Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cosmology and Poetry: George Herbert

I'm always intrigued to read poetry that mentions new scientific discoveries. There are some brilliant poets who show a particular gift for wrestling with the tensions of a new cosmology replacing an old one (for example, In Memoriam A. H. H. is such an enduring poem for me because Tennyson explores his friend's death and his own religious doubts in the context of geology and evolution).

There is always tension when a new cosmology challenges an old belief. These tensions sometimes surprise in poetry. George Herbert's poem "Affliction (5)" begins:

My God, I read this day,
That planted Paradise was not so firm,
As was and is thy floating Ark; whose stay
And anchor thou art only, to confirm
And strengthen it in ev'ry age,
When waves do rise, and tempests rage.

It's an interesting first stanza, and I can't quite reconcile it with the next three stanzas (yet). "My God, I read this day" suggests Herbert is now, in his own age, learning of scientific models of the universe, the "this day" a strong contrast to the ancient texts which describe Eden and Noah's Ark. But the second line is stunning:

"That planted Paradise was not so firm,"

In one beautiful, concise, eloquent line, Herbert expresses all of the anxiety new scientific knowledge can inspire in the faithful. Literally, that an old cosmology of a firm earth is replaced by the model we now recognize, of an earth floating in space and hardly at the center of it all. But so, too, is faith no longer "planted," no longer "firm": the new cosmology challenges the traditional religious cosmology, challenging articles of faith.

But the last four lines turn to God for support. There is dual meaning: God supports the faithful through whatever troubles arise, and God still guides the earth even as it spins about in the void. In a confusing, doubtful world, in a world that seems shaky, Herbert turns to images of God such as "Ark" and "anchor" that supports despite the "waves" and "tempest."

1 comment:

  1. The line you single out could be an epigram for modernity, couldn't it?