The Temple is unquestionably one of the most inventive and varied collections of poems published in the seventeenth century, and a reader can go a long way toward appreciating George Herbert by studying this inventiveness and variety. At the same time, though, the full range of Herbert’s intentions and impact may be missed if his technical virtuosity is seen as an end in itself. Everything known about Herbert suggests that he would not want to be described as a master craftsman or skilled technician of poetry unless it was also stressed that every effort of his artistry served a central purpose: helping him to know, love, and praise God, and to understand better his place in a world filled with sin but governed and redeemed by Christ. Such poems as “Jordan” (I) and (II) and “The Posie” are in fact critical of certain styles of poetry and show that Herbert is more than occasionally impatient with the subterfuge, indirection, and even pride that seem inevitable in producing a well-written work. Ultimately, however, poetic creativity and devotion are welded together in The Temple. As the title suggests, Herbert imagines himself to be a builder, and nearly all the details, both large and small, of the structure he raises show it to be a place of intricate beauty as well as sacred worship.
Understanding the design of The Temple as a whole is no easy matter, in part because Herbert’s natural inclination seems to be to “play” with structure, rather than to adopt a fixed schema as the pattern for the entire work. The Temple is divided into three parts, as though the reader is going to be led step-by-step through a physical temple. “The Church-porch,” by far Herbert’s longest single poem, offers a great deal of advice on moral matters to prepare a youth who is otherwise not yet ready for more serious devotions. After such an initiation, the reader is ready to enter the section called “The Church,” a collection of lyrics that continues to describe various places or objects in the church (the altar, stained glass windows, and so on) but that in doing so dramatizes the spiritual conflicts of a believer trying to secure his faith. The final section, “The Church Militant,” turns from the life of the individual believer to the corporate body of the church, which, like each individual, must endure a series of successes and failures throughout its history. While the tripartite structure of The Temple thus has a certain obvious coherence, there are limits to the usefulness of such a scheme. Though Herbert never completely drops his theme of tracing out the contours of the physical temple, he quickly shows that his main interest is in exploring the temple within the heart and mind of the worshiper.
Herbert’s flexible and open-ended play with structure, his ability to make patterns that are stable enough to support a great weight of meaning but loose enough to avoid dull predictability, is seen to a great advantage in the way he arranges the poems of “The Church.” Far from being a random miscellany, “The Church” is a carefully ordered collection in which the individual poems are placed in sequences and other kinds of groups, sometimes with poems that stand nearby in the volume, at other times with ones located many pages away. Although even a superficial reading of the poems soon advises the reader that he must watch closely how they relate to one another, Herbert provides a good description of his method and a clue to where he learned it in his poem “The H. Scriptures” (II). Despite its many parts, the Bible, he suggests, has a basic unity, and in order to understand any particular story the reader needs to trace how “This verse marks that, and both do make a motion/ Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.” Like the Bible, “The Church” has a basic unity, and the reader understands the poems fully only when he or she takes into account how they comment on and echo one another.
Sometimes the patterns and sequences of the poems are rather straightforward. “The Church” opens with a series that moves through the events celebrated during Easter Week, and the cumulative effect of such poems as “The Sacrifice,” “The Agonie,” “Good Friday,” “Easter,” and “Easter-wings” is to reinforce a sense of the importance of this part of the Christian calendar. In another group, the typical progress of a Christian life is reflected in the succession of titles: “Affliction,” “Repentance,” “Faith,” “Prayer,” and “The H. Communion.” Even when Herbert does not fully develop a sequence, there are many examples of paired poems, where one answers, corrects, or otherwise responds to another. “Church-monuments,” one of Herbert’s most impressive poems even though its theme is the body’s inevitable decay, is immediately followed by “Church-musick,” which focuses on the high-flying freedom of the soul once it is released from the body. The desperate pleas that fill “Longing” are short-lived; by the first line of the next poem, “The Bag”—“Away despair! My gracious Lord doth heare”—the pleas have been answered.
