Early
"The Virtue and Discipline" of Wrestling with God
John T. Shawcross
University of Kentucky
s1674jt@aol.com

Shawcross, John T. "'The Virtue and Discipline' of Wrestling with God." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 3.1-29 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/shawcross.htm>.

  1. The range of belief in and obeisance to what is conceived of as God seems unchartable, so various and absolute or undefined are such beliefs. Literal acceptance of God and the Scripture on which it is based disallows even the thought of "wrestling" with God. As Francis Quarles' emblem on Job 14:13 proclaims in its beginning and ending stanzas:

    O Whither shall I flie? What path untrod
    Shall I seek out to 'scape the flaming rod
    Of my offender, of my angry God?
     . . . 
    Then work thy will; if passion bid me flee
    My reason shall obey; my wings shall be
    Stretcht out no further than from thee to thee.
        (Emblemes, Book 3, No. XII, 1635)

  2. "Wrestling with God" is really a misnomer. What the concept predicates are two percipient dissections of humankind: the wrestling is in fact with oneself[1] when godward thought and action (morality) would seem to oppose one's desires for and understanding of oneself (and therein lie "the virtue and discipline"); and the wrestler is but an actor in the arena of life, playing a role.[2] The wrestling involves acceptance of a godhead and God's ways toward humankind, including death. The actor-wrestler employs strategies and interactive moves to counter or nullify that which would make him static on the world-stage or a mere imitator of words or action, as it were, supplied to him. Is there room for the Self in the drama and on the stage of life? or is the Self a mere puppet, a mere tautology? A basic scriptural text places the cause of spiritual failure in the "wiles of the devil": "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Ephesians 6:12-13). The Pauline admonition evades the psychologically astute cognition: "spiritual wickedness" may be the cause, but it acts through the "flesh and blood," and in that wrestling with the Self lies the wrestling with "the whole armor of God," the armor that is God.

  3. John Milton's dramatic poem Samson Agonistes epitomizes these meanings, for in Samson's agon[3] he is wrestling with himself and his past interpretation of what that self should have done and been, and he is an actor, literally here in a drama, who represents humankind dealing with self and God. His strategies and moves in the past have been misplaced until now, when, reprises of the temptations of the past being rejected or countered, he accepts that his "wings shall be stretched out no further than from thee to thee."

  4. Milton uses "wrestler" (or similar word) only twice: Samson lists entertainers for the Feast of Dagon, lines 1323-25 ("Have they not Sword-players, and ev'ry sort / Of Gymnic Artists, Wrestlers, Riders, Runners, / Juglers and Dancers, Antics, Mummers, Mimics"), and Milton recounts the battle of Corineus, a chieftain of the Trojans, who invaded Albion with Brutus, and Gogmagog, a giant of Cornwall, in The History of Britain (1670, 13-14): "But at length by many hands overcome, Goëmagog the hugest, in higth twelv cubits, is reserv'd alive; that with him Corineus, who desir'd nothing more, might try his strength; Whom in a Wrestle the Giant catching aloft, with a terrible hugg broke three of his Ribs: nevertheless Corineus enrag'd, heaving him up by main force, . . . threw him headlong all shatter'd into the Sea." As used, the term emphasizes the "play" of a wrestler and the incipient battle between false powers and true. The word derives from a concept of turning or bending, and while the physical appropriateness is obvious, the spiritual significance of "turning" should be noted.[4] He who wrestles spiritually is (or should be) "bent" from the person who he was into some other self. Appropriately Jeremiah pleads: "Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old" (Lamentations 5:21). The related word "wrest" as Milton and others use it often shows "bending" of Truth to their advantage by some of the world's "actors": "And he, who without warrant but his own fantastic surmise, takes upon him perpetually to unfold the secret and unsearchable Mysteries of high Providence, is likely for the most part to mistake and slander them; and approaches to the madness of those reprobate thoughts, that would wrest the Sword of Justice out of Gods own hand, and imploy it more justly in thir own conceit" (Eikonoklastes, 1649, 194).[5]

  5. Poetry of the English Renaissance offers numerous examples of literary efforts employing religious themes or contexts, including that which we would call devotional verse. There are also frequent translations (or adaptations) of the psalms; and secular poems, like epithalamia and epicedes, often contrast the profane and the sacred. Steven W. May tells us that, before the mid-1580s, "The pervasive distrust of vernacular poetry . . . prevented devout courtiers from treating spiritual matters in so trivial a fashion [as through poetry]. Poetry itself had first to be raised up within the court through the wholly secular effects of Oxford, Dyer, Sidney, and the queen herself before it would evolve into a suitable medium for religious expression."[6] Emergent during the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign, then, is religious poetry that -- sometimes Protestant,[7] sometimes Roman Catholic[8] -- generally sustains the term "devotional." The Catholic meditative tradition that lies behind devotional poetry is definitively examined by Louis L. Martz in The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, and the Protestant counterpart by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski in Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric.

