Saturday, 27 October 2012

Sixteenth Century Studies at Cincinnati - II

Another day, another batch of papers. Two I'd flag up today, in addition to various others which were as good as I knew they'd be. Paula McQuade of De Paul University did a great piece on catechisms written by mothers for their children, using a wonderfully rich Northamptonshire manuscript that no-one has ever come across before, and painting a delightful picture of how tender and intimate this business could be.

But (in a day which has been dominated by literary stuff) the one which most struck me was Hannibal Hamlin's piece on how George Herbert's poetry drew on Robert Southwell's. That may not sound too exciting, but stay with me. He was talking about Herbert's 'Love (III)', the final poem in his sequence 'The Temple':

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
         If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
         Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
         I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
         Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
         Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
         My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
         So I did sit and eat.
Which I knew and loved before. But what Hannibal proved, to my satisfaction, is that this poem contains conscious and deliberate echoes of Southwell's poem St Peter's Complaint, which was very well known in the period. Which left me thinking that Herbert wants to allow us to read his poem as being spoken by St Peter; and not by the despairing Peter who has just denied Christ, like in Southwell's poem, but by the Peter who cannot dare believe that the risen Christ is forgiving him and is asking him to sit and have breakfast on the beach. And now that you have that in your mind, can you read Herbert's poem the same way?

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