Is reading poetry good for you? Drawing on evidence that reading poetry involves some of the same brain structures as those upon which human psychological well-being depends, this essay argues that George Herbert’s devotional lyrics, long understood as Christian meditations, center on recurring images in a manner consistent with the modern practice of mindfulness meditation. There is a significant overlap between the way meditation was understood by seventeenth-century Christians and the way it is understood by modern meditators in a secular and therapeutic context. Neurally, meditation means the reduction of activity in the brain’s default mode network; phenomenally, it means repeatedly bringing wandering attention back to a chosen meditation object. Poetry can be isomorphic with meditative practice because the image of meditation has an identifying pattern of movement—spontaneous wandering and controlled return—that can be created in several sensory modalities. Complex enough to characterize Herbert’s poetry as meditative, the pattern of wandering from and returning to a focal image potentially defines a meditative literary mode with a distinctive relationship to the imagination. The therapeutic potential of meditative poetry speaks to the value not just of poetry but of humanist education in general.
The Poetry and Practice of Meditation
Elizabeth Bradburn is associate professor of English at Western Michigan University and editor of Comparative Drama. She has published several articles on cognitive neuroscience and seventeenth-century British literature.
Elizabeth Bradburn; The Poetry and Practice of Meditation. Poetics Today 1 September 2019; 40 (3): 597–614. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7558178
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