  6. Describing "Protestant devotional lyrics," Lewalski stresses the private mode of the poet, "concerned to discover and express the various and vacillating spiritual conditions and emotions the soul experiences in meditation, prayer, and praise" (4). The primary biblical source for these lyrics is the Psalms and the figure of the psalmist. It is usually seventeenth-century poets like George Herbert and Richard Crashaw, epitomizing attitudes toward the State Church and Roman Catholicism respectively, who receive the label "devotional."[9] The meditative tradition and the concept of prayer form the structure of John Donne's prose Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (London, 1624), twenty-three "devotions" each divided into "meditation," "exposition," and "prayer." These Devotions, as well and most clearly, offer a wrestling with God, both in their struggle of self and godward thought (particularly in the expositions) and in their play, their dissimulation,[10] despite the biographical "truth" of the circumstances of their inception.[11]

  7. In this essay I look at a few poems suggesting two authors' wrestling with God in poetry that has been subjected to some critical approaches that have missed the author's sense of self and his moral world or, frequently through biographical imperatives, have bypassed the "virtue and discipline" in the act of this writing.[12] The importance of meditation and prayer and the dissimulation as the self embarks upon its spiritual autobiography, its pilgrimage from one self to another through its wrestling with its desires against godward thoughts, have generally been ignored in discussions of these poems. Such devotional import is not limited to only the individual who writes those poems, but should be read as a transcending of time and all experience for all those who are actors in life's drama.[13] Although the wrestling will lead to a bending of the self, the dissimulation (despite biographical congruencies) posits that others should be able to follow a like path with like results.

  8. A poet who would not be cast as one engaging a wrestling with God in his poems is Edward Herbert, Lord Cherbury. He is cast generally into a kind of metaphysical or a cavalier niche, with poetry about love, mistresses, satiric and light and humorous subjects, some philosophy (for he did produce philosophic prose pointing toward the growing deism of the century), and elegiac verse. Yet some of his work begs for another reading level -- being serious or serious underneath a veneer, and not to be dismissed because of dissimulation. I shall look at five quite different poems. In sharp contrast is the work of Henry Vaughan in his mid-life with Silex Scintillans (Part I, 1650), whose subtitle, "or Sacred Poems and Private Eiaculations," indicates his descent from George Herbert, whose Temple (1633) is also subtitled, "Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations." Much commentary has been published on Vaughan's mystical verse, his alchemical interconnections, and his "conversion" (by which seems to be meant a change from secular to sacred writer of poetry, and which is an alleged result of his brother William's untimely death). Four poems from this collection, forming a sequence, offer pertinent remarks that have not been said in quite this context before.

  9. "Virtue" means not only a quality of moral excellence and meritorious action, but also manly courage, strength. It implies, here, in one's wrestling with God the strength that is engendered in that combative state; it does not mean only the inculcation of moral excellence, but the development of the ability and courage to exert a moral stance in the face of nonmoral and temptational circumstances. It is the putting on of the armor of God to resist the wiles of the devil that beset the flesh and blood. "Discipline" involves training to achieve moral behavior, but, more, it implies the acceptance and submission to rules and authority. Wrestling with God, as Milton's Samson exhibits, brings obedience through "inward thoughts" and succumbing to God's will without thought.[14] For Milton "there is not that thing in the world of more grave and urgent importance throughout the whole life of man, then is discipline" (Reason of Church-Government, 3); and discipline "is the execution and applying of Doctrine home" (Of Reformation, 1641, 7).

  10. Cherbury's "Sonnet" (from Occasional Verses, 1665, untitled) posits a struggle of self and the conception of godhead, and an unstated discipline that should emerge from that struggle, though he backslides continuingly:

    Lord, thus I sin, repent, and sin again,
    As if Repentance only were, in me
    Leave for new Sin; thus do I entertain
    My short time, and thy Grace, abusing thee,
    And thy long-suffering; which though it be
    Ne'r overcome by Sin, yet were in vain,
    If tempted oft: thus we our Errors see
    Before our Punishment, and so remain
    Without Excuse; and, Lord, in them 'tis true,
    Thy Laws are just, but why dost thou distrain
    Ought else for life, save life? that is thy due:
    The rest thou mak'st us owe, and mayst to us
    As well forgive; But oh! my sins renew,
    Whil'st I do talk with my Creator thus.

  11. The "bending" that occurs as meditative periods take place and the backsliding are clear: some "discipline" has emerged but only until further tempting has had success. True "virtue" has not established itself within the poet. He recognizes the justice that will come with Judgment, and for which there can be no excuse, the final "payment" that God distrains being his life. The "virtue" which is apprehended, although it will, we suspect, be dissipated soon, is that even such "wrestling" with God as this meditative state depicts is a sinning against the Lord who has created him.

  12. There is nothing here that is distinctively "Cherbury, his self": the thought and its attendant resolution might have come from many people. We do not doubt that Cherbury actually had experienced such thought, and probably often, but so might have others: there is "truth" here, but there is also dissimulation in its expression as a sonnet. It is not a thought that has been literally reported as it occurred; it is not without a middle stage, and, as it turns out, a middle stage that plays upon literary innovative intentionalities. While a Petrarchan sonnet (despite the separation into equal stanzas), the poem is built on a varied rhyme scheme (ababbabacacdcd) with a volta that has been displaced (probably the reason it has been printed in equal stanzas). The volta may appear between the second and the third foot in line 7 or between the third and the fourth foot of line 11: the resolution of what would have been a sestet, introduced by "thus" or by answer of the preceding question, is complicated in demonstration of the wrestling which is going on in the poet's mind. "Resolution" is presented but it isn't resolution and it doesn't put an end to the questioning of self in the "octave."[15] The dissimulation that the sonnet depicts is worthy of note because it adds to our knowledge of what is going on for poets of this period in executing a popular literary genre, negating facile descriptions and placing us squarely into recognition that it is not only John Donne's holy sonnets and George Herbert's "Prayer" and like poems that counter the alleged genre sonnet topic of earthly love.

