Mystical Things

A few years ago I wrote about two artists who played with the question of whether what they are depicting is anything more or less than words on a page or paint on a surface. Both the poet George Herbert and the painter Arcimboldo make art of the question, What is art? Is it what it depicts, an idea about what it depicts, both at the same time (which makes it a third option), or something less than? Is art, by definition, always a misfire, in that a depiction of a thing is not the thing and never can be?

Arcimboldo painted portraits of character types rather than individuals; for instance, a librarian composed entirely of books or a gardener made of vegetables in a bowl. That latter painting depends on the viewer to decide to see the bowl filled with veggies or a human “face.”
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‘The Flower’

George Herbert (1593–1633) was a priest who composed devotional poems as a hobby. As he approached his early death (age 39), he collected his poems and submitted them for publication.

That collection, The Temple, went through eight editions in the next few decades, which speaks to its popularity in 17th century England. In a tumultuous era, his voice—calm, assured, embracing doubt as a necessary part of devotion—was a beloved one.

“Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness?” he asks in “The Flower.” He adds, “It was gone / Quite underground.” The poem, after the jump:
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Words and Things

The only message worth devoting much time and effort to communicating is love. Today, a sad news day, is a good day to remember that.

A few months ago I wrote about two artists who played with the question of whether what they are depicting is anything more or less than words on a page or paint on a surface. Both George Herbert and Arcimboldo (and Andy Warhol, in his own way) make art of the question, What is art? Is it what it depicts, an idea about what it depicts, both at the same time (which makes it a third option), or something less than? Is art, by definition, always a misfire, in that a depiction of a thing is not the thing and never can be?

Arcimboldo painted portraits of character types rather than individuals; for instance, a librarian composed entirely of books or a gardener made of vegetables in a bowl. That latter painting depends on the viewer to decide to see the bowl filled with veggies or a human “face.”

When is a face a face and when is it a bowl of root vegetables? When is a painting a painting and something greater than a collection of chemicals on canvas?

Vegetables In A Bowl, Or, The Gardener

George Herbert wrote poems about the only idea that he deemed to be worth considering: The eternal love of his Christian God and man’s time-and-space-and-language-constrained attempt to return that love. Two of his poems are written in the shape of what they are about. Like Arcimboldo painting a root vegetable for a nose, Herbert uses words to build an item; in one, “The Altar,” each word is a “stone” making up the altar that the poem is conceived as being:

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

One word, a single syllable, too many or one word mislaid or deleted, and there is no altar there. It is an altar made of words but no less central to the life of a church than an altar made of stone. The poem appears in the only book of poems that he compiled himself, a book titled “The Temple,” which walks the reader, a “dejected poor soul,” through a church. Thus, his altar, “The Altar,” is central in the book. (At Herbert’s request, the book was published posthumously, with his stated desire that it might bring “consolation of [to] any dejected poor soul.”)

It is probably an untranslatable poem, in fact if not sentiment. (Indeed, an admittedly brief survey has not yielded one.) The shape of the poem is dictated by the number of syllables in his choice of words; it is a translation of an object, a real thing, into words anyway, and as such is forever a failure. It is a “broken altar.” The human heart is the only perfect, unbroken, stone for worship, is the only true altar. All that his mind can make is something out of these pieces of meaning, words, and if he can get out of his own way (“if I chance to hold my peace”), these words as assembled here only exist to worship and love. They are what they are, words, and the words each on their own are not an altar, and a spoken version of this poem is not an altar, either. When is an altar an altar? At what point is a poem something other than, more than, words on a page?

However well-constructed it may be—it looks like an altar, for crying out loud—it does not matter. It is no altar. Not even a photorealistic painting of an altar would be an altar. Further, no altar is truly an ALTAR, as no earthly object is made of the only stone of faith that exists: the human heart “cut” by God.

Herbert’s faith was that of a man for whom questions about faith were a part of it. His worship and his poetry exist in a space of failure, where a poem of an altar is not an altar but is a sort of altar, an attempt at one. His poetry depicts a figure who is struggling in every way to comprehend and return eternal love and who is met every time by a figure who replies that it is all a bit easier than he is making it. But all I have is language, Herbert’s speakers proclaim: “We say amiss / This or that is: / Thy word is all, if we could spell.”—”The Flower.”

Herbert often describes the moment when the perceiving of love comes easily, and it is always sensuous, often reads as if it is written to a new love:

Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown
—”The Flower”

But Herbert’s worshipper is always doubting himself, his faith, whether his faith is correct or not. In “Love (iii),” Herbert’s speaker is an unworthy guest in God’s (Love’s) home, but his host is gently persistent:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

So if poetry is always at best an approximation of True Love, why not try to sing this struggle, as well? The “cheerfully agnostic” (which pretty much describes me, as well) English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams created five songs out of four Herbert poems a little over a century ago. The suite is called “Five Mystical Songs,” and one, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” is a setting of “Love (iii).” Some churches use the last song, “Antiphon,” as a hymn sung by the congregation.

