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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

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 meditate on some verse or thought of the Bible, and frequently in The Temple God’s words—“Thy words”—become the poet’s—“my words”—to guide human beings beyond their own, blind, inadequate resources, to know the will of God.

Like Solomon, Herbert prefaces his collection with a prayer of dedication: “Lord, my first fruits present themselves to Thee;/ Yet not mine neither: for from Thee they came.” His first poem in the opening section, “The Church Porch,” is entitled “Perirrhanterium,” the Greek term for the instrument used for sprinkling holy water, to suggest that the poem is a preparatory ritual of cleansing before entering “the Church” section of The Temple. For remember “when once thy foot enters the Church, be bare/ God is more there, than thou; for thou are there/ only by His permission.” Likewise, contrary to the Puritan tradition that makes so much of the sermon, “resort to sermons, but to prayers most:/ praying is the end of preaching.”

In “The Church,” we enter the major collection of the poems. Appropriately, we begin with “The Altar,” “made of a heart and cemented with tears” of the supplicant. “The Sacrifice” then follows, the focus of worship being on Christ, whose refrain is repeated in sixty-four verses, “was ever grief like Mine?” The conclusion is, “never was grief like Mine.” “Thanksgiving” then spells out the spirit of gratitude in the worshiper. Other Lenten themes follow through to “The Passion” of Good Friday and the Resurrection of Easter. “Baptism,” “Sin,” and “Repentance” follow.

Major elements of the life of the Christian then are delineated: “Faith,” “Prayer,” “Holy Communion,” “Love,” “The Tempter,” “The Holy Scriptures,” “Grace,” and “Affliction.” It is as if the Lord himself teaches us between his risen appearance at Easter and his ascension at Pentecost. After this seasonal rhythm of devotional training, there follows the daily rhythm of worship in “Matins” and “Evensong” and the habitual problems of “Sin.” “Church Monuments,” “Church Music,” “Church Lock and Key,” “Church Floor,” and “The Windows” all add their contribution to the maturing character of the Christian, so that “doctrine and life” combine and anneal as one faith in the Lord.

There follows the need to cultivate the virtues of the Christian life: “Contentment,” “Humility,” “Frailty,” “Constancy,” the serenity of “The Star,” the restful composure of “Sunday,” the depression of “Avarice,” and the exercise of self-“Denial.” Further recitations bring us to “Christmas” and once more to “Lent.” Biblical poems follow, such as “Colossians 3:3,” “The Pearl” (Matthew 13:45), “The Quip” (Psalms 38:15), “Love Unknown” (Psalms 51), “Ephesians 4:30,” “Praise II” (Psalms 116), “Self-Condemnation” (Luke 23:18-19), “Mary Magdalene” (Luke 7:37-38), “The Odor, 2 Corinthians 2:15-16,” and “The Rose” (Song of Songs 2:1). However, the range of emotional and spiritual experiences and needs that Herbert articulates is impossible to do full justice to in such a summary. He concludes with “Love (III),” “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/ guilty of dust and sin,” a poem that Simone Weil thought was the most beautiful in the English language. At the end of the Anglican service of Holy Communion the Gloria in excelsis is sung, and with these words, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth/ peace, goodwill toward men,” Herbert concludes “The Church.”

The third section, “The Church Militant,” celebrates the presence of God’s provident deeds in history, commencing with the patriarchs and Old Testament times. Then it proceeds to trace the impact of Christianity on the classical world, the Reformation, to the present time. The collection closes with the words: “Blessed be God alone,/ Thrice blessed Three in One.”

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