George Herbert’s “Redemption”

By Dr. Louis Markos, Ph.D.

Nearly two decades of deconstructionist criticism has trained us to perceive in the texts we read a breakdown between signified and signifier, a linguistic, aesthetic, and metaphysical split between concept and word, idea and icon, form and imitation. Unlike the rich, meaning-laden ambiguities and paradoxes uncovered by Cleanth Brooks and his New Critical colleagues, this post-modern breakdown robs allegory, metaphor, and symbol of their mystical, incarnational power, questioning not only the ability of language to carry meaning but the very existence of meaning itself. In this essay I hope to give the lie to this deconstructive critique through an analysis of a poem whose linguistic “slipperiness” moves us toward, not away from, meaning.

The poem is a sonnet by George Herbert, entitled “Redemption”:

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th’ old.
In heaven at his manour I him sought:
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight return’d, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.

The poem is at once a parable, a sermon, and a personal testimony. Herbert begins by setting up a familiar biblical pattern: Herbert as tenant; God as rich Lord (i.e. Landlord). The figure of speech, more metaphor than simile and bordering on allegory, is common to the Psalmists (Psalm 80:8-19), the Prophets (Isaiah 5:1-12), and Jesus himself (Matthew 21:33-45), and Herbert need not waste words to establish the terms of the argument. The relationship between the signifieds (God/Herbert) and the signifiers (Landlord/tenant) is stable, traditional, and unproblematic, and is rendered even more so by the synecdochal link the joins signified to signifier (the vehicle, landlord, represents that part or essence of the signified most vital to the tenor of the poem) and by the addition of a third set of terms that links the first two together (the new and old lease of line four clearly signify the Old Testament Covenant of Works and the New Testament Covenant of Grace).

Nevertheless, though Herbert takes much care to construct his parable along accepted biblical and linguistic lines, he stunningly and unexpectedly disrupts his established pattern in the first line of the second quatrain (the sonnet is Elizabethan with a slight modification of rhyme scheme in the third quatrain). In problematizing the metaphoric integrity of his poem, however, he does not move in the direction of deconstruction (by breaking down signified and signifier) but in the direction of a mystical, meaningful fusion (by joining the two in an incarnational act): “In heaven at his manour I him sought.” The Landlord that the tenant seeks is more than just a shadow in a Christian morality play, more than a linguistic attempt to capture the essence of the “transcendental sign” (God); the Landlord is God. The Landlord lives in a manor (as is befitting of the signifier), but that manor is in heaven (the dwelling place of the signified). A linguistic and even metaphysical fusion occurs in line five that does not so much drag down the signified as elevate the signifier (indeed, in a sort of reverse incarnation, the signifier is made signified and dwells in the spiritual realm: heaven).   And this is vital, for the elevation of the signifier prepares us for the dual kenosis of the signified that takes place in the second quatrain (Incarna-tion) and the final couplet (Crucifixion). Furthermore, this fusion/non-fusion of signified/signifier (that synthesizes without destroying the integrity of the linguistic/metaphysical binary), is given fuller meaning by being inscribed in the midst of a fully synthesized binary (Father/Son–the Landlord clearly signifies both Father and Son, and Herbert so constructs the poem as to render indistinguishable the point at which Father becomes Son) and a combative binary (the devout tenant and “the ragged noise and mirth / Of theeves and murderers” that meet at the foot of the Cross).
Having collapsed the controlling metaphor (God/Landlord), Herbert moves on in quatrain three to collapse the secondary metaphor (Herbert/ tenant). At first the tenant is an everyman; when he is told the Landlord has gone to earth, he reasons (as would any tenant, or any Christian) that this Landlord will come to earth as a royal personage. However, when he extends his search from cities and courts to “theatres, gardens, parks,” he ceases to be an everyman and becomes Herbert himself–a very concrete, autobiographical Herbert, the young, untested, man-about-town Herbert whose “birth and spirit,” Affliction (1) tells us “rather took / The way that takes the town” (37-8). Both terms of Herbert’s parable, we see, are fused, but in opposite directions. The linguistic construct, tenant, is rendered more concrete, more physical, more material by being fused with its signified (Herbert), while the controlling signifier (Landlord) is rendered more abstract, more spiritual, more transcendent by its fusion with its signified (God). The result is a tension, an inner conflict which exists on three levels, each of which is resolved by a fusion of signified and signifier.
On the metaphysical level (theology), the problem is how to mediate between the low estate of fallen man and the exalted glory of the irreproachable God; the solution is the Incarnation. On the linguistic level (semiotics), the problem is how to construct signifiers that will allow for a meaningful exchange between the material realm (Herbert) and the spiritual realm (God); the answer is to incarnate or enshrine these signifieds in signifiers that possess their own integrity (tenant and Landlord are more than mere shadows or emanations; they are tangible presences) while retaining the fullness of the nature of the signified (neither God’s glory nor Herbert’s individuality is lost in this linguistic incarnation). On the aesthetic level (poetry), the problem is how to construct a poetics that will allow for transcendental ideas to be expressed in material words (icons); the solution is contained in the very nature of poetry itself. For poetry, a language that is built on metaphor and that constructs its metaphors in a far more “slippery” fashion than does prose (a slipperiness that is not deconstructive but redemptive in its promotion of interchange between signifier and signified) is that middle ground where concrete and abstract, physical and spiritual meet. Herbert’s poem is a meeting ground for theological statement and personal testimony, God and man, signified and signifier. It bridges man’s yearnings with God’s provision (unlike the tenant’s of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ Parables of the Vineyard, the tenant in Herbert’s poem seeks after God) and asserts the redemptive power that is released when Logos and Praxis meet (the tenant’s word–his suit–is actualized by his bold act–to seek out the Landlord; the Landlord’s word–“Your suit is granted” –is effected by his supreme act–his death).
Herbert’s poem performs a triple incarnation–an aesthetic incar-nation that expresses a metaphysical incarnation through the mediation of a linguistic incarnation. And it does so without destroying the mystery of the process. We are awed aesthetically by the poem as we are awed metaphysically by the Incarnation; the result is humility, thankfulness, and an awareness that though language (like mankind) is fallen, it can be redeemed and used as a fit receptacle for Meaning.

Dr. Louis Markos, Ph.D. is Professor in English, Houston Christian University and the author of Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World  (2003). He has two books due out in 2007: From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age (Sapientia).