Emotion and Religious Urgency in “Denial”
In ‘Denial’, George Herbert presents a narrator appealing to God to help him reconfigure a disordered mindset, and yet the form of monologue is used to imply that there is little hope that the narrator’s pleas will be answered, hinting at his fate to remain ever-alone. Through use of simile, the poet suggests that the speaker’s psyche and physicality must be repaired by God, and the desperate appeals throughout the poem work to convey the increasing alarm of the speaker in his belief that he cannot carry on his life without divine assistance.
Herbert’s use of direct address helps foreground the narrator’s desire for spiritual reconciliation with his God. Such desire is made apparent in the exclamative used to address God: ‘Come, come, my God, O come!’. The repeated verb and positioning of the phrase in at the heart of the stanzas suggests that God’s absence is the primary source of the narrator’s suffering, and use of possessive pronoun dramatises the narrator’s attempt to regain a personal and individual spirituality rather than appeal to abstract religious entities, which finds further grounding in the opening lines ‘When my devotions could not pierce/ Thy silent ears’, in which the perfect masculine rhyme between personal pronoun ‘my’ used to refer to the speaker, and ‘thy’ alluding to the addressee is further evocative of the narrator’s wish for a close relationship with his maker.
Nonetheless, the monologue form of poem, paired with the poet’s decision to open and close the poem in reference to the isolated individual through personal pronoun ‘my’ is suggestive of the futility of the poet’s desire to reconnect with God, as does the phrase ‘But not hearing’, twice repeated in the middle of the stanzas. The simplicity of the clause is made all the more pejorative in the phrase ‘My heart was in my knee,/ But no hearing’, with the prior part of the sentence suggesting an utter distortion of the narrator’s physical being, thus heightening the audience’s pathos when we learn of god’s ignorance to his plight, which is immediately foregrounded in the title- ‘Denial’ which perhaps alludes to God’s refusal to reply to the narrator’s constant prayer.
Throughout the poem, Herbert’s frequent use of simile and metaphor works to present the narrator’s persona as something that must be fine-tuned and improved by a divine figure. There is a semantic field of high culture that filters through the verse (‘verse’, ‘unstrung’, ‘chime’) used to depict the speaker’s soul as a precious entity deserving of divine repair, and this is evident in the opening stanzas’s declarative ‘Then was my heart broken, as was my verse’ in which the line is literally fractured by a caesura to dramatise the similarities between the ‘broken’ verse and the heart; perhaps heightening the emotional appeal of the poem itself as an expression of the poet’s heartfelt dejection.
The poem’s metaphors and similes not only refer to the physical parts of the narrator’s being, but also the metaphysical, which is suggestive of the persona’s desperation to be cured both mentally and physically: ‘my soul lay out of sight,/ Untuned, unstrung’ comments the poet, and the separation of the dual adjectives as a single line heighten the poet’s painful feelings of isolation and abandonment from his creator. Indeed, to close the poem with a metaphor likening the persona’s mindset to music (‘They and my mind may chime,/ And mend my rhyme’) further marks out the narrator’s ‘self’ as something that must be refined and developed, like a musical instrument, by God, and the alliteration ‘m’ coupled with prior alliterated ’t’ in previous lines (‘O cheer and tune my heartless breast’) develops the poem’s cadence into a musical register, implying the hopeful idea that his prayers for spiritual rejuvenation are progressively being answered: indeed, to end on a rhyming couplet furthers this suggestion through implying an eventual reconciliation between the persona and his creator, with the regular rhyme scheme of the poem further implying that God has not absolutely left the speaker’s soul ‘unstrung’.
Overall, in ‘Denial’, Herbert presents a narrator desperate to regain a relationship with his God in order to improve his physical and mental health. Whilst it initially seems that the speaker has little hope to gain divine help from God, the intrinsic ‘music’ and rhythm of the poem prioritises the pleasing concept that God continues to progressively answer his prayers as the poem develops.
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In ‘Denial’, George Herbert presents a narrator appealing to God to help him reconfigure a disordered mindset, and yet the form of monologue is used to imply that there is […]