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Thinking Out Loud

The Interpreter’s House

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 15, 2013

“Then he went on till he came to the house of the Interpreter, where he knocked over and over; at last one came to the door, and asked who was there….

Then said the Interpreter, Come in; I will shew that which will be profitable to thee. So he commanded his man to light the candle, and bid Christian follow him….” John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

In John Bunyan’s famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, “the house of the Interpreter” is where our lives receive the grace of enlightenment, where we see things as they truly are. Perhaps most importantly, it is where we see ourselves in the light of God’s grace.

Many of us have had the experience – reading a particular poet – when we felt ourselves entering into the “Interpreter’s House.” The experience can be life-changing. Especially vivid literary epiphanies can remain in our minds for years. For example, I doubt if I shall ever forget first reading Louise Glück’s Averno. The lines: “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life” and “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use” are burned into my soul. Glück made me see myself and my vocation as an educator in a new light.

We can also have this experience reading great interpreters of poetry.

Though it is completely against my practice, I have loaned my own copy of Helen Vendler’s Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery (Princeton, 2005) to friends so their lives could be blessed with the illumination of a great interpreter – and so that they could see how extraordinarily the vocation of the interpreter (to which many of us aspire) can be performed. Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University, not only illumines our understanding of life in light of certain poets, she also makes me want to re-read these poets to peel back layer upon layer of understanding, to go ever deeper.

This week, when reading a fine new book by John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London, 2013), I reflected again on the experience of entering a literal literary “house of the Interpreter.” Like Vendler, Drury interprets familiar poems. But he does so with such care, with such attention to reconstructing the world that surrounds the poem and poet, that we find ourselves in the presence of truths of which we were not previously aware.

One example will have to suffice. In the first four pages, Drury takes up the interpretation of what many consider to have been Herbert’s greatest poem, “Love (III).” He reminds us that this poem “is saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth-century England. It is set in the hall of some substantial household, given to hospitality, such as Herbert lived in for most of his life. It draws on the manners and etiquette expected of guests and hosts which were the subject of numerous books. At the same time its truth and beauty speak directly to readers anywhere and at any time at the deepest psychological level: its setting is the inmost heart or soul. How does it do it?” Drury asks.

How indeed? How does a poetic genius draw on the ordinary furniture of social relations inviting us to see through them divine judgment and divine grace? First and foremost, Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, makes us slow down if we are to understand. We cannot rush through the house of the Interpreter, he seems to tell us. We cannot attend deeply to life when our attention is divided and diverted among the clamor of a dozen different sights and sounds. We must allow our breath to follow the deep rhythm of nature and the creator God. We must pause. We must listen. We must feel. We must reflect. The meter, the shifts in conversation, the words themselves conspire to slow us to follow the flows and eddies of the poem which, like a stream, run into its deep pools. “It is astonishing to notice,” Drury writes, “that within the short and lucid compass of “Love (III)” Christianity’s whole grand biblical narrative of humanity is contained as its subtext.”

Like a Beatrice guiding Dante through Heaven, great interpreters of poetry, such as Drury and Vendler, guide us deeper into our own lives; allowing themselves to be amazed, they invite us into their amazement. They allow themselves to be illuminated, and let us follow along benefiting from the candle lit before us.

I was just reading the newest “Everybody’s-gotta-read-this-hot-off-the-press-book” about Washington politics (This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich) when Drury’s Music at Midnight arrived. Never has virtue so thoroughly tempted me from a guilty pleasure as did the arrival of Drury’s Interpreter’s House. Never has it become so clear to me, the difference between real pleasure and its ephemeral counterfeit. May we all be so seduced by grace.  

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