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A study on george herberts discipline

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1404 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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George Herbert’s Discipline is a religious poem that is representative of the personal and candid relationship that the poet has with God. The poem is an argument, from Herbert, for God to act justly and lovingly. Herbert’s precise use of language creates a work that is light and melodic. The poem is both pragmatic and relevant to today. By defining his relationship with God and challenging preconceived notions of Him, Herbert has made public the strength of his belief. By writing with eloquent brevity he has created a work that was open to public interpretation and one that has made a lasting impression. Perhaps of greatest importance, Herbert achieved in making God seem more accessible to readers.

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A title like Discipline conjures notions of punishment, but also justice. Herbert is seeking to prove God’s justice. Herbert is writing to sway God away from punishment. The poem is also written a in favour of, and in praise of, love, which seems contrary to its heavy title. Lines such as ‘Love is swift of foot/Love’s a man of warre’, could lead a reader to presume that Herbert is explaining love to one who is unfamiliar with the feeling. However, a note of importance to an analysis of the poem is that the third stanza infers that the source of Herbert’s argument is God’s Bible, ‘By book/And thy book alone’. As a result, Herbert is not informing, but merely reminding God of what He has already decreed. This is hence why the final stanza need only repeat the directives of the first, ‘Throw away thy rod’, and to closes with, ‘Though man frailties hath/Thou art God,’ and the repetition, ‘Throw away thy wrath’. Discipline, from this perspective, does not denounce God, but rather offers praise to His ability at being more loving than punishing.

The precise use of language and the brevity of verse create lines that are light and melodic. This is effect is achieved by writing in rhyme and quatrains with an iambic dimeter. The five and three syllable lines create a shortness of verse that is light and melodic. The argument itself, simple and straight to the point, is contrary to the poem’s heavy subject. The subject of the poem is established immediately in the first stanza where stress is given in the lines ‘Throw away thy rod/Throw away thy wrath. This anaphora lays emphasis upon the poet’s belief that ‘love will do the deed’ better than the ‘rod’, a metaphor for punishment. The tone can also reflect the poet’s view that God should be revered, but, at the same time, rejoiced. The brevity of verse could also be read as restraint or humbling, on Herbert’s part, in speaking to God. The feeling of restraint seems a symbol of the poet’s reverence for God. This could be further analysed as creating an argument that need not be put into words at all and the poet affirms this, ‘Nor a word or look/I affect to own’. On the other hand, Herbert’s apparent restraint is juxtaposed at times with his level of candidness. The poet points out that God knows love in ‘That which wrought on thee’, referring to love’s past affect on God and that it ‘Brought thee low’. To this point, perhaps, the poem is a homily to the knowledge and powerful grasp that God has of love.

The poem is pragmatic, but also maintains relevance in present times. It achieves this relevance because it is challengeable by present day standards. Herbert identifies two sides to God. The first is the angry God as suggested by the anaphora ‘Throw away thy rod/Throw away thy wrath’. This God must be pleaded with, ‘Oh my God/Take the gentle path’, to refrain from punishing the poet. On the other hand, it could be read as being about a loving God who has the power to punish, but will love instead because it is in His nature to do so. Firstly, the merciful, and, thus necessarily loving, God is implied by a ‘throne of grace’, which the poet must ‘creep’ to in order that he be forgiven. The use of ‘throne’ as a metonymy for God’s responsibility to be forgiving is similar indeed to the concept of a king enforcing justice. There is also an anaphora, ‘Though I fail, I weep/Though I halt in pace,’ which suggests that the poet is aware of his wrongdoing and as such needs love and forgiveness more than punishment. This is a soft sentiment, which would be a paradox in a poem that solely discusses discipline. However, by writing of God in this light, Herbert is able to make Him seem more attainable for all to whom mistakes are commonplace. This notion of penance remains appreciable in present times.

Discipline may also be read as a challenge to authority, particularly the authority of the Church during Herbert’s own life. Here we have the poet approaching God not through the Church, but directly speaking to Him as if he alone has the power to change God’s mind. One might picture the poet in court speaking to God as judge. The poem’s title evokes a need for justice or mercy. The poet is felt to be subjecting himself to God’s will, ‘unto thine is bent.’ Further, ‘I aspire/To a full consent’, affirms that God is in the position of power. Conversely, the directive use of ‘throw’ and ‘take’, in the first stanza, introduces a command that is terse, but modest; direct, but personal. By proclaiming to his judge, ‘Thou art God’, Herbert is implying that his life is in God’s hand. The declaration also conjures a sense of God’s love and forgiveness being necessary to his state of being. Moreover, in the last stanza the directive use of ‘Throw away thy wrath’, is repetition of the second line in the poem’s first stanza. It is here that the poet asserts his most robust argument, which maintains that God will choose love over punishment because it’s in His nature. Thus, Herbert is implying that God’s very nature would forbid Him from choosing anger over love.

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The poet eloquently balances his awareness of God being capable of both love and anger. As a result, the reader has an understanding of the strength of the poet’s faith. Furthermore, the poet is not questioning God’s love, but merely asserting that His love is greater than His punishment. From the third stanza, ‘Nor a word or look/I affect to own’, reassures the reader that the poet seeks not to question God. Moreover, the lines ‘But by book/And thy book alone’ indicate the source of Herbert’s argument. ‘Thy book’ refers to the bible and ‘by book’ indicates how the poet concluded that love is better than punishment. The reference to the Christian Bible is paramount to the legitimacy of Herbert’s original argument. This is because without the Bible as backbone to his argument, this poem would not have been so well embraced by those who have read it.

Through Discipline, the poet seeks to define his relationship with God. By speaking directly to God, ‘thy rod/thy wrath’, in the first person, Herbert immediately conveys the type of relationship he has, or would like to have, with Him. The poet evokes two prevailing human emotions that are often associated with divine power. There is the tendency to fear great power or ‘wrath’, but also a yearning to understand that metaphysical power. One way Herbert seeks to understand God is to separate Him into ‘love’ and ‘wrath’. By exploring his own relationship with God, the poet allows for the reader to enjoy the poem on different levels. It can be read as a testament to God’s love, ‘Love is swift of foot/Who can scape his bow?’; as an account of his anger or punishing nature, ‘thy rod/thy wrath’; and also as beautiful literature that rolls off the tongue because of its limited use of syllables and meter, such as in ‘Oh my God’ and ‘I aspire.’ By laying bare his faith to the public, Herbert has not only expressed himself, but done so in a way that allows others to feel they too can be open, even in the face of something greater than themselves.


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