In this poem, we go to a very religious place. Allegories seem to fit religion well (the bible is the best place to find them). It is allegorical (as I’ve said most medieval poets liked to be), though the allegory is a bit clunky, at first the “tenant” is an Everyman, then it turns into Herbert himself in his own spiritual quest to find god “in cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts.” And god at first owns the land, then lives in heaven and then deserts heaven and goes to earth (I guess I’m assuming that owning the land means living on it).
The poem is a journey, though it is difficult to see, because it reads as if it’s simply a story about a tenant trying to cut a new deal with his land lord. We know there is an allegorical element because the tenant goes up to Heaven (yes, with a capital H) where the lord (actually the Lord – that’s thinnest allegory) resides and presides. When the poem begins with, “having been tenant long to a rich Lord,/Not thriving…”, it is an opaque religious historical footnote, before Christ entered our lives we lived poorly under the yokes of uncaring and wrathful gods who ran determined our destinies on a whim. And when you read through the ancient Greek myths (and almost all the Mesopotamian ones), you see that is true. The allegory could also be autobiographical, Herbert sought religion during a dark time in his life. It is far less clear than the traditional allegories such as the Everyman character in the Pilgrim’s Progress being named Christian who is trapped in Doubting Castle, thrown into the Dungeon of Despair and escapes when he gets a key named Promise. Usually allegories are a pretty one to one comparison, depending on what you’re reading.
The final line reads as if the Lord (aka the land lord) is in a back alley being violently mugged by thieves, it is actually a re-imagining of the scene of the Crucifixion. Here, the allegory is an event that stands in for another event, but it is meant to show how that event become personal for the poet: a poor tenant is made lord of his own land – well, okay, given a better deal; he is redeemed. A big revelation and a small revolution at a time when lords rarely did such things, certainly never considered those in the lower castes worthy of such requests.
Once again, I think that this is a mixture of personal experience and historical retelling. Herbert himself is saved, but since he is witnessing the Crucifixion, so is all of Humankind. Perhaps this is his way of saying, if one is saved, we all are.
I think today is a day that Americans are hoping to find a little bit of redemption, because as much as the attacks on September 11th inspire outrage, horror, sadness and anguish, it also inspires guilt. How bad has American imperialism gotten that it inspires such a desperate and hideous act from another country? I don’t pretend to sympathize with the tactics of terrorists; what they did was wrong, full stop. But I do wonder if our foreign policy could use a little modern revision, or perhaps adherence to an old tenet that Jesus actually tried to nudge us toward, the Golden Rule. Wouldn’t it be a small revolution if we could stop seeing things through the traditional ideology of “the victor dictates the rules” (like uncaring, arrogant Gods who dictate their rules of those beneath them on a whim) and start an American revolution: a democratic foreign policy where all men are created equal and all foreign countries are treated as partners. I live to dream (I live in hope). I know that it’s clear what bold move we actually need to take (as tenants) in order to earn Redemption.
by George Herbert
Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make suit unto him to afford
A new small-rented lease and cancel th’ old.
In Heaven at his manor 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 returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts.
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and muderers; there I him espied,
Who straight “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.