Toward the end of “The Church,” the speaker in the poem “The Invitation” calls out to God, inviting him to a feast; the following poem, “The Banquet,” shows not only that the invitation has been accepted but also that the feast is far more glorious than the speaker had imagined. The more the reader follows the many links drawing the poems closer and closer together, the more apparent it becomes that one aspect of Herbert’s design in “The Church” is to use the entire collection to trace a believer’s gradual attainment not only of wisdom but also, more important, of peace. Read as one long, continuous sequence, the poems of “The Church” do seem to have a general plot, as the tribulations so much in evidence early in the work gradually give way to a more subdued questioning and heightened moments of bliss. Many commentators have noted that Herbert marks out this general plot very clearly for his reader: At the beginning of “The Church” the reader is invited to “approach, and taste/ The churches mysticall repast,” and the final poem in the section, “Love” (III), concludes quite simply—“So I did sit and eat”—showing that this task has been completed.
Without disregarding the broad movement in “The Church” from immaturity to maturity, pain to comfort, it is equally important to note that Herbert by no means presents a simple tale of easily achieved spiritual progress. The plot traced out by the lyrics in “The Church,” while ultimately a hopeful one, is at the same time densely textured, complicated, filled with moments of weakness, backsliding, and lessons improperly learned. Numerous short sequences suggest that humanity’s needs are answered by Christ, who is always nearby; for example, the momentary sense that Christ has vanished, and that even when he is near he is unapproachable, expressed in “The Search,” “Grief,” and “The Crosse,” gives way to the blooming of joy in “The Flower”—joy that is both surprising and expected: “How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean/ Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring.”
If comfort is predictable, though, so is despair, and many short sequences show how quickly people move back again from wonder to worry; the exhilaration of “The Temper” (I), for example, is extremely precarious, over and done with, even by the time the next poem, “The Temper” (II), begins: “It cannot be. Where is that mightie joy,/ Which just now took up all my heart?” As confusing and frustrating as these constant oscillations may be, Herbert’s purpose is not to undermine the reader’s security. By linking his poems in a variety of ways, often teasing and challenging his reader, Herbert expands the limits of the lyric form, setting the entire collection up to do what no one lyric possibly could: to dramatize and analyze the various moods and rhythms of a faithful believer.
Herbert’s structural skill is evident not only in the overall plan and order of The Temple but also in the individual poems. His playful sense of poetic structure, though, has often been misunderstood and held against him. Such obviously patterned poems as “The Altar” and “Easter-wings,” both of which are typographically shaped to resemble the objects named in the title, often strike some readers as quaint at best. Eighteenth century critics, for example, viewed these poems rather condescendingly as typical of Herbert and did not hesitate to consider him as a “false wit,” incapable of more noble and creative effects.
Looked at more sympathetically, though, “The Altar” and “Easter-wings” are typical of Herbert only in suggesting how important poetic form is for him. Besides being a statement and a dramatization, a poem by Herbert is also an artifact, whose structure, sometimes simply, at other times subtly, reinforces a particular theme. At one end of the scale, there are directly imitative poems such as “Paradise,” a poem about pruning in which the rhyme words are, in fact, pruned; “Heaven,” in which the last word of the speaker’s questions echoes in a following line as an answer; and “Trinitie Sunday,” composed of a trinity of three-line stanzas. Other poems show more subdued but nevertheless effective pictorial designs: The shape of the stanzas in “The Agonie” suggests the image of the winepress mentioned in the poem, which calls to mind the association between Christ’s sacrificial blood and sacramental wine; and each stanza in “The Bag” seems to contain an open space, literally like the bag mentioned in the poem used to take messages from humans straight to God.
Such directly imitative devices help to prepare the reader for Herbert’s far more challenging uses of poetic form in other places in The Temple. The structure of “Church-monuments,” for example, is meant not so much to imitate a gravestone, as the title seems to suggest, as to help the reader imagine the decay described in the poem...
(The entire section is 4172 words.)