Jordan II

Simple poetry

This poem needs to be read in conjunction with Jordan I, where the significance of the title is explained. In both poems, Herbert is writing about writing poetry, but Jordan II is more autobiographical here, tracing the development of his own style. You may think that all Metaphysical poetry is difficult. Here is a poem which suggests a reaction to this. Herbert had started his poetic career with his head full of one conceit after another, but now he realises, as a Christian poet, that this was merely self-regarding and contrived, and what he really needs is simplicity and self-effacement.

It might seem that writing simple poetry is a good deal easier than writing complex poetry but this is not by any means the case. Robert Lowell and W.B.Yeats are two famous poets who began writing highly complex and symbolic poetry, only to produce much simpler poetry well into their careers. Simple poetry does not mean simple-minded poetry. Emily Dickenson's poetry has simple form and diction, but the meaning can be quite abstruse, even hermetic.

Gilding the lily

In Herbert's poem, the first stanza describes his early verse. He had only very straightforward things to say but managed to say them in complicated ways, using conceits: ‘curling with metaphors' is his metaphor for this. There was an element of salesmanship: ‘as if it were to sell'. The second stanza continues this – he had so many clever ways of saying things, he couldn't get them down in time. And he thought this was all to glorify Christ: ‘to clothe the Sun'. The absurdity of this is obvious: the sun is self-sufficient in its own glory. He plays on the sun/Son (of God) word play – a conventional word play which Donne, for example, uses in Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.

Who gets the glory?

The line ‘Much less those joys which trample on his head' hits a jarring note. Andrew Marvell uses a similar image in his poem The Coronet, with which this poem should be compared, since both are about the difficulties of writing genuinely sincere religious poetry. The shocking thought is that what seems to be done in praise of Christ turns out a trampling of his head, because the motivation is really to glorify the poet. Christ is thus betrayed.

The coronet idea is re-enforced in stanza 3 with the ‘weave' image. This is followed by ‘bustle', a state of undirected activity. Probably there is an echo of the story of Mary and Martha from the gospels here. Martha was ‘bustling' round Jesus and was told to sit and be quiet (Luke 10:40-42).

Copy out love

Herbert's resolution is a moment of revelation, when he hears the voice of God. This is a similar device to one used in The Collar. God tells him it's all a pretence, which is ‘wide' of the mark, and which takes a ‘long' time to achieve anything. Instead he is told to write about love. Just ‘copy out only that' and there will be much less effort and a great deal more acceptable in God's eyes.

Investigating Jordan II
  • Read through Jordan II
  • The poem has a neat ending but what do you think it takes to ‘copy out love'?
    • What is the force of ‘copy out only'?
  • Would you say the poem exemplifies what God tells Herbert to do?
  • Compare the poem with Jordan I
  • What do they have in common?
  • What are their different emphases?
  • Compare this poem to Marvell's The Coronet
    • What similarities can you find?

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

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.