(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

George Herbert was born into a noble family; his elder brother was Lord Herbert. George became public orator at Cambridge University in 1620, and he was a friend of the crown prince. The death of King James in 1625 turned his attention to spiritual matters, much influenced by the godly community of Nicholas Ferrar in Little Gidding. Herbert relinquished his worldly opportunities, and for the last three years of his life he pastored a small church at Bremerton, near Salisbury. His famous account of a pastoral model, A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life, was published posthumously in 1652. The Temple, a volume of his lyrical poems, embodies expressions of his personal struggles of faith and was used as a device of pastoral teaching.

Just as the Book of Common Prayer sets the frame for the corporate devotion and worship of Anglicanism, so Herbert collects his poems of a lifetime into an architectural setting, with its “porch,” “supreliminary” (a passageway into the main sanctuary), and the church “proper,” with its “altar” providing the focus for worship. As Herbert cites from Psalm 29:9, “in His Temple, does every man speak of His Honor,” so the life of the Christian is subsumed within a corporate sharing in the faith, fellowship, and ordinances of the Church.

Seeing the need of unity in all of one’s life before God, Herbert identifies, in the first section of his poems, the individual’s need of right conduct before God. In the second section, Herbert seeks to deepen the Christian’s life by reviewing the spiritual virtues. In the third section, possibly composed before the poet’s scheme for The Temple had been formulated, Herbert traces the history of the “Church Militant.” Thus the book has a threefold structure in considering the significance of the symbols of the church architecture, the virtues of the Christian life, and the events of the Church’s history.

The simplicity of Herbert’s poems is deceptive, as each of the 162 poems has very varied patterns of line and rhyme. Self-reflection and scriptural meditation are inextricably bound together for the poet, for as Jesus told the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Accordingly, Herbert offers a number of explicitly biblical poems that...

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The Temple Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sir Richard Herbert, an aristocrat of Norman descent, died when his son George was three years old. His ten children were reared by their mother, who is known to have been a wise, witty, generous, and religious woman. John Donne said, “Her house was a court in the conversation of the best.” Too frail for the family profession of soldiering, George Herbert was early guided toward the priesthood by his mother. He was not ordained until 1630, but Magdalen Herbert seems to have influenced the course of his life as much as Donne influenced his poetry. The first sonnets he wrote were addressed to her, and in them he vowed to devote himself to religious poetry.

The Latin verses that Herbert wrote at Cambridge are full of classical allusion. In The Temple, the main body of his English verse, he eschewed all archaic references and poetic rhetoric as studiously as Donne did himself. From Donne he also learned to transmute thought into feeling so that the intellectual concept becomes the emotional experience of the poem. Like Donne’s, his rhythms are colloquial; his imagery, although not often as dramatic as that of Donne, is similarly practical, concrete, and arresting.

Herbert’s range was narrower than Donne’s, for he wrote only religious poetry and none that was tortuous or complicated. Though Herbert can be said to have a moral simplicity, however, his work is anything but simple. Within his one central preoccupation, his thought is varied. In his last letter to Nicholas Ferrar, to whom he sent the manuscript of The Temple, he described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” His anguish was not caused by the possibility that he had lost his faith or was threatened with damnation but by the idea that he should prove not to be a good and worthy servant to God. Herbert’s greatest temptation was worldly ambition.

At Cambridge, Herbert’s relaxation was music; he played the lute and wrote accompaniments to his Latin poems. This interest is evident in the vocabulary and also in the rhythm of many of his poems. Some, like his version of the Twenty-third Psalm, were written to be sung. In “Easter,” the lute is an image for the body of Christ on the cross:

The cross taught all wood to resound his name,Who bore the same.His stretched sinews taught all strings, what keyIs best to celebrate this most high day.

The equation in the second stanza of the Crucifixion and the lute communicates the glory and pathos of Easter. The eager invocations to the poet’s own heart and lute in the first stanza are found also in the third, which carries the full implications of the previous image and reinforces it:

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a songPleasant and long:Or since all musick is but three parts vied,And multiplied;O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,And make up our defects with his sweet art.

Ambition for worldly acclaim is as recurrent in Herbert’s poetry as is music. In The Temple he often analyzes the delights of success, and the rejection of these delights is as meaningful poetically as it was in his life. In “The Pearl,” Herbert speaks of his knowledge of learning, honor, and pleasure, and he concludes each stanza with the refrain “Yet I love thee.” In the last stanza, the value of such knowledge is justified and explained: It renders his love of God significant and reasoned. “Therefore not sealed but with open eyes/ I flie to thee.” This quality of quietness, certitude, and moral simplicity at the end of many of Herbert’s poems gives them peculiar power. A controlled and intense late poem of rebellion contemplated, “The Collar” reflects at its close Herbert’s...

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The Temple Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bloch, Chana. Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A thoroughly documented and accessible examination of Herbert’s allusions, echoes, and borrowings from the Bible, as well as of his creative transformations of biblical texts.

Clarke, Elizabeth. Theory and Theology in George Herbert’s Poetry: Divinitie, and Poesie, Met. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Several chapters in this analysis of Herbert’s Christian poetics address The Temple. Bibliography, index.

Fish, Stanley E. “Letting Go: The Dialectic of Self in Herbert’s Poetry.” In Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. A discussion of Herbert’s lyrics from the point of view of a reader’s response. Emphasizes their dramatic qualities and inconclusiveness. Remains one of the most controversial and provocative studies of Herbert.

Malcolmson, Cristina. Heart-Work: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Several chapters address The Temple: “Gentility and Vocation in the Original Temple”; “The Temple Revised: ’Selfnesse’ and Pollution”; and...

(The entire section is 448 words.)