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Please explain "Jordan (I)," a poem by George Herbert.

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Herbert's "Jordan (I)" is very difficult to understand because understanding the poem depends completely upon understanding the allusions that pepper the poem, the allusions that are scattered throughout. Remembering that Herbert was a devout Christian Anglican and minister, after resigning his parliamentary career, it is easier to understand the first and central allusion in the title: Jordan. There are two "Jordan" poems and both discuss writing poetry.

"Jordan" is thought by most critics to allude to the Jordan River that is important to the people of Israel in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old, the people of Israel cross the Jordan to get to the "promised land," and, in the New, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan at the beginning of his ministry. The general opinion, then, is that Herbert is setting up a poem about the divinely inspired potential of poetry as being regenerative and as giving renewal, if, that is, poetry could stop being what he saw it as presently being, which was that poetry was false.

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?

In the first stanza, Herbert contrasts the Jordan allusion--the potential for poetry to give spiritual renewal--to poetry that is fictitious, false and artificial. There is debate about some of his allusions in this stanza but he seems to be invoking images of sonnets to loved ones who have artificial beauty (false hair) and images of poems that praise this falseness; he seems to be lamenting this falseness in persons and in poetry: "Is there in truth no beauty?" He seems to criticize the structure of poetry, compare it to a winding, circular staircase and suggesting poetic structure is overly complicated. He seems to suggest that in poetry reality is embellished, that it can't be plain reality: "Not to a true, but painted chair?"

It is clear now how allusion is present in every line and through the allusions in the second stanza, Herbert seems to be criticizing poetic conventions and cliches. Many critics take "enchanted groves" as an allusion to the convention of pastoral poetry that praises the rural lives of shepherds and shepherdesses. Herbert seems to see this as part of the falseness of poetic convention and cliched lines, like "purling streams refresh a lover's loves." Ironically, since Herbert is considered a metaphysical poet, the last two lines seem to criticize the conceits of metaphysical poems, which make unusual comparisons between two things to arrive at one truth.

The third stanza alludes, again, to pastorals and to the second stanza itself. He is suggesting that while pastoral poems may go too far from reality, shepherds are themselves "honest people" who should sing as they like. Yet, he says that he rejects poems with riddles to solve and cliched phrases, like "nightingale or spring." The last two lines seem ambiguous to critics. Some say they allude to Herbert who wants to write plain, straightforward poetry. This explanation seems unlikely to other critics...

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who suggest Herbert is further criticizing poets who drop rhyming and write in plain lines without rhyme: "Who plainly say, my God, my King."

This latter opinion makes a good deal of sense as it accords with the syntax of the three lines: envy no man, let them, who. It also accords with what we know of Herbert's poems, which speak honest truth but surely do not do it in a plain and straightforward way.

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Please explain "Jordan II," a poem by George Herbert.

In "Jordan II," Herbert writes of the difficulty of writing poetry. In the first stanza, he describes how beautiful his words, lines, and metaphors seem to him when they first roll off his quill. Then he begins to embellish everything. As he writes his words begin to:

burnish, sprout, and swell,Curling with metaphors a plain intention,Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

In the second stanza, he discusses how he now begins to look more critically at what he has written. He starts to blot words out as wrong and to feel what he has penned is not lively enough or feels "dead."

In the final stanza, he says that while he "bustled," he achieved little more than smoke. Instead of all his embellished prettiness, he would, he hears a voice inside tell him, do better were he to get rid of all the pretense and realize there is a "sweetness" in expressing "love" unadorned. He describes trying to get to the true core of his writing, and struggling to produce what is authentic.

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Please explain "Jordan II," a poem by George Herbert.

In "Jordan (II)," Herbert explains the difficult task he faces in writing poetry that speaks to the profound significance of his religious devotion. As a poet, he is inclined to use dramatic, expressive, and flowery language. But his religious outlook implores modesty and therefore, rich, overzealous language is just not in that spirit of modesty and piety. 

In the first stanza, the speaker says he began writing lustrous lines but then trimmed them down to quaint terms. In the second stanza, he admits that he had thousands of ideas but blotted them out, concluding that "heav'nly joyes" were just too ineffable to capture in words: 

Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,

Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head. 

In the third stanza, the speaker concludes the poem, as he determines that a friend might hear all of his pretense (all the flowery language and the wavering back and forth between trying to be modest and dramatic). He ends the poem with an appeal to a modest but powerful concept, that love itself is modest and profound: 

There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd: 

Copie out only that, and save expense. 

Herbert is therefore faced with an impossible task: to write a poem that encompasses the ineffable qualities of "heav'nly joyes" which is impossible in and of itself. But he also must dial down his flowery language because it would be too bold and audacious to suggest that he even could capture such joys in language. And, even if he were to attempt it, he also feels he must keep the language more plain because that would be in the spirit of modesty. This is a classic catch-22. It is a poem that he chooses to write but he knows, given the conflicting conditions of being modest and triumphant, it is a poem that can not be written. He ends with the idea that what he is trying to express is already ("readie") expressed in love itself. 

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