Mr. Herbert’s Sunday Morning Service


Devon, PA.  Most people, agrarian or otherwise, do not read poetry anymore.  Ours is not merely a forgetful culture, but one that has long since ceased to approve of memory as something more than a faculty.  It used to be an art, however; and if a culture fails to appreciate or see practical necessity in the art of indelibly inscribing great rhetoric in the mind, or rather, in rhetoric whose greatness makes it memorable, that culture likely will not find much merit in poems either.


Poetic meter and rhyme had their origin as mnemonic devices, aiding the retention of vast strands of story, reflection, satire, and praise.  As is true of any enduring reality, these things developed and grew more sophisticated over centuries, so that the mnemonic function became also a means to improvisation; if one of Homer’s heirs forgot a line, the metrical pattern helped him carry on speaking—“across the wine-dark sea”—until he found the thread.


In the age of manuscript culture and, much more so, print culture, these mnemonic and oral conveniences lost much of their importance, and the intricate stanzas most of us can identify as “poetry” on sight developed.  Even so, without a love and use for the art of memory, one probably cannot long care for poetry.  Too much of its interest is entangled with hearing it as something spoken and yet permanent; the only way human beings can possess such an eternal word is to chisel it onto the firmest stone of their memories.  The Victorians, instructively, had a great taste for redundant ballads, because the refrains aided memorization and made recitation exciting even when the matter was trite.



The preceding comments I offer as a sort of apology.  For, if few men think much on poetry, then even fewer preoccupy themselves with a particular poetic mystery.  I have long been wondering how not just poems, but religious poems, get written.  The great Christian poems of the Seventeenth-Century metaphysical poets, above all, seem sometimes almost inexplicable.  As most people at least will remember from high school, these poets conceived their verses according to the extended trope, the conceit.  John Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” for instance, creates a sonnet-length figurative comparison between the experience of sinfulness and conversion, and that of a town usurped by its enemy and under siege by its savior.  One readily grasps the formal mechanics of such a poem, but not the foundation that makes it so striking.  The poem seems to express some truth about the nature of Christian belief, about the reluctant and inconstant worship that constitutes the religion of a Personal God.


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