This Seminar will provide its participants with the opportunity to study in detail, in relation to each other, and in a collective setting, two of the greatest lyric poets in English (or any other) language: George Herbert (1593-1633) and Emily Dickinson (1831-1886).
Why study these poets together?
Studying each of these poets is unquestionably worthwhile and deeply rewarding; to study them together is a rare opportunity, one that promises to provide a number of fruitful payoffs. Since Herbert influenced Dickinson, the question of influence is raised. Literary influence is extremely interesting in itself, and even more so when, as in this case, the writers in question are not of the same gender and exist in very different cultural contexts. What is being studied becomes not only a literary but also a cultural and historical phenomenon. The two poets share some quite distinctive lyric strategies and techniques, and these are very much worth studying. They also share some major themes and concerns. They are both major analysts of the soul, or less metaphysically, the inner life. They are both accomplished at representing complex and sometimes fleeting states of mind and heart, and it will be extremely interesting to compare their metaphors and other strategies for doing so. They are both in deep dialogue with the Christian tradition, especially in its Protestant mode. To study these poets together should help to illuminate both what it means to write from within this tradition understood in a deep way (the case of Herbert) and what it means to write from a state of ambivalence about this tradition (the case of Dickinson). Many interesting issues arise from this, and the comparison should make them even more interesting.
To whom will this Seminar appeal?
This Seminar should appeal to and (I hope) include teacher-scholars with varied interests: those who teach or write on one or the other (or both) of the poets; those who are interested in general issues in poetry and poetics; those, including (I hope) some practicing poets, who are interested in the poetic tradition in English as it continues into our century (when the influence of both poets continue); those interested in the history of Christianity or of spirituality in general; and those who are interested in what happens to traditions when they move from another context to an American one (and from one gender to the other). The mix that I am hoping for should produce lots of fruitful and unexpected insights and interchanges.
What is the Seminar schedule and format?
The Seminar will last for five weeks – it could not be done in less – and will consist of two weeks on Herbert followed by two weeks on Dickinson (with Herbert in mind). It will begin on Monday, July 7, so as not to coincide with the 4th of July weekend. The final week (August 4-8) will be devoted to thinking about the comparison and about general issues that the discussions and readings have raised. This week will also be devoted to a presentation by each Seminar member on something that he or she has been thinking or writing about over the course of the Seminar (this could be more or less formal, depending on the individual). The Seminar will meet three times a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday – for three hours in the afternoon (1:30-4:30) with a short medial break. This schedule will allow the sessions to include both close reading of individual poems and discussion of critical approaches to the poems and to topics that the poems and the criticism raise. It should leave sufficient time for the participants both to prepare properly for each session and to do reading and research on their own. The Regenstein library at the University has been described (by a participant in a previous NEH Seminar that I directed here) as ”a foreshadowing of academic heaven.” That may be hyperbolic (!), but participants in the Seminar will have full access to a great University library (the website gives a link to the catalogue under the “Academic Resources” tab). Chicago is also home to the Newberry Library, and I will arrange for participants in the Seminar to be able to use the Newberry as well.
What is the content of the Seminar?
Each session for the first four weeks of the Seminar will consider a group of poems that deal with a particular issue, usually one that applies to both poets. For instance, both of them are concerned with establishing a personal relation to the institutional church, and both of them do this in distinctive (and, in the criticism, controverted) manners (it is certain that Herbert is a religious poet, and some sort of Christian poet; whether Dickinson is a religious poet of any sort is a matter of genuine dispute – though that she is a poet deeply concerned with religion – especially Calvinist Christianity — is not). Both poets have an interest in nature; both of them, and this is quite important, have a great interest in pain, especially psychological and spiritual pain (comparing their treatments of this should be very interesting indeed – both from a phenomenological and from a religious point of view). Both of these poets are also extraordinarily interested in poetry itself, and in language in general. Herbert wrote a great many poems about poetry, as did Dickinson, and Herbert’s attitude toward his own art was extremely complex. Dickinson can be seen to have had a more positive relation to poetry than Herbert did (which may or may not be connected to her “Americanness”). They are both poets who knew their own skill (Herbert spoke of his “utmost art”), and both loved language (“lovely enchanting language,” Herbert said; “this consent of Language / This loved Philology,” said Dickinson), and yet they both had a profound sense of the limits of language, of when language proves inadequate to experience. And both of them had complex and paradoxical attitudes toward publication of their poetry. Herbert spent his whole adult life composing, arranging, revising, adding to and subtracting from his volume of English lyrics, and never published any of them during his lifetime, apparently leaving the decision of whether or not posthumously to do so to a friend. Dickinson soon gave up attempts to publish her poems, yet also spent her life composing, arranging, and revising them, laboriously sewing some of them into little packages (fascicles), which she then simply put into her desk. This is a deep and fascinating connection between these two now widely disseminated and thoroughly anthologized poets. (See the “Week-by-Week” and “Key to Critics” sections under the “About” tab above.)
What is the methodology of the Seminar and the profile of the director?
The guiding methodology of the Seminar will be contextualized close reading of individual poems, a practice that I have employed in a great deal of published work and a practice that I have theorized in a number of essays (see my complete CV). This will be supplemented and complemented by discussion of relevant criticism and scholarship. Please see the week-by-week outline that follows this description for the exact topics and critics for each session (the critics listed for each session are resources; the participants will certainly not be expected to read them all, but will be encouraged to read and perhaps report on some). The poets in question, the methodology in question, and even some of the critics and scholars in question are very close to my heart and to my ongoing scholarly and pedagogical interests. The penultimate sentence of my 1983 book, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry, states that “the relation between Herbert and Dickinson needs to be further investigated,” and the final sentence suggests that I hope to have provided “a floor or a road” for further study, not a wall. So this Seminar represents a life-long and continuing interest of mine. I cannot wait to discuss these topics and read the poems with a group of 16 other devotees.
My expectation is that the Seminar will not only be a rich and intense intellectual experience for the summer of 2014, one that will lead to publications and pedagogical projects for the participants, but will also be an experience of intellectual community. And I expect that this community will continue, in ways formal and informal, well into the future beyond this coming summer.