George Herbert, Intertextualist

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Twelve: Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Advent

The H. Scriptures II

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
             And the configurations of their glory!
             Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the story.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
             Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
             Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destiny:
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
             And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
             Stars are poor books, & oftentimes do miss:
            This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

This is not George Herbert, but Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a theorist of literature and an expert on Dostoevsky in the Soviet Union. It is debated whether he was a believing Christian, but Russian Orthodoxy clearly influences his theories.

Another sonnet, another rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Again Herbert addresses the personified Holy Scriptures, but in comparison to the astronomy of his day, which was basically astrology. Thus his cutting comments in the final two lines – the stars do not tell us what we need to know about our purpose in life, which is how to reach eternal bliss.

Herbert had an elevated view of the scriptures as God’s words, and this view is demonstrated in the preceding sonnet. However, as an artist of poetry, he knows the basic elements are the same material he uses – words – and marvels at how the words combine to shine with glory. He notes how the sentences combine, and then relate to something ten pages away. These combine to be something greater than the mere sum of their parts – aspects of theology and dogma that might not be immediately apparent. Herbert finds that these verses work also to make himself understood.

When I was at Harvard Divinity School in 2002-2003 I was part of the Graduate New Testament Seminar run by Prof Karen King. This included all the ThM students (of which I was one) and the doctoral students in their first two years, as well as all the teaching staff in New Testament and Early Christianiyu. It was, to say the least, an impressive group, as it had Helmut Koester, then in his late 70s, who had studied with Rudolf Bultmann, and brilliant exegetes such as Richard Horsley, who in my opinion is to New Testament studies what J. R. R. Tolkien is to Beowulf. Prof King had us read French literary theory to see if it could be applied to the New Testament. Thus, we read people like Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu, branching out to non-French authors such as Daniel Boyarin and Mikhail Bakhtin (and while we did not read him, I cannot help but think that Jacques Derrida was also lurking in the background). Now, trying to have us read this material and apply it was much like trying to teach cats to do synchronised swimming. Most of the participants already had well-defined methodologies, and this really challenged them. That said, I took at least two major ideas away from the seminar: first, that great literature has what the French called jouissance – a great intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy; this is similar to what Bakhtin called “carnivalesque.” Much of this was generated by the second takeaway, which is that texts interact with each other, which gets the fancy name of intertextuality.

That this is true is obvious in great works of literature and other arts. To understand much of Shakespeare it helps to know the Bible, even though the Bible is never the theme of his plays or poetry. Any book in the genre of vampires is dealing with the primordial work of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, just as any fantasy book struggles with escaping the influence of The Lord of the Rings. James Joyce’s Ulysses not only interacts with his previous book, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but also with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Odyssey, and the works of the Celtic Twilight. Indeed, one can use intertextuality for non-texts – most paintings are interacting and commenting on previous works or art; early 20th century Cubism only makes sense when seen as a reaction to the more realistic paintings of the decades prior, and the rise of photography.

The Bible is the intertextual work par excellence. One cannot read the New Testament without the Old, and the various books of the Bible interact in a variety of ways. As modern source criticism has demonstrated, it is likely that the Five Books of Moses, or the Tanach, were composed of at least four sources, brought together by an editor. Likewise, I am strongly persuaded that the Gospel of John went through two editions before it reached the canonical form we have now – and thus has an intertextuality within itself – and that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke had the Gospel of Mark in front of them, as well as a now lost source known as Q, creating another form of intertextuality. The Letters of Paul interact with the Acts of the Apostles, confounding scholars trying to work out chronologies of Paul who make the mistake of giving historical priority to the decades-later Acts.

There are two types – or perhaps three – types of intertextuality. One is explicit. Thus, when William Faulkner entitles his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom the reader can expect that it will resonate with the Biblical story of King David and the revolt of his son Absalom, which ends with the death of his son. And indeed, it does tell such a story, set in the middle of the 19th century, retold by various persons around 1910, and a very imperfect father does indeed watch the death of a proud son. Likewise, the title Ulysses encourages the reader to look for parallels between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s story of the wanderings of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Another type of intertextuality is generated by proximity and happenstance. Thus,the four gospels were each written to stand alone, but we read them together as a collection, and in relation to Paul’s Letters, Acts, and Revelation, as well as the Old Testament. A lectionary used in church services provides a list of readings for Sundays and feast days, and while the readings may not originally have had anything to do with each other, preachers will find connections and associations. A third type of intertextuality is when we relate ourselves to what is going on in the books, or, as Herbert says in the poem above,

for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do find me out, & parallels bring

There is nothing new in intertextuality, except perhaps the term. It is as old as the Bible and undoubtedly older still. The poem above describes the early 17th century understanding of intertextuality. George Herbert’s poetry demands an intertextual reading – it is incomprehensible without an understanding of the Bible, and it helps to have an understanding of the Protestant interpretations that prevailed in his day. While he seems to take a naive approach to the textual and historico-critical issues of the Scriptures, as suggested in yesterday’s reflection, his poetry is anything but naive, despite the simple words and well defined constructions he uses (such as a sonnet). His allusiveness and theological depth gives them that jouissance which all great literature has.

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. More about me at
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