Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Juxtapositions: Herbert and Berryman on astronomy and God

Hubble Deep Field image. (NASA) At 13.2 billion years,
this is some of the oldest light humanity has ever observed.

As part of an occasional series, two poems, presented side by side, with minimal commentary. 

"The fleet Astronomer can bore,
And thred the spheres with his quick-piecing minde:
He views their stations, walks from doore to doore,
Surveys, as if he had design'd
To make a purchase there: he sees their dances,
And knoweth long before
Both their full-ey'd aspects, and secret glances. [...]

What hath not man sought out and found,
But his deare God? who yet his glorious law
Embosomes in us, mellowing the ground
With showres and frosts, with love & aw,
So that we need not say, Where's this command?
Poore man, thou searchest round
To finde out death, but missest life at hand."

—George Herbert, "Vanitie" (vv. 1-7, 22-29)

Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican clergyman who wrote a number of devotional poems which stand out in quality far above the many forgettable religious verses of the era. He retired to life in the church after a promising but brief career in the court of King James I, becoming a country preacher on Salisbury Plain.

"Let us rejoice on our cots, for His nocturnal miracles
antique outside the Local Group & within it
& within our hearts in it, and for quotidian miracles
parsecs-off yielding to the Hale reflector.

Oh He is potent in the corners. Men
with Him are potent: quasars we intuit,
and sequent to sufficient discipline
we perceive this glow keeping His winter out. [...]"

—John Berryman, "Lauds," in Delusions, Etc. (1972)

Berryman (1914-1972) was best known for his sequence The Dream Songs; this poem comes from his last original collection. He cycled through many forms of religious belief and doubt in the last years of his life, while also racked by alcoholism and depression; he committed suicide later in the same year that Delusions, Etc. appeared

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