Poet's Pick April 10
Henry Vaughan: "The Book "
Selected by Jennifer Grotz
National Poetry Month 2012

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Jennifer Grotz's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2012

"The Book"
by Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695)

Eternal God! maker of all
That have lived here, since the man’s fall;
The Rock of ages! in whose shade
They live unseen, when here they fade.
Thou knew’st this paper, when it was
Mere seed, and after that but grass;
Before ‘twas drest or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then:
What were their lives, their thoughts and deeds
Whether good corn, or fruitless weeds.

Thou knew’st this Tree, when a green shade
Covered it, since a Cover made,
And where it flourished, grew and spread,
As if it never should be dead.

Thou knew’st this harmless beast, when he
Did live and feed by thy decree
On each green thing; then slept (well fed)
Clothed with this skin, which now lies spread
A Covering o’er this aged book,
Which makes me wisely weep and look
On my own dust; mere dust it is,
But not so dry and clean as this.
Thou knew’st and saw’st them all and though
Now scattered thus, dost know them so.

O knowing, glorious spirit! when
Thou shalt restore trees, beasts and men,
When thou shalt make all new again,
Destroying only death and pain,
Give him amongst thy works a place,
Who in them loved and sought thy face!

* Jennifer Grotz Comments:

Since my teenage years, I’ve been an avid reader of devotional poetry—from those Early Modern touchstones like Herbert, Donne, and Milton all the way up to Gerard Manley Hopkins and beyond. As I grow older, my appreciation for devotional poetry continues to deepen but it also continues to widen, by which I mean I think of the category more and more liberally and continue to add to my personal list many of my favorite contemporary poets. But as a young poet looking for my own permission to write, my own sense of what it was a poet could do or say, early devotional poetry was especially compelling because it provided profound examples of poets seeking to establish a humble yet confident poetic authority.

To a real extent poetic authority is a poem’s raison d’être; that is, it’s what makes a poem’s existence feel necessary or worthwhile. Secular poets frequently claim authority as coming from access to “originality,” i.e. being the first—or, in the case of being “belated,” then in a sort of renovating allusion back to some origin. Other poets have established authority by claiming access to inspiration, often in the form of a muse with whom the poet has something approaching an erotic attachment. Christian devotional poets struggle with a unique drama, however, of simultaneously claiming their authority comes from God and of justifying their creative work as not being in competition with the Creator. Sometimes it feels like a Christian poet’s “truth” is not invented or discovered but rather witnessed and reported. Herein lies the dilemma: if their work is purely in service to God’s praise, it’s not distinctively original and might qualify therefore more as worship than artistic creation; however if it’s genuinely original and creative, then the work risks being understood as an act of rebellion. Partly this drama may come from outside historical pressures; but it may just as easily come from spiritual uncertainties or doubt within the poet; often the drama is heightened because both are true.

Henry Vaughan is a devotional poet who negotiated this dilemma beautifully, in my opinion. His great achievement, evinced perhaps in only a handful of poems, admittedly—but greatness in poetry is more about quality than quantity!—stems from writing unforgettable poems that in stunning and surprising ways announce a joyful submission to a larger Creator. In “The Book,” Vaughan subtly and convincingly argues that the poet’s and God’s creations are distinct and yet co-exist harmoniously. We often think of the lyric poem as a poem that aims to be outside of time or to stop time so as to inhabit and meditate upon a single instant; Vaughan uses this very feature of poetry to illustrate how human poetic creation is necessary as a moment of amplification of, never a competition with, God’s creation. And yet it’s Vaughan’s creative genius that elucidates this: his breaking down of the book into its components, the tracing of the paper and cover back to their natural realms, is one of the most beautiful conceits I know of in the English language.

About Jennifer Grotz:
Jennifer Grotz is the author of two poetry collections from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Needle (2011) and Cusp (2003). Her poems, reviews, and translations appear widely in journals and anthologies. She teaches at the University of Rochester and serves as assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

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