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334 Reading Assignment 2 (Herbert)

Page history last edited by Eric Leonidas 4 years, 7 months ago

Reading Assignment #2


Reading assignment 2 is due in class, Wednesday, March 15.  This assignment is based on something you may have done in ENG 298: a one-paragraph examination of the significance of one word in a short poem. (Here's a link to my version of that assignment, an approach that would work here.)


So, you’ll need to pick a George Herbert poem from the ones assigned for 3/8 or 3/13; find one significant word; write a paragraph arguing that our understanding of the poem’s meaning shifts or deepens based on a close appreciation of the word (its multiple definitions; its nuances or associations; its sound, placement, or some other formal quality).


Be sure to include a “Works Cited” following your paragraph, and if you use the Oxford English Dictionary be sure to cite it.


Here’s an example based on “rest” in Herbert’s “The Pulley.”  It's based on an ambiguity based on the word's situation in the poem.  The definitions I'm using--repose and remainder--are simple, so I don't need the OED.


George Herbert’s lyric “The Pulley” offers a retelling of the Classical myth of Pandora.  The Greek theodicy explains not only how evil came into the world but also suggests that one element has been given to humankind as a counterbalance, hope.  Herbert’s account, not unlike the pulley of the title, works oppositely: the poem lists all the blessings given to mankind, plus one denied him, “rest.”  This “blessing”—or really its absence--serves as the wheel upon which the poem rotates, turning so far as to render language itself as an anxious spur to divine grace.  After giving man beauty, wisdom, honor and pleasure, God weighs whether to grant him “rest” as well (10).  God worries that, should man enjoy this “jewel” in concert with all the other “riches,” he will become complacent, looking to himself and nature as complete, perfect objects of devotion.  “He would adore my gifts instead of me,” God foresees (13).  Nonetheless, God appears to change his mind: “Yet let him keep the rest…” (16).  At this point it looks like He has relented, and God in his mercy has complemented man’s blessings with a sense of deep satisfaction.  The point continues, however: “But keep them with repining restlessness” (14).  Here, the pronoun “them” refers to the antecedent “rest,” and suddenly “rest” is no longer the singular repose but the rest of the qualities, the other virtues.  Man, that is, will not have rest to go along with God’s blessings, and by its absence he will endure a “repining restlessness.”  The poem goes on to explain that this restlessness will force human begins to seek a place of comfort not in their own virtues or their miraculous world, but in God.  “Rest” becomes the pulley that engineers a movement toward God that requires of Him scant effort: “weariness / May toss him to my breast” (19-20).  And in fact the poem demonstrates how this works.  In making us misread, to reverse our sense of “rest” from a blessing we enjoy to an absence, the poem forces us to recognize we cannot rest complacent even in the meaning of simple words.  What seems singular is multiple, what seems to be there isn’t, and this absence both weighs on us and is weightless.  Without “rest,” our riches become a burden, grounding us in apparent good but yielding little satisfaction.  Our interpretive movement, the disappointment we feel as we realize rest is denied us, is one of sinking, but (as pulleys operate) that sinking is intended to turn us upward, toward a place of stability and finality that, we come to realize, the “riches” of language simply cannot provide.  As God pulls “rest” back and even simple expression fails us, we are hoisted from the contingent and uncertain to the pleasures of the eternal.


Herbert, George.  “The Pulley.”  The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed.  Ed Stephen

     Greenblatt et al. NY: Norton, 2007. 1721.

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