Through Lent With George Herbert: “Jordan (1)”
Monday after the Second Sunday of Lent
Fans of Star Trek (the original one, usually denominated “The Original Series” or “Star Trek: TOS“) will recognise a line from Herbert’s poem “Jordan (1) in the title of one of its episodes: “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” It was not a bad episode, especially considering it came from the dreadful third season, when the writing staff had run out of good ideas and the pressure of cranking out a weekly series at a lower cost than the first two seasons was starting to show. The original script came from Jean Lisette Aroeste, a librarian Trek fan who came up with an unsolicited screenplay retelling the Medusa story. As the comprehensive Fan Wiki Memory Alpha puts it,
Their appearance was so utterly hideous to humanoids that the sight of a Medusan rendered any viewer mad, and soon afterward caused death by massive organ failure. Vulcans were capable of viewing Medusans, but only with the use of a specially filtered visor. For these reasons, Medusans usually used an opaque carrier pod when interacting with other species. The Medusans were renowned for their navigational abilities.
Of course, when I first saw this episode in reruns in the early seventies my prepubescent self had no idea to what the reference in the title was – something in Shakespeare, I probably thought, if I thought about it at all. But it is a line from Herbert, although he was not thinking about ugly but brilliant aliens.
Jordan (1)Who says that fictions only and false hairBecome a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?Is all good structure in a winding stair?May no lines pass, except they do their dutyNot to a true, but painted chair?Is it no verse, except enchanted grovesAnd 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.
The poem is one of the short ones, fifteen lines, in the pattern ABABA, of ten syllables each (iambic pentameter, in poetry-speak). It is what the kids today might call meta – it “means about the thing itself. It’s seeing the thing from a higher perspective instead of from within the thing, like being self-aware.” It is a poem about poetry.
Herbert asks a question at the beginning, essentially saying: “Who says you can only write romantic poetry, where poets demonstrate their skill in writing about fake situations and non-existent people?” His slightly older contemporary poet and divine, John Donne, made his name with erotic poetry before being ordained and turning to religious themes. Donne was good at both, but there were many more poets writing at the time, now mostly forgotten, and those are the people Herbert is targeting. They used clichés such as “enchanted groves”, “sudden arbours”, “purling streams”, “nightingale”, and “spring”. It was largely about seeking favour, and they would bow and scrape before the empty chairs of their patrons, painted to look to be made of finer materials than they were. It was often obscure, using metaphors that only made sense (if at all) “at two removes”. Perhaps one had to have inside knowledge to understand what they were saying, and perhaps it was just gossip dressed up in nice clothes. It might be properly structured, like a winding stair, but the structure was stronger than the content.
And so Herbert asks, “Is there in truth no beauty?” The “truth” here is God in Christ, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6), but is religious themes in general, as found in The Temple. The “true chair” to bow before is the throne of God, and the proper object of love. The title Jordan refers to the small river between what is now the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel/Palestine, which in the Hebrew Bible signifies the division between the Promised Land and what leads to it. It is the place where Jesus was baptised by John, and people on pilgrimages will seek to wash themselves there or be baptised there still. As a “stream”, whether “purling” or not, the Jordan represents this movement to what is promised, to new life, to washing away sin; as a poem this text refreshes not “a lover’s love” but the believer’s attention to God.
Herbert states that he prefers the straight-forward songs and poems of shepherds who simply say, “My God, my King!” This seems like a reference back to Antiphon (1), a pretty plain but technically excellent piece of praise. But, of course, Herbert appears plain, but he has to work to achieve that effect. It was said of Gene Kelly that you saw how hard he worked in all his dances, whereas Fred Astaire made his dancing look oh so effortless. Herbert is like that. There is always more going on than it appears.
Life is like that, too. Simplicity of life, unadorned prayer, plain devotion – they only come with a fair amount of work and effort. It is very easy to have a complicated, complex life; it is not so easy to simplify it. The best prayers are those that are simple and direct. The best sermons are those are have a single idea and state it economically. There is a line attributed to someone famous saying, “This will be a long speech; I was going to write a short speech, but I didn’t have the time.” Of course, after a lifetime of discipline and practice – such as experienced by Herbert – it does come more easily. As you work through this Lent, may you be blessed with simplicity, and the Truth in which there is much beauty.