  13. A later sonnet presents no obvious theme of wrestling with God, yet Cherbury's "Sonnet Made upon the Groves Near Merlou Castle" (1665) can be read against a backdrop of part of the thought of this previous sonnet: life exists as it is and humankind must acknowledge that fact and live with it.

    You well-compacted Groves, whose light & shade
    Mixt equally, produce nor heat, nor cold,
    Either to burn the young, or freeze the old,
    But to one even temper being made,
    Upon a Greene embroidering through each Glade
    An Airy Silver, and a Sunny Gold,
    So cloath the poorest that they do behold
    Themselves, in riches which can never fade,
    While the wind whistles, and the birds do sing,
    While your twigs clip, and while the leaves do friss,
    While the fruit ripens which those trunks do bring,
    Senseless to all but love, do you not spring
    Pleasure of such a kind, as truly is
    A self-renewing vegetable bliss.[16]

    The idyllic, Edenic scene that Herbert depicts, with its moderation and lack of "nor heat, nor cold," and whose "riches" "can never fade" as long as "the wind whistles, and the birds do sing," and the "twigs clip . . . [and] the leaves do friss, . . . [and] the fruit ripens," can indeed alter, can disappear, it is implied, can indeed breed some other kind of pleasure that is not "love." Humankind's wrestling with decay that can be observed everywhere (and we remember some of the deistic concepts which are gaining strength in the seventeenth century)[17] becomes a wrestling with the godhead that has allowed sense other than love to exist, "pleasure" that is not a self-renewing bliss of life and growth, but an ending, an ending of further growth, an ending of life as we would wish it as here described. A level beneath the surface of the poem is the realization that "spring" gives way to summer, to fall, to winter, and the questioning of why this must be. Beneath the surface of the poem in his meditation, and its implied prayer that continuance of this world described be, is a resistance to bending to reality and a desire not to need any virtue except love.

  14. As unlikely as it may seem, the questions that underlie a wrestling with God emerge in Cherbury's "Satire I: The State Progress of Ill." Written in August 1608 at Merlou, this satire is in dialogue with Donne's verse letter to Herbert, at Juliers, beginning "Man is a lumpe, where all beasts kneaded bee" (with its pun on "kneaded"/"needed"). Donne answers Cherbury's conclusion here, "The World, as in the Ark of Noah, rests, / Compos'd as then, few Men, and many Beasts," by countering that "Wisdome makes [Man] an Arke where all [the men and the beasts] agree."  "Ill" has such attributes of God as both creating itself and bearing "the rod / Of all our punishments"; it exists to rule the world and "to tame / The pride of Goodness." If the world does contain only few men, as Herbert will conclude and inducing "manly" stereotypes of courage to take on and defeat the many beasts (or ills), then Mischief, veiled under the doing of Good (42), and Sin, excused as pleasure (43), have progressed since the "infant-world" (36) to become "conceal'd Intelligencers" (38), that "die" only when confessed. Ill's reign (as a king, or rather tyrant) is by love, not by right (22-23), but by pretence it assumes "Some part of Godhead," such as Mercy, thus providing "For Souls grown Bankrupt" at least some "stock of Grace." At Judgment, however, "th'Highest" may show "Some power, not yet reveal'd to Man below" (30).

  15. The deistic movement away from belief in revelation is discernible in this current lack: man's "true Greatness" is "but his own," not as the "sugred Divines" would tell us. Humility and Patience and ruling ourselves, not others, is the way to heaven, and not through the sway of Ambition. "Freeborn man" has been "subdu'd / By his own choice" (119-20) and has submitted his infinite Number, his Spirit, and his "Wit" (intelligence) "To some eight Monarchs" (the seven deadly sins and Ill itself). The "few Men" of the last line now become those who rule humankind on earth, and the "many Beasts" become humankind itself. The State Progress is the advancement of Ill within men and government, bringing loss of freedom and equality as Mischief and Sin and Ambition escalate and create hierarchies of rule: "then why wonder men / Their rule of Horses?" (123-24).

  16. Donne counsels that "All [including faith and reason] . . . is but a pill" that works in some but not in everyone; it may be "Poysonous, or purgative, or cordiall" (Letter, 39-42) Both are wrestling with the concept of God and his ways, with his actions toward and for humankind and their lack, and with those "harder minds" that "Religion / Cannot invade" ("Satire," 111-12). "God we fear" (24) and "th'Highest at once / Put Fear to'attend . . . private actions, / And Shame . . . publick" (39-41), but for Cherbury God stands off, aside, letting humankind continue the progress of Ill. We can imagine Cherbury's asking, Why? and concluding that such nonintervention from God must simply be accepted as his way, like man's rule of horses. Any morality that should exist in kings' (or states') actions doesn't exist: only Shame may reveal the immorality people can observe, only the Last Judgment may reveal some justice for the world.

