Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John 
by A.D. Nuttall.
Methuen, 147 pp., £8.95, September 1980, 0 416 73980 6
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‘Imagine – if you can – God reading this poem.’ So begins this brief, stylish book, citing Herbert’s ‘Dialogue’ (‘Sweetest Saviour, of my soul …’) and asking afterwards: ‘Is God pleased with what he reads?’ Professor Nuttall’s point is that such a question would have seemed perfectly natural in the 17th century. Many of Herbert’s poems are prayers or dialogues with God. Prayers are literal addresses, presupposing a divine listener; dialogues written up after the event may be reports of transactions believed ‘really’ to have taken place. In any such transaction, God has always been deemed a direct participant.

But Herbert’s poems are fictions ‘which imitate or represent prayer’, and in some ways this book extends to God a certain modern fashion in pursuing ‘implied readers’. The fashion is ‘modern’ only in so far as it has been codified by recent criticism into a kind of ‘rhetoric of reading’. The perception that the gentle reader invoked or ostensibly presupposed by narrators is a notional figure to be distinguished from the actual person holding the book must have been one of the earliest symptoms of our loss of innocence. Nuttall’s God is a figure of this order. He is not only the recipient of prayer, or a participant in a devotional dialogue, but also a reader of the poem in which he is thus manifested: a ‘reader’ who is deemed by Herbert to exist literally, but who combines with this literal existence a secondary or notional identity established imaginatively by the poem.

God is an ‘author’ too, in the various corresponding senses. Have we not always had our ‘implied authors’ (nowadays sometimes called personae) as well as our ‘implied readers’? An old tradition has it not only that He is the author of the Book of Life, but that, as ‘the begynner of meter’, He has been writing it in verse. Herbert’s Dedication of The Temple goes beyond mere analogy between divine and artistic creation:

Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee; Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came, And must return.

God is thus not only the recipient of prayer and reader of the poem containing it, but the author of both. He not only wrote the Book of Life, but all those interpolated narratives recounted by dramatis personae whom we think of as human authors writing what we think of as literary texts, and of which He is also the literal reader as well as an implied readerly presence.

The idea is fraught with Borgesian possibilities. I take Nuttall’s point to be that our age differs from that of Herbert, or Milton, or Dante, or St John the Evangelist (his chief subjects, in order of appearance), in that the matter would in earlier times have been taken for granted as a simple truth, and would not have required a Borgesian elaboration to bring it out. God the reader, if you like, was taken as read. Borgesian highlightings put such issues on a self-conscious plane of fragmented intellection, and are the imaginative manifestation of a fall from grace, as the critical routines of modern ‘rhetorics of reading’ are its academic counterpart or epiphenomenon.

Professor Nuttall is a richly humane reader and writes as an unbeliever. He insists that his book is not an exercise in fancy hermeneutics but that it ‘proposes a world of warm connection and violent collision and a literature everywhere rent and energised by commerce with that world’. He is especially firm, too, in telling us that Herbert would never have said, ‘Oh, but that wasn’t me speaking – it was a fictional persona,’ and the portrait of Herbert which it offers is that of a man locked in a peculiarly strenuous inner struggle with himself in his dealings with God. ‘Let us hear no more of the serene and tranquil country parson. Herbert’s thoughts are indeed, as he says himself, “a case of knives”.’

Eliot had said this more gently in 1962, and had cited as an example of Herbert’s ‘spiritual struggles’ a very famous poem Nuttall does not discuss at any length, ‘The Collar’. It may be a bad example because, for all its driving verbal force, or perhaps indeed because of it, the poem has an air of conflict not so much lived through as resolved in advance. Great exuberance of mind seems given over to celebrating a predetermined victory. The opening outburst,‘I struck the board and cry’d, No more,’ is certainly not that of a ‘serene and tranquil country parson’, but its spiritedness is of a kind which virtually announces that the rebellious motion will be suppressed, and indeed has been before the poem began. It is sometimes a characteristic loveliness of Herbert’s poems that assertions of self, or surfacings of doubt, should end in the still finality of divine reassurance, as in the wonderful poem entitled ‘Love (III)’. In ‘The Collar’, the effect seems staged. But staged or not, the conclusions of both poems express a capacity for simplifying submission which is seldom found in Donne, whose poems cry out with longing for such a state, and so often end with the doubts unsuppressed and the anxieties unallayed. Herbert’s

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scatter’d smart.

has little of the sense of raw unhealed self-torture suggested in Donne’s ‘Litanie’.

