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A Short Analysis of George Herbert’s ‘Jordan (I)’

A reading of Herbert’s classic poem

George Herbert (1593-1633) is one of the greatest devotional poets in English literature; he is also associated with the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century. ‘Jordan (I)’ is one of his most famous poems, and concerns itself with the role of poetry itself. What follows is a very short analysis of ‘Jordan (I)’ (sometimes known as ‘Jordan 1’), in terms of its language, meaning, and themes.

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime;
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, my God, my King.

In summary, ‘Jordan (I)’ is a poem about poetry: George Herbert takes as his theme the proper material for poetry, as well as the proper language for poetry. In the first stanza of ‘Jordan (I)’, Herbert asks, why is it that people consider only made-up or fictional stories and situations suitable for poetry? Why aren’t things that are true to life considered beautiful, and therefore fit material for the poet to use as well? Herbert’s image of the winding stair suggests something circuitous and indirect, the implication being that plain speech (which would be like a straight George Herbertstaircase) is not considered ‘right’ for poetry: a poet always has to express himself in a winding and obscure way. The poet, Herbert regrets, is never allowed to ‘tell it like it is’. Herbert concludes the first stanza by asking another question: are the only ‘lines’ of verse that will ‘pass’ as true poetry those that praise an imagined chair rather than a real one? In other words, Herbert is questioning why poetry, which is itself a construction, has to express itself by referring to other false constructions, rather than directly depicting life as it is.

In the second stanza, Herbert names (and shames) some of the tired clichés of poetry, especially pastoral poetry: ‘enchanted groves’, ‘sudden arbours’, ‘purling streams’. Pastoral poetry was often set in an idealised version of the countryside, so Herbert’s objection to these stock features of such poetry follows and develops his objection, in the first stanza, to the notion that ‘false’ poetry is the only kind of poetry worth doing. What’s more, such stock images are often there to mask (or ‘shadow’) the inelegant poetry written by mediocre poets (‘coarse-spun lines’). Herbert goes on to ask:

Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

In other words, why is the reader of such poetry always made to work so hard to ‘divine’ the meaning of the poem?

In the third stanza, Herbert moves from questioning to stating. It’s as if he’s set up his objections now, and wants to proceed to a solution, or analysis of ‘true’ poetry. He starts off by asserting, ‘Shepherds are honest people’, and so their lives should be written about plainly and honestly. ‘Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime’: in other words, those poets who want to construct riddles in their poetry and write cryptically are welcome to do so, if they choose (‘list’). They’re also welcome to strive for pre-eminence in the writing of such poetry (‘pull for prime’). But Herbert does not want to copy them and use their clichéd poetic tropes, such as nightingales or springs (streams). But, by the same token, he’d rather that such poets didn’t accuse him of not being a true poet (‘loss of rhyme’) simply because he speaks plainly in order to worship and pay homage to God: ‘my God, my King.’

This much constitutes a reasonably full summary of ‘Jordan (I)’ in terms of its meaning. But it’s worth highlighting several local features of Herbert’s poem, by way of textual analysis. The reference to shepherds as ‘honest’ in the final stanza of ‘Jordan (I)’ fulfils a dual function. Shepherds are associated with a simpler rustic life in the countryside, and so mentioning them here makes sense in light of the conventions of pastoral poetry already mentioned by Herbert, but they also have religious connotations: Jesus Christ is sometimes described as a shepherd (with his faithful followers his ‘flock’). The implication is that shepherds are, in a sense, godly because of their simple, plain, honest existence, free from obscurity or guile. And thus, when Herbert concludes his poem with the words ‘my God, my King’, the shepherds take on additional, religious significance.

And this religious meaning to the poem is pointed up by the somewhat ambiguous title of Herbert’s poem. Why ‘Jordan’? The River Jordan was the place where the infant Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. Given Herbert’s poem’s talk of ‘purling streams’ and ‘spring[s]’, we can interpret Herbert’s title as an assertion of the superiority of the (real) River Jordan over the imaginary streams and springs of inferior pastoral poetry, which are mere trickles by comparison. But Jordan, given its importance to Christianity and the early life of Jesus Christ, also suggests spiritual cleansing, as if the waters of Jordan will ‘wash away’ the mediocre pastoral platitudes used by the poets Herbert wishes to distance himself from.

We’re aware that there’s something ironic in trying to paraphrase (and thus render into plainer and clearer language) a poem that is in favour of poets using plainer and clearer language. But ‘Jordan (I)’ is, when compared with much of the poetry written by the Metaphysical Poets, relatively easy to understand, analyse, and interpret. Like John Donne’s poetry, George Herbert’s ‘Jordan (I)’ is written in refreshingly direct language – especially relative to some of Herbert’s other poems (which are, contrary to what he says here, often indirect in their expression, resembling that ‘winding stair’ he objects to in his first stanza).

Continue to explore George Herbert’s poetry with our discussion of his classic poem ‘Discipline’.

Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on September 8, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thank you. I had not read Herbert before.

  2. Splendid stuff a poem I did not know and a worthy one. I’m 75 so I was schooled in the fifties when morning assembles were currency.
    We sang ‘ Let all the world in every corner sing my God and King ‘ not that we knew it was Herbert. My favourite of Herbert is ‘ Love ‘ and the line ‘ Who made the eyes but I ‘ haunts me.
    I glad you pointed out the inconsistency of Herbert expecting poetry to be simple, but we are all bundles of inconsistency.

  3. It’s interesting to note that author George R. Stewart, who seems to have begun his literary career thinking he might emphasize poetry, chose prose for reasons somewhat similar in sentiment to Herbert’s Jordan I. Near the end of his first published book, The Technique of English Verse, Stewart writes (if I may quote myself)

    “…He describes poetry as more restrictive
    than prose since the poet must follow the outlines of the type of poem being
    written. Which leads, Stewart writes, to one danger of the form—poetry can
    be admired for craftsmanship even if it has little value as art. Prose, on the
    other hand, must be grounded in solid content. …”

    Thanks for this poem by Herbert. It deserves to be printed by all writers and put on their office walls.

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