The blackest marble and the greenest blade
Are dust in time, in time are hardly there

We raise the stones and deeply carve the names
But even these shall be brought low and kneel
Until the carven letters do reveal
No more than does a paper in the flames

Still and silent. If your craving rise,
Satisfy yourself upon this end -
Settle, and upon no craving bend,
For even you can see the dust hath eyes.

Herbert wrote many better poems than this. I'm not sure we can say the same for Pinsky.