  17. Even in his "Elegy for the Prince" Cherbury shows wrestling God, the Prince's and his own. Written three days after the death of Prince Henry, 6 November 1612, and referred by Ben Jonson as the poem that inspired Donne to write his epicede to match Herbert in obscurity, the sixty-six line poem opens with a series of questions and continues for the most part with more questions until line 59. In those questions is the defiance of death that G. W. Pigman examines as one of the two general lemmata of the elegiac genre.[18] "Must he be ever dead?" it begins, that word "ever" positing a disbelief that Henry could die but asking whether he will be "forever dead." That "ever" in turn counters "forever" by implying the possibility of a period, probably a brief period, when death would have existed for Henry to be followed by nondeath. The philosophically-minded Cherbury is contemplating what death is and whether there is an afterlife, and he continues, "cannot we add / Another life unto that Prince that had / Our souls laid up in him?" The contemplation of what death is and why love (our "souls") has not been able to "keep alive this Prince" offers a challenge to God's justice, to God's allowance that there be death. The argument proceeds to query whether those who "appear / To live and stir a while" are experiencing instead powers from the Prince; they are only asleep, only seeming to be dead unto each other though alive in love and memory of him. We may cast ourselves as dead because pleasure and pain have died with him, and nothing except the partaking of joy and pain makes a difference between life and death.

  18. Hyperbole that it is, the concept is examining whether Henry's abode in Heaven is shared by us still on earth --

    Since by this love we now have such abode
    With him in Heaven as we had here, before
    He left us dead--  (40-42)

    by musing that "we and posterity" will live through memory. The "universally diffused soul" (21) is Plato's world-soul of Timæus; each "soul" (person) being part of the "worlds harmonique body" (20) will act as alive but should understand such life only as the enwombed child "lives," awaiting, that is, true life (here an afterlife) with birth (or with death). Our own children (the "wonder, that [we] the dead should breed") "should be wrought to keep that memory, / Which being his, can, therefore, never dy." The poem offers an involved concatenation of defiances to death as a concept, the justice of Henry's death and its meaning, and a requisite faith that life will be but a memory. As such we "strive / To sigh away this seeming life so fast" (48-49). 

  19. Beneath the spurious resolutions to the questions and the emphasis on memory, accepting that "the Soul of man [is] memory, / As Plato thought" (43-44, recalling Meno 396 and anamnesis) we can discern the seeds of deism: Cherbury's rationalizations (in both senses of the word) result from a wrestling with God and the promised afterlife, to be determined, not through revelation, but through the manifestation of the Prince's "afterlife" in the thought and memory of humankind. The poem plays on earthly anxieties but says more about the Prince's death as vehicle than substance, offering a kind of dissimulation which can be cast off to understand that what the Autumn gave back to the earth is "what never more / Any Spring can unto the world restore" (31-32). The "uniqueness" of each being, unaltered by godhead (we grow virtuous only in memory of Henry, to paraphrase lines 43-44), is inscribed, but the hope of a heaven remains. The poem captures a progression of thought, a sort of pilgrimage, a turning from "Must he be ever dead?" to "that memory, / which being his, can, therefore never dy."

  20. Like his friend Donne, Cherbury is arguing memory as an act of salvation (see the Lincoln's Inn sermon on Psalms 38:2):[19] it becomes the means to lead humankind to God by its linking of humankind and God.[20] While one may wrestle God over the existence of injustice and attendant death (as in the case of Prince Henry), the justice and its attendant "life" provided through the agency of the memory presages humankind's future salvation. God's mercy to us is but the faculty that God remembers us (Donne, ibid.); "truly the Memory is oftner the Holy Ghosts Pulpit that he preaches in, then the Understanding" (Sermons, 8: 262).

  21. The poem titled "October 14. 1644." (a revision of the printed year date of 1664, since Cherbury died in 1648) may be the last poem that he wrote, shortly before he published (1645) his philosophic De Religione Laici and De Causis Errorum (a supplement to De Veritate, printed in 1633 but finished in 1623). Moore Smith[21] relates the date to the Civil Wars, when Herbert was cast as "The treachous Lord Herbert" by Royalists because he had admitted a Parliamentary garrison into his house, Montgomery Castle, in September, with an ensuing and repelled attack by Royalist forces. In addition to battles preceding and following this date, Parliament, whom Cherbury soon successfully petitioned for relief, was engaged in debate and maneuvers over Presbyterianism and toleration "for all religions, without any exceptions" and the omission in an Accommodations Order of "free grace, including liberty to the Antinomians and to all Sects." Armed hostilities with their outcome dictating a religious settlement even more than a political one and the hostile oppositions of leaders of the State Church against other leaders of the same church lie not deeply beneath the surface of the poem. The "Enraging Griefs" that Herbert expresses and addresses here contend in the opposed allegiances of his heart, which "though it seem in greatness to dilate" with the hope that each side will "agree / To take an equal share within [his] heart," is only "a tumour," a redundant growth that even the best of "remedies" would "offend," that is, make worse, cause to transgress moral and divine law even further. It is a tumor because dilation of what is his heart to encompass both sides that provoke the "enraging" griefs should be unnecessary, should not demand either "constraint" or "taint": his heart should not have to "faint" under the burden of such great dilation. The wrestling is within himself to champion either Royalist or Parliamentarian cause, either one religious sect or another in the splitting of hairs over things indifferent that was occurring.

