Poet's Pick April 11
George Herbert: "Jordan" (2)
Selected by Robert Cording
National Poetry Month 2018

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Robert Cording's Poetry Month Pick, April 11, 2018

"Jordan" (2)
by George Herbert (1593–1633)

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell. 

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretense!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d;
Copie out onely that, and save expense.


* Robert Cording Comments:
What I love about this poem (and its companion ("Jordan 1") is the dilemma of writing religious verse that it enacts.  The past tense here signals both an acknowledgement of past errors and hides an ongoing struggle.  Herbert wants, like every poet, to be seen as a good poet who knows his craft; he wants others, especially God, to see both his imaginative inventiveness and his ability to wield language.  He wants to capture the amplitude and richness of his experience with language equal to the task. And yet.  And yet he has learned to suspect those very desires.  And well he should.  If Herbert knows he must love the very language he employs to speak about God to write a good poem, he also knows how that very language may be fraught with pride and self-interest, may be the very thing that gets in the way of God.  Herbert’s vexing, great question is—how does he represent the felt reality of God with language that can only, being bound by the writer’s own finite limitations, “weave [his] self into the sense”? 

Over and over in his poems, Herbert declares that too much artfulness only “curl[s] with metaphors a plain intention.”  He asks, to create an authentic hymn of praise “must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines/Catching the sense at two removes” (from “Jordan 1”)? The solution should be easy: “There is in love a sweetness ready penned:/Copie out only that, and save expense.”  But, the instruction he hears—to use the words of God that are “already penned” in the Bible—is more complicated than it seems: if Herbert substitutes the words of the Bible for his own words then the result may well be sufficient for God but insufficient for a good poem.  And how does a poet, who loves the feeling of the way words “sprout” more words so feverishly the poet’s hand can hardly record all those ideas that are “off’ring their service,” simply copy out only that which is both readily available and already been penned.  Consider how alive Herbert’s language is (in stanza one and two), how intricate the syntax, when he is admitting to the errors he has committed.  Part of him wants to believe that the richness of God demands an equally appropriate richness of language.  But that belief may only be the intricate-egotistic-poetic-self whispering in Herbert’s ear—as the poet quietly admits in the buying and selling undertones of the diction at the end of stanza one.

At the heart of this poem, then, is the contradiction at the heart of all spiritual writing and perhaps writing in general—how can the poet be fully present, completely “there” in the poem, employing his/her love for words and craft, and, at the same time, disappear?  How, on the one hand, can the writer, who wants to disappear, escape finally his own “long pretense”?  And, on the other hand, what writer wants to “save expense,” when it is those very riches the writer loves to expend?

About Robert Cording:
Robert Cording is the author of A Word in My Mouth: Selected Spiritual Poems (2013) and seven other collections, most recently Only So Far (2015). The recipient of two NEA Fellowships in Poetry, he has published his work in many journals and magazines.

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