Here is Sir Thomas Allen performing the set (in two sections) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra:

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 16 asks, “You have to write a message to someone dear to you, telling that person how much he/she means to you. However—instead of words, you can only use 5-10 objects to convey your emotions. Which objects do you choose, and what do they mean?”

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A Work of Art That Is Both and Neither

Objects do not often speak for themselves. It takes the right artist or poet to find the voice the object demands.

I wish I still possessed a copy of my one published academic paper. I remember its subject but not its point. The late Thomas M. Greene was rumored to have liked it; he may have told someone who told another who eventually (a year later) mentioned to me that he considered my work “unique.” (In academia, “unique” is not always not a back-handed compliment, and if he had been my professor he might have asked me to make it a bit less unique.) Professor Greene was an invited guest to a symposium my graduate studies department was holding; I was one of about ten speakers. My work, unique or not, was not invited to Yale, which Professor Greene called home. I was working on George Herbert and Arcimboldo, who had little to do with one another but were both looking for that moment when a work of art transcends work or art.

George Herbert was an early 17th century poet and Anglican priest, though he might have flipped that order to tell you about himself. In a handful of poems, he gives voices to objects by shaping the poems. Each word is not merely necessary for the sake of meaning, it is needed for the poem to make sense visually. In his poem, “The Altar,” each word is a stone making up the altar that the poem is conceived as being:

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

One word, a single syllable, too many or one word mislaid or deleted, and there is no altar there. It is an altar made of words but no less central to the life of a church than an altar made of stone. The poem appears in the only book of poems that he compiled himself, a book titled “The Temple,” which walks the reader, a “dejected poor soul,” through a church. Thus, the altar, “The Altar,” is central.

In later eras, poems like this came to be called shape or pattern or emblem poems. They are sometimes used to get elementary school students interested in, captivated by, poetry, the potential playfulness and the playful potentials of poetry. “The Altar” is not one of those poems given to elementary school kids with that playful ambition.

It is an altar, however. A “broken altar,” because words are shards of meaning like pieces of stone fitted together to make the church structure. A heart is the only perfect, unbroken, stone for worship, is the only true altar. But all that his heart can make is something out of these pieces of meaning, words, and if he can get out of his own way (“if I chance to hold my peace”), these words as assembled here only exist to worship and love. They are what they are, words, and the words each on their own are not an altar, and a spoken version of this poem is not an altar, either. When is an altar an altar? At what point is a poem something other than, more than, words on a page?

Printed on the page (or screen), it is an altar for Herbert’s church in book form. “The Temple” is like a 17th Century pop-up book for Anglican communicants.

Just before Herbert was writing his worshipful shape poems, an Italian painter named Guiseppe Arcimboldo was working in Milan. Arcimboldo died the year Herbert was born, 1593, and it is extremely unlikely Herbert ever heard of or saw replicas of Arcimboldo’s paintings. He may have understood them better than many contemporaries—by 1633, the year of Herbert’s death, Arcimboldo was already a forgotten figure in art, out of style, passé.

Arcimboldo openly toys with the conceit that what one is looking at is the thing it is depicting. His subject as an artist is the idea that a painting is only a painting and that you the viewer really do most of the work of “believing” that one is looking at something, some thing. This idea is similar to Herbert’s altar of words serving as an idea of an altar and as an altar at the same time.

When is a face a face and when is it a bowl of root vegetables? When is a painting a painting and something greater than a collection of chemicals on canvas?

Vegetables In A Bowl, Or, The Gardener

As with Herbert’s “Altar,” one word, one vegetable, too many or one item mislaid, and there is no face there. It is as carefully assembled as all works of art that appear to be casually thrown together are. If only he had included the actual vegetables in the paints he used …

The Surrealists rediscovered Arcimboldo for themselves in the 1920s and ’30s, and his paintings have been popular ever since. Herbert never went out of fashion, because he was never a fashion. They are each the most humble of flashy artists, taking themselves out (“hold my peace”) of the way in the name of depicting an idea about ideas. An idea that was revolutionary in the 20th Century, that art did and did not depict anything and was its own thing, had precursors centuries earlier. A gardener is his vegetables, an altar has a worshipful voice; art is self-conscious in its forgetting of self.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 7 asks, Yesterday, your pet/baby/inanimate object could read your post. Today, they can write back (thanks for the suggestion, lifelessons!). Write a post from their point of view (or just pick any non-verbal creature/object).”

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