  22. The fourth stanza rationalizes that perhaps it is God who has created this impasse so that he will use his burdened heart "to reform [his] mind." His heart, tumor though it be, may "extract / An essence pure" to become "refin'd" "from grosser parts." Beneath the surface of the poem is the question of God's ways, of the error of thought without the tug of affection, sensibility, the soul. Mary Norton analyzes the poem as dealing with the dualities and paradoxes of existence: time kindles and devours life, as grief destroys and yet saves an individual.[22] The poem thus argues for the spirituality possible in the individual as against dogma, a spirituality possible only through a wrestling within oneself as one meditates on the externals of life like war and religious (as distinct from theologic) sectarianism. The poem, though concerned with Cherbury's own personal "bending," is also stating the need for these opposed political-religious adherents to "convert." The final stanza makes clear the resolution of his, if not others', heart: conversion through God's grace "To godly sorrow" which will "efface / Those sins first caus'd you" and the turning of the power to kill which "enraging griefs" could exert to "a power to save," thus achieving for his soul "its desired place." Should, indeed, such resolution occur (and it seems to have in Herbert's action and publication of 1645), it will be a fulfillment of the kind of wrestling with God's ways that I noted earlier. The phrase "Those sins first caus'd you" would seem to say: "efface / Those sins [which] first caus'd [the enraging griefs]"; that is, the attempt (sins because only of the mind) to accept both sides in the national argument. Coupled with this is the union of God's grace and its resultant godly sorrow to employ "enraging griefs" to "save" country and church from the rending which battles, physical and verbal, was causing. As in De Veritate Herbert argues that the heart (love) must overcome the limits of human life and time; here he also ponders some of the principles set forth in De Religione Laici, a providential deity and repentance of sins with a foundation of universal truth as set forth by reason and God's manifestation.

  23. Scholarship has long attended to the devotional poems of Henry Vaughan, their meditative focus, their development as a series narrating a spiritual pilgrimage, and their relationship with prophecy. Silex Scintillans (1650) begins, after two other poems, with "Regeneration," followed by "Death. A Dialogue" and "Resurrection and Immortality," to four poems, which I shall look at here -- "Retirement," "Love, and Discipline," "The Pilgrimage," "The Law, and the Gospel" -- and then "The World," in which the poet says, "I saw Eternity the other Night," and nine further poems. ("The second Edition, In two Books" in 1655 reworks the dedication in 1650 and prints a second book, beginning with "Ascension-day" and "Ascension-Hymn" and proceeding to "The Book," "To the Holy Bible," and "L'Envoy.") "The progress of the narrative," writes Donald Dickson, "is measured by the success or failure of the speaker's imitation of the archetypal patterns of the Christian Salvation drama."[23] That archetypal pattern is what underlies my previous remarks on wrestling with oneself to turn by degrees from Self and sin to a total acceptance of God as love and of obeisance to him -- a spiritual journey of the Self. Involved in that salvation drama is memory, the significance of which was remarked before. As R. A. Durr expresses it, "The pattern of spiritual regeneration in Christ, of dying to one's ego (the old man), and being reborn one's true Self, or Christ (the new man), lends itself to many symbolic transformations; in Vaughan, the imagery of the night journey, of the pilgrimage home to the house of light, follows in emphasis that of seed and plant in the individuation of the archetype."[24] For Noel Thomas, the collection presents a pilgrim travelling from earth to heaven, who is convinced "that in his earthly experience he is now robbed of spiritual sight."[25] The poems record the "extreme transitoriness of experience here on earth and a longing for the new Creation" (170); what emerges is a poet who is becoming more suited to his task, according to Jonathan Post.[26] This quest motif is basic to James Simmonds' study of Vaughan, which sees not only the poems from this collection but also those in Olor Iscanus (1651) as providing the "elements in the Christian symbolism of life as a pilgrimage to the Promised Land."[27] Speaking of "I walkt the other day (to spend my hour)" the penultimate poem of the 1650 volume, Simmonds writes: "The poem presents death, human life, and Nature as real, not in themselves, but as aspects of a total reality which also encompasses resurrection, eternal life, and God" (188). We can recognize in all these critical views a poet who is engaged in a dissimulation, regardless of the personal biography that may appertain.

  24. The four poems I look at here have not had so much attention as one might have thought, although the first has been discussed in passing. They constitute a kind of miniseries unto themselves. Following "The Tempest," "Retirement" presents him "who on yon throne of Azure sits" and who counsels, "Presse not to be / Still thy own foe, and mine" (15-16), a clear statement of the wrestling with God that we have been remarking. He assures the poet that he "hate[s] thee not" and that "thy spirit is mine" (24-25); the way to that place of azure throne, "'Tis not th'applause, and feat / Of dust, and clay" "But from those follies a resolv'd Retreat" (30-32).[28] Commentary that the poem has evoked includes Durr's view of it as a retreat from the world's crass foolishness (paraphrasing, line 33): "Home is heaven, and to fill the breast with home is to breathe in the Spirit of love which . . . is the Holy Spirit" (110). E. C. Pettet[29] notes parallels in lines 45-48 with George Herbert's "Church-monuments," lines 6-9, 17-18 (also cited by others), and Post decodes the poet as swearing "himself into a discipleship of death where he can hear dead men preach of 'Lent' (the title of a Herbert poem) by using language from the dead man's verse" (107). The poem becomes a personal preparation for the end by recovering the "value and meaning in this world even while they point to the more important 'life' in the next" (107). Post is offering a reading of God's words in 34, 36-37, 49-55:

    Now here below . . .
    I have a house as well
    As there above, . . .
    Where dead men preach, who can turn feasts, and mirth
    To funerals, and Lent.
    There dust that out of doors might fill
    Thy eies, and blind thee still,
    Is fast asleep;
    Up then, and keep
    Within those doors, (my doors) dost hear? I will.

