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Tuning the self. George Herbert’s poetry as cognitive behavior

31 May 2012

PhD ceremony: Mr. E. van Es, 12.45 uur, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Dissertation: Tuning the self. George Herbert’s poetry as cognitive behavior

Promotor(s): prof. B.P. Heusden, prof. H.E. Wilcox

Faculty: Arts

Eelco van Es’s research provides a cognitive analysis of the poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633), generally considered the most significant devotional poet in the history of the English language. In the past hundred years Herbert’s verse has been studied extensively. Most of this scholarly work has gone into establishing the meaning of these poems. From Herbert’s own thinking, recorded in his prose treatises, however, can be deduced that his poems were primarily composed to serve a specific function: teaching self-knowledge to his readers. In Herbert’s thinking, self-knowledge is a necessary skill, to be applied in one’s strife for ‘temperance’: the regulation of body, house, church, mind, and community. To Herbert, the meaning of his poems is subservient to this function: his poetry should aid his readers to control their lives. The cognitive framework that is applied in this research can serve to explain this intended function. Following Merlin Donald’s theory of cognitive evolution, we can posit that art serves the purpose of mimetic meta-cognition, that is, self-knowledge generated by means of sharing experiences. Moreover, a cognitive Donaldian framework can serve to explain why the Herbert-tradition has paid so little attention to the function of this verse; this critical tradition operates within specific confines, which are, in principle, the same confines that Herbert sought to compensate with his poetry and his thinking.

Last modified:13 March 2020 12.59 a.m.
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