My heart is by dejection, clay,
And by selfe-murder, red,

or the violent cravings for deliverance in ‘Baiter my heart three person’d God’.

Professor Nuttall reverses traditional readings when he says Herbert is more ‘extremist’ than Donne, despite the greater violence of Donne’s verbal surface. But the real difference from Donne is not that Donne uses more ‘extreme’ language, but that his ‘spiritual struggles’ always carry the fear of remaining unresolved. The plea to God to ‘imprison’ and ‘ravish’ him in order to make him free invites ‘extreme’ measures not because of a verbal fondness for colliding oppositions, but because anything less than a total divine takeover carries the risk of failure, if not in God, then in Donne’s ability to receive Him. That residual ‘sinne of fear’ lurks in many of Donne’s poems. It denies Donne that spiritual peace which Herbert is always able ultimately to rely on, or submit to. When Nuttall says that unlike Donne ‘Herbert dispenses with hyperbole and instead embraces a doctrine far more precipitate than millenarian apocalypse; he embraces radical Calvinism,’ I sense him to have reached this view less through a direct exposure to the poems than through an independent process of intellection which takes off at a tangent in pursuit of a stylish theological paradox. Oddly, it is just at this point in the book that he seeks to pull himself up: ‘I have put the case as it appears when traced in the vast and heady medium of warring theologies. But it can also be traced in minute particulars.’ But these ‘minute particulars’ turn out to be aspects of the use of pronouns: a fascinating excursus, but just as resolutely abstracted from the feeling of the poems, and only intermittently focused on Herbert.

After Herbert, the book turns with increasing brevity to Milton, Dante, St John and some others. All involve some form of divine dialogue. In Milton, God is no longer whispering ‘Child’ but sounds as if he is addressing a ‘public meeting’, though the conversation might be a private and, as it were, ‘family’ affair among the persons of the Trinity. The apparent crudeness of this formulation is, I think, mitigated by a fine insight: ‘To essay the real inwardness of God’s thought – that would have been the real mistake. To choose instead a voice slightly too large for ordinary reception, within the conventions of an epic diction, is no bad provisional solution.’ But ‘a voice slightly too large for ordinary reception’ isn’t after all the same as an address to a ‘public meeting’. When Milton, instead of justifying God’s ways to man, makes God do the justifying, while ‘God (we may with piety suppose) watched and listened,’ we learn with surprise that what He heard was ‘a sort of gigantesque impetuosity (to read it is rather like watching a very big athlete playing hopscotch).’ We see what Nuttall is getting at, though we also know from the lines quoted that it isn’t like that really, any more than the persons of the Trinity talk like a public meeting, and we also know that Professor Nuttall and (I imagine) even God, assuming Him to have become in these fallen times a literary critic as well as an Author, know it too.

Professor Nuttall writes with a freshness and lucidity which ought to arouse envy in the rest of us. But this goes with a fondness for the vivid simplifying phrase which sometimes coarsens perceptions of real subtlety. A nononsense crispness which seems to be derived from the style of some recent philosophers goes with a reductive over-reliance on some of their terms of art.

A final section or ‘coda’ deals with St John’s Gospel and a piece of what is nowadays called ‘discontinuous dialogue’ between Jesus and Pilate in Chapter 18. Such dialogue consists of a logical ellipsis, in which the speakers do not simply answer each other in expected logical sequence, but might instead ask other questions or leap over several stages of connective matter. The result may be a short cut to the heart of the matter, or a pregnant opening-up of alternative possibilities, or a sheer expression of the discontinuity of things. The classic modern example is that of Pinter’s plays, and Nuttall also looks very interestingly at examples in Shakespeare and Chekhov. One of his points, to which summary cannot do justice, is that ‘while the gaps in modernist dialogue imply a kind of anti-nature, the gaps in Jesus’s dialogue imply a transcending complement, a super-nature.’

It is one of many insights in a rich book which is briefer than it should be. The fault is itself a rare one. Professor Nuttall tells us he dislikes repetition. He writes with an exhilarating directness, and brings to his reading an exceptional energy and elegance of mind, an awareness of theological issues, and skills in philosophic discourse possessed by few literary critics. It is an enlivening book which will arouse disagreement and occasionally irritation, but whose allegiance to the house of intellect is totally serious without being in the least solemn.

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