    The "retirement" is from the "fits" and "lusts" of the poetic voice midst the "feat / Of dust, and clay" to the Lord's house where "Dust lies with dust" and "ev'ry clay" has "The same Respect" and where "nothing gay" exists. Viewed thus as the first of a small group of poems of spiritual progress, it poses one who has been God's "foe" as well as his own in terms of "the way" to salvation: here in dialogue, God asserts he has chosen to overlook ("wink" at) these transgressions and has maintained an "unseen link" to hold up the sinner (who has gone "quite astray") from a "fall." The "untam'd" pilgrim had pursued a "way" (14) that is not "the way" (11) nor "Leads to that way" (32). The poet needs the discipline and the resolve to pursue "the way," and that will be by keeping within the doors of God's earthly house. "I will" is the poet's response in this dialogue.[30]

  25. The way that leads to God is Jeremiah's way: "Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old path, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (7:16). That is, the doom of Jeremiah's prophecy is nullified by good works and faith, following a well-established path laid out for all to follow in the Old Testament.[31] It is the path or way of the Old Testament with its dominance of The Law as opposed to the New Testament and its "new commandment" of loving one another (John 13:34, 15:12) with its assumption of the Law by Mercy. As Donne observed, "prophecies till they come to be fulfilled, are but clouds in the eyes, and riddles in the understanding of men" (Sermons, 8: 302). Only carrying through on the promise, "I will," will cause the prophecy to be fulfilled for the poet. The covenant involving faith and works is a thorny one, but we can remark, as in this poem, that "in the Law is God's healing of man's depravity through their trust in a future Messiah."[32] The poem shows God's grace by his having winked and through his "meer love" by being shown home "and [being] put . . . in the way" "By his mild Dove" (9-11).  But it has not subsumed the love or mercy or grace of the Son that some read in the New Testament as obliterating the need to wrestle with one's Self.

  26. This rereading is confirmed by the next poem, "Love, and Discipline":

    Thus while thy sev'ral mercies plot,
    And work on me now cold, now hot,
    The work goes on, and slacketh not  (13-15)

    The poet, within a developed (biblical) metaphor of being like a seed fallen on "a land not barren," thrives best accordingly "as thy hand the weather steers," causing "joyes" and "tears" but still "some green Ears" (1, 16-18).[33] He is thankful that "biting frosts" kill some of the "tares" within him, for thus does God "work'st unto the best" (4-5, 12). He recognizes that God's "sev'ral mercies" "plot, / And work" on him, going on and on and not slackening; yet his "lot" does not reach a stasis of being. The poet still needs, we will learn, to be shown Christ's life again, "At whose dumbe urn / Thus all the year I mourn" ("I walkt the other day," 61-63).

  27. The third poem in this group is appropriately "The Pilgrimage," advancing the poet toward his "retirement," now that he has been "disciplined" ("crost / And cur'd by Crosses") by God's "love." This proceeding lodges him in one place, lingering here until, again through God's work upon him, he gets up and goes on, wishing to be "where I see" ("home" -- "thy Mount"). While in this pilgrimage he mourns, hangs his head, looks for "far better bread," and begs, "O feed me then!" to gain strength, both physically by the sustenance of bread and spiritually by the Word (symbolically bread or manna), so that he "may travel to thy Mount." Thomas asserts, "Once again the great prophetic message of man's deep necessity for a return to the righteousness of God is completed by the fullness of the revelation which Christ brought by his sacrifice" (121). What has not been stressed in readings of the poem, or this miniseries, is the wrestling with the Self, such as the contrast of "dream homes of their own" with God's "home," or the longing and the groaning and the grieving that memory of the "native wood" from which one has been "rob'd" delineates. The discipline needs, and gets, renewal, but even as the full collection ends, he begs in continued unassurance, self-doubts, and a possibly opposed God:

    Lord then take it [my heart], leave it not
    Unto my dispose or lot,
    But since I would not have it mine,
    O my God, let it be thine.  ("Begging" 17-20)

    The poet is not Milton's Samson: while he communicates inner experience not to enforce or predict it,[34] he has not put himself entirely into God's hands. Though God's hand steers the weather under which he thrives best (in "Love, and Discipline"), his prayer is not one of thankfulness but of supplication for more strength so that he will be able to achieve "home," "thy Mount" (line 20, "The Pilgrimage").

  28. The next poem, "The Law, and the Gospel," "becomes part of the 'self-examination,' the search and the 'watch' as necessary precedents to any significant ritual communion," as Calhoun epitomizes it (171). The poet implores: "O plant in me thy Gospel, and thy Law, / Both Faith, and Awe" (27-28). He has not, that is, resolved his inner experiences and desires: disciplining has occurred, but he suspects insufficient "virtue" within him to maintain himself without having "a sute / To thee each houre" and to "beg at thy door / For this one more" (24-26). Within his heart he needs Love and fear. The Law set forth in the first stanza is conjoined by the Gospel in the final stanza; the epigraph from John 14:15 succinctly achieves this: "If you love me, keep my Commandments," for Jesus' commandments encompass for the past both the "Love" of the New Testament and the "fear" of the Mosaic Law in the Old. Vaughan surely is not longing for the dark night of the soul, as Ross Garner views the poems in Silex Scintillans,[35] but his/their passage through such a night.

