Many Mansions: George Herbert’s “The World”

Through Lent with George Herbert
Monday After The Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, in Montreal, QC, Canada.

The World

Love built a stately house, where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies, she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,
Whereas they were supported by the same;
But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.

Then Pleasure came, who, liking not the fashion,
Began to make Balconies, Terraces,
Till she had weakened all by alteration;
But reverend laws, and many a proclamation
Reforméd all at length with menaces.

Then entered Sin, and with that Sycomore
Whose leaves first sheltered man from drought and dew,
Working and winding slily evermore,
The inward walls and Sommers cleft and tore;
But Grace shored these, and cut that as it grew.

Then Sin combined with Death in a firm band,
To raze the building to the very floor;
Which they effected,–none could them withstand;
But Love and Grace took Glory by the hand,
And built a braver Palace than before.

This is an allegory, and allegories were common enough in the time of Herbert, although they soon fell out of fashion. Obviously, from the title, it is about the world, but the question for me remains – what is the world, and what is the “stately house”, and what is the “braver palace”?

Ann Pasternak Slater in her notes to the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete English Works declares that

a stately house: this is mankind. The World refers to the antagonistic forces (Fortune, Pleasure, Sin and Death) that are countered by the worldly forces of good (Wisdom, Law), and by divine Love and Grace to bring man’s soul to Glory. . . .
a braver Palace: heaven, the abode of divine love, to which the human soul is welcomed in Love (3).

In an article in 2004 Guillaume Coatalen argued that the source of the image in the poem came from a Latin play by Plautus, where “man” is compared to a house that undergoes all kinds of degeneration through lack of upkeep. It would appear that Pasternak Slater is on solid ground.

I am not convinced. The divine abode in Love (3) might be identified with heaven, but it may simply be being in the presence of God in this world. It may be the general resurrection and living in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22. It may also be interpreted as the Holy Eucharist (or, as Herbert would have called it, Holy Communion). The danger with allegory, I think, is that one can fix its meaning too readily. I prefer to leave the ambiguity.

This extends, then, to the “stately house”.

  • It may be humanity, but . . .
  • It may also be the creation of heaven and earth in time, to be superseded by the New  Heaven and the New Earth.
  • It may be the human body, susceptible to death and the evils of sin, and the more ambiguous events of fortune and pleasure, only to be replaced by the resurrected body, which, like Christ’s, does not know the power death or sin, except as something now past.
  • It may be the Church; the reformation required in line 10 suggests as much.
biggest-houses-pensmore-mansion-700x467-c

The unfinished Pensmore in Highlandville, Missouri, USA. It was supposed to be a 13-bedroom, 14-bathroom 72,000-square-foot lab/bunker/family home. What it is, is really, really ugly.

The characters of Fortune and Pleasure are not inherently evil. They remind me of the kind of flaky friends who are big on ideas but lousy on implementation, and I wonder if Herbert had in mind some of the wealthy but not very clever young men who came to Cambridge and subsequently, quite literally, ruined their houses by ill-advised additions and changes. Fortune and Pleasure require Wisdom and the order of law to avoid their problematic by-products. Sin and Death are evil, which is why they intend to destroy the house, and they can only be countered by God’s own Grace and Love. These two take Glory by the hand – a reference to the Johannine understanding of Jesus’s death on the cross – and build the braver palace.

20-of-the-smallest-houses-in-the-world-20

A small house on a trailer, somewhere in Canada. Reportedly, two people lived in it for three years. Other than the limited space for books, it’s GREAT!

The artistry of Herbert is seen in the multiple ways this poem might be interpreted. God’s action in the world cannot be caught by any one portrait, but requires a gallery. Thus we have four gospels, the pictures drawn by Paul in his letters, and the apocalyptic images in the Revelation to John, all of which is grounded in the epic of God’s love for Israel told from multiple perspectives in the Hebrew Bible. It is less a single narrative than a symphony with a hundred musicians, and the power of the whole is found in the tensions which cannot be easily resolved. In writing poetry like this, Herbert was emulating what the authors of the scriptures had done.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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