Jordan I

On writing poetry

Jesus being baptised in the River JordanHerbert wrote two poems entitled Jordan. Both are about the writing of poetry, and we can see Herbert reflecting on what he is doing in his own poetry. The meaning of the title may not seem immediately obvious. The River Jordan was the barrier which had to be crossed by the people of Israel as they entered the land of Canaan (the ‘Promised Land') after journeying from Egypt through the desert. It was also the place where Jesus (and others) were baptised by John the Baptist (Mark 1:5 and Mark 1:9). The title therefore brings into play ideas of being led forward into a new environment, experiencing transformation and renewal.

More on baptism: Baptism is a central Christian ceremony or sacrament, together with communion (or the Mass). It involves pouring water over the baptismal candidates or immersing them in water. The symbolism of transformation works at several different levels. Firstly, it denotes repentance and a cleansing from past sins (Acts 19:4). Secondly, it denotes ‘dying' to the old life and resurrection to a new transformed life.

Herbert is interested in ‘baptising' the poetic imagination, and making sure Christian poetry is seen as real poetry. He asks: does all poetry have to be love poetry or pastoral poetry, and fictional at that?

Telling the truth

Herbert constructs the first two stanzas as a series of questions which challenge the orthodoxies of poetry-writing. Can poetry not just celebrate truth? The reference to a ‘painted chair' is to poetry's artificiality as much as to its fictional nature. ‘A winding stair' suggests a roundabout, indirect, elaborate mode of construction. Herbert is advocating a straightforward, plain statement of truth-telling. This is clearly how he wants his poetry to be written and judged.

What kind of poetry?

The second stanza raises questions about genre. Does poetry have to be pastoral poetry or love poetry, and expressed in a way that we can only catch ‘the sense at two removes'. The details mentioned are typical of such poetry.

Plain poetry

Jesus as the Good ShepherdThe third stanza advocates an alternative. Herbert plays with the word ‘shepherd'. In one sense, pastoral poetry is full of shepherds and shepherdesses. But are they real (‘honest'), or are they merely devices and conventional fictions? The second meaning of shepherd is ‘pastor', the one who cares for the sheep. This evokes the words of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd' and the New Testament image of Christ as the ‘Good Shepherd' Hebrews 13:20). As a poet who is also a priest, caring for his own flock, Herbert too is a shepherd. He describes his own poetry as plain, his cry of ‘My God, My King is '. He refuses to be envious of other poet's nightingales (sweet verse) or their love poetry (‘spring' being symbolically the season of lovers). Yet, though his choice of language may be plain, his thinking remains quite complex, challenging the reader to interpret both the title and the images.

Investigating Jordan I
  • Do you think Herbert is being a little disingenuous in Jordan I?
      • Is his verse is always straightforward?
  • Is pastoral poetry always complex?
  • Is Herbert condemning all love poetry?
    • Is he saying Christian poetry is better than love poetry?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Writing as poet or priest).

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