  29. The mercies of Christ will flow while the poet fears, but should a "mild Injunction" not "move" him, "I would both think, and Judge I did not love thee." The self-doubting remains; the retirement and discipline and pilgrimage have not been complete. "The prophets revealed the Law as the strongest bond between God and man, the eternal covenant established on the Sacred Mount, and it is Vaughan's view that nothing can supplant it" (Thomas 122). Yet the prophetic, we remember Donne admonished, is but "clouds in the eye" until fulfilled: the poet's "I will" has not been fulfilled without relapse, the wrestling with self has not ended, the "virtue" and the "discipline" have lagged. Has the Law bound the poet? will he spill rather than drink "thy bloud" (31)? will he break God's "fence" and "Force down a Just Curse" rather than blessing hands? The emphasis on Jesus Christ in this stanza and in many of the poems points to the poet's understanding that he must become the bride of the bridegroom (a true communicant in the Visible Church -- we remember that the Lord instructs, "Now here below . . . I have a house as well / As there above" in "Retirement"), and the last two lines of "The World," which follows "The Law, and the Gospel," immediately iterate this: "This Ring the Bride-groome did for none provide / But for his bride" (59-60). We are pointed back to line 33 (numerologically important as the reputed age of Jesus at his crucifixion) of "The Law. and the Gospel": "Force down a Just Curse, when thy hands would bless." The capitals J and C stand out: the possibility of the poet's committing a "black Excess" will force down a Just Curse upon him "when thy hands would [rather, always] bless." Jesus Christ will act according to the poet's being moved by "thy mild Injunction" and thus showing that he truly loved "thee." If not moved, the Judge (at the Last Judgment, when the Son will so act) will conclude that "I did not love thee," that he was not worthy of being the Bride, that he had not been a true communicant of the Visible Church. Such metaphoric strategies as numerological significance, or paronomasia through capitalization, and allusions to the Law and Moses, the Gospel and Jesus, as well as the "Comfort" of "Thy Dove" (19-20) -- "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26) -- attest to the dissimulation Vaughan engages. We should not discount the reflection of actual experience for him in these poems, but we should not detail them as if they were biographical facts.

  30. This miniseries corroborates the earlier contentions of this essay and offers thus a view of Vaughan and his collection which is not exactly what we have been presented with before by many commentators. Still the emphasis here on the Church would seem to reflect in 1650 Vaughan's concern with what had transpired with the ascendency of the Cromwellian government, more than the loss of brother, the loss of a Visible Church in which he believed. "The consequences of the Revolution which most offended Vaughan," Christopher Hill writes, "were those affecting religion. It had been tainted, poisoned, had become 'instead of physic, a disease." The church had been despoiled and religion exiled."[36] As John Wall has contended, "The presence of his poetic voice, in the time after the abolition of the Anglican church, is an effective witness that the promises of God still apply to those who keep the faith in his promises in such a time."[37]
Notes

1. The term is employed by John Donne in an undated sermon at the Temple, on Esther 4:16: "And therefore since Prayer is the way which God hath given as to batter Heaven, . . .whether we besiege God with our prayers, in these publick Congregations, or whether we wrastle with him hand to hand in our Chambers, in the battel of a troubled Conscience, let us live soberly and moderately; and in Bello, and in Duello, here in the congregation, and at home in our private Colluctations, we shall be the likely to prevail with God" (5: 223).

2. A poem like George Herbert's "Church-lock and key" is built upon a "wrestling" with God, for one obvious example:

I Know it is my sinne, which lockes thine eares,
And bindes thy hands,
Out-crying my requests, drowning my tears;
Or else the chilnesse of my faint demands
But as cold hands are angrie with the fire,
And mend it still;
So I do lay the want of my desire,
Not on my sinnes, or coldnesse, but thy will.
Yet heare, O God, onely for his bloods sake
Which pleads for me:
For though sinnes plead too, yet like stones they make
His bloudes sweet current much more loud to be.

3. See Sellin's important discussion of the Greek meanings of "agonists" and contemporary interpretations of it (137-62).

4. Beyond its biographical implications, T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," for one well-known modern example, plays upon this concept of "turning" in his wrestling with faith and godhead:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things. (1-5)

5. Note the meaningful use of "wrest" by Richard Hooker in the fourth book of Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1593), Chapter 13: "Whereas therefore it is concluded out of these so weake premises, that the reteyning of divers thinges in the Church of Englande, which other reformed Churches have cast out, must needes argue that we doe not well, unlesse we can shew that they have done ill; what needed this wrest to draw out from us an accusation of forraine Churches?" (1:335). As the Glossary indicates, the word here denotes "distortion, straining"; it connotes the "wrestling" between the factions within the English church and the need to "turn" or "bend" one to the other's attitude (4.2:1239).

6. See May (202).

7. For example, Sir Henry Wotton's "A Hymn to my God in a night of my late Sicknesse," or Barnabe Barnes' A Diuine Centurie of Spirituall Sonnets.

8. For example, Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel's rendition of Marcus Marulus' "Carmen De Doctrina nostri Jesu Christi pendentis in Cruce," written ca. 1587-early 1590s, and published in 1595; or Richard Stanyhurst's "A Prayer Too Thee Trinitye" (1582-3).

9. The continuing importance of the term is demonstrated by Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, who relates devotional poetry most specifically to meditation and the Bible, as others have as well, with emphasis on an account of a spiritual and poetic pilgrimage, in Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method & Meaning. Through that spiritual pilgrimage very often arises the wrestling with God that the poet will pursue through dissimulation.

