Sunday, July 15, 2018

I love echoes in literature, the way that you can hear echoes in others because the same echo is reawakened in your mind.

I was thinking about this, because I was reading the story of the Syrophenician woman in Matthew and Mark -- she asks Jesus to exorcise her daughter, and at first he refuses because she's not an Israelite, and the bread on the table must go to them.  To which she replies: "Truth, Lord: yet indeed the whelps eat of the crumbs, which fall from their master’s table."

This is the Geneva translation of Matthew's Ναί, κύριε. (Geneva translates Mark's identical repetition of Ναί, κύριε, the same way, though the King James Version gives the somewhat more accurate "Yes, Lord" for the latter, which means that the KJV translators didn't compare notes, or possibly actively disagreed, or perhaps wanted the whole range of connotation and used the translator's trick of variation when translating the same phrase.)  George Herbert used the Geneva Bible and therefore (I realized today) this must have been echoing in his head when he (or his speaker) replies to Love's generosity in "Love" (III):

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Anyhow, I don't know whether anyone has noted the echo, but "Truth, Lord" as an assertion of agreement only appears in this one context in the Bible, so Herbert must have been remembering it.  Not consciously, I wouldn't think, but the parallels are there: the person who feels that she or he doesn't deserve a place at the table, and the Love that gives them such a place.

And yet these aren't quite parallels, since the Syrophenician woman is asking for something the Prince of Love is at first hesitant to give her, whereas Herbert is refusing an invitation to sit at the table himself.

But the words, in Herbert's mind, must have resonated with the sound of their original context.  He's embracing their context as the words themselves embrace the truth -- the truth uttered by the lord of love.  In using the Biblical words he lets himself be carried along on the wave of quotation, and that experience, as we all must know, is one of joy. 

But it's not quite quoting that's the joy -- it's the sense of an echo, there, not a citation.  Longinus defined the literary sublime as quotation, specifically quotation out of context: "The soul takes a proud flight as though she herself had written what she has only heard or read."  Here it's rather that there are words available, capturing exactly the degree of intense and therefore meaningful subordination that he wants, that he feels.

I think we feel it too.  (I do.)  It's as though the Syrophenician woman, and then Herbert, have made available a new formula for showing love and truth.  It's not the original context that matters; it's the words that come out of it, neither citation nor quotation out of context but a new expression of human contact, and so a pleasure to read or hear without needing to be the originator of the quotation.

Maybe a way to put this is to say that those words are not great by themselves, the way Longinian quotation is.  They need a context of humility, gratitude, and the surprising generosity and love that this gratitude elicits.  They need to be uttered as part of some exchange between persons, and when they do they hit the note all the more perfectly because they echo the original context that resonates in them now.

And part of the right context for these words is a poem or story in which they're uttered in the right context.  When that happens, we're carried along by them, and it's a joy that this can happen.  And the more such phrases echo in your mind -- as in Herbert's -- the more you'll find yourself stirred by them, by literary language used right.

(Note to self: I think what I mean by literary language used right is, in the end, something like meter.  Meter as an echo of contexts which are the right ones to echo.  But I don't think I managed to get that feeling down right here.)