The Business Like Concerns of Elizabeth Bishop and George Herbert

Devon, PA.  In the first months of FPR‘s existence, I wrote a short essay on George Herbert, secularization, and devotion.  I return to that subject by a different avenue in a brief article just published, as part of a symposium on Bishop’s poetry, in Per Contra: An International Journal of Arts, Letters, and Ideas.  That article is itself an excerpt from a longer reflection on Bishop that I hope to publish sometime in the year ahead.  It begins:

“I have never been religious in any formal way and I am not a believer,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Ann Stevenson in 1964. “I dislike the didacticism, not to say the condescension, of the practicing Christians I know . . . They usually seem more or less on the way to being fascists.” And yet, throughout her life and poetic career, Bishop turned and returned to the poetry of the Seventeenth-Century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert for his expressly Christian example of moral seriousness and poetic form. Scorning the therapeutic approaches to self-knowledge of modern psychoanalysis and its poetic analogue, the “confessional” practices of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and others, Bishop insisted she would “infinitely rather approach such things from the Christian viewpoint . . . the trouble is I’ve never been able to find the books, except Herbert.” She was a secular intellectual in a self-consciously secular age; elsewhere in her letter to Stevenson, she expressed the typical liberal pieties one might expect of a Vassar-educated, cosmopolitan poet in the nineteen-sixties.

Product of her time though she was, she saw that the Twentieth Century’s medical and artistic approaches to the nuances of the inner life did not mean it had found a superior means to self-knowledge and contemplation than that of the Christian tradition. To the contrary, Bishop’s favorite poets included Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, and George Herbert: voices in whom she found the “use of homely images and . . . solidity,” that is, an attention to the peculiarities of the concrete that finds expression in a peculiarity of phrasing.

You can read the rest here.

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