10. Daniel Javitch examines dissimulation in Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England: "Castiglione is aware that his approval of certain modes of deception may be mistaken for an endorsement of all dissimulation. He therefore castigates fraud and condemns the moral abuses encouraged by duplicity. But his esthetic priorities hardly allow him to forsake dissimulation. Ultimately, courtly grace is inseparable from dissimulation, since part of being graceful; always consists of suggesting virtues and talents either greater than or contrary to what is visibly enacted" (58). British Renaissance literary commentators like George Puttenham in The Art of English Poesie (1589) and William Webbe in A Discourse of English Poesie (1586) elaborate the significance of dissimulation to writing of the period. 

Related to these remarks on dissimulation is my discussion of the writer writing in Intentionality & the New Tradtionalism: Some Liminal Means to Literary Revision. The writer writing can be viewed "as a magician who builds illusions, who leads the eye and plants ideas in the mind, creates setting and calls into play possible audience experience, associations, and attitudes" (3) and "the 'I' who is the writer writing becomes a personality that emerges, but it is not the author in propria persona" (85).

11. See Chapter 1 of Frost's Holy Delight: Typology, Numerology, and Autobiography in Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions for a full exploration of "The Devotions and the Tradition of Devotional Literature." While in the past the question of genre has been answered by seeking sources, Donne's book can be seen as fitting into conventional devotional literature, although uncomfortably, into a meditative tradition, although not rigidly into one type or another, and into the ars moriendi tradition, with a difference. Frost argues for its placement as early spiritual autobiography (the concept of pilgrimage is thus patent); Donne's work is "imbued with a sense of occasion, committed to intense self-scrutiny, and one that in the deepest sense belongs within the larger tradition of devotional literature" (14).

12. A commanding study of the question is Dennis Danielson's "Milton, Bunyan, and the Clothing of Truth and Righteousness" (247-69). Danielson explores these authors' faithfulness and the belief in and need for spiritual combat.

13. This statement is borne out by Paul Stanwood's analysis of "Time and Liturgy in Herbert's Poetry" (19-30), for "time is everywhere and nowhere."

14. Of course, this statement flies in the face of much discussion of Samson Agonists and Samson's death (suicide?), his renovation (a more accurate word than "regeneration" here) or his persistent wrong thinking, the truth of those "inward thoughts," and the meaning of his "eyes fast fixt."

15. We should compare Milton's sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent" and its uncertain volta and thus the relationship between the "octave" and its resolution. Those in the past who ignorantly talked of the "Miltonic" sonnet, by which was meant one without a turn, a single verse paragraph of fourteen lines, were obviously not aware of such verse variations as Cherbury's sonnet.

16. The 1665 edition reads "Grave" for "Greene," which is reading the British Library MS Additional 37157, f. 10v, with corrections in Herbert's hand. Much of the commentary on Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" and its line "a green thought in a green shade," its emphasis on trees and other vegetation, and its conclusion that "Love hither makes his best retreat" would have been more meaningful had it observed Cherbury's sonnet. The Edenic world, with light and shade mixed equally, and the greenness predicating a self-renewing "spring" (here "springing" pleasure) built on "love," relates that natural renewal in life, the "bliss" of growth even amidst "shade," if things are "mixed equally." Likewise, as David Norbrook and H. R. Woudhuysen note in their edition of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659, one should compare Herbert's "self-renewing vegetable bliss" with Marvell's "vegetable Love" that "should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow" in "To his Coy Mistress" (lines 11-12).

17. The argument of Earth's decay is summed up in Godfrey Goodman's The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature, Proved by the Light of Our Naturall Reason (1616), and the denial of decay, in George Hakewill's An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World (1627).

18. See G.W. Pigman III's Grief and English Renaissance Elegy.

19. See Donne (Sermons 2:73).

20. See Guibbory (261).

21. See Smith (xiv).

22. See Norton (163-76).

23. See Dickinson (137).

24. See Durr (60).

25. See Thomas (170-71).

26. See Post (Henry Vaughan: The Unfolding Vision).

27. See Simmonds (18; also 47-49, 58-60, 149-52, 181-93, and passism).

28. The theme of the poem for Kenneth Friedenreich is the commonplace country life vs. urban life argument, although the "ease" of country life is not celebrated; the poet must engage nature, yet keep himself pent up to avoid worldly distractions. See Henry Vaughan (154-55). I find it difficult to accept this statement, as it is expressed.

29. See Pettet's Of Paradise and Light: A Study of Vaughan's Silex Scintillans.

30. Lewalski says: "God interrupts the speaker in his sinful course, decries his rebellion at length, and urges upon him a continual memento mori" (319), none of which strike me as accurate.

31. Compare my "The Old and Unknown Path? A Dilemma in Colonial American Life" (50-56).

32. See my John Milton: The Self and the World (128-42; quotation from 130).

33. Friedenreich (53-56) and Lewalski (332) note the imagery of nature in the poem; and Friedenreich centers its message as patience, for "what once was arid is now fertile" (55).

34. See Calhoun (171).

35. See Garner (Henry Vaughan: Experience and Tradition).

36. See Hill (219, ch. 9).

37. See Wall (349).

Works Cited



    2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
    (RGS, LJ, WSH, 08 May, 2001 )