This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “George Herbert’s Pastoral Poetics”, running in the Summer Term 2023 (July to August), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
George Herbert’s poetry exemplifies a core pastoral truth: good preaching comes from the parson’s struggle with his own sin. From his page comes the earnest atmosphere of what many preachers say from the pulpit: “I am preaching as much to myself as I am to you.” As he wrote in his “Prayer Before a Sermon,” “Lord Jesu! Teach thou me that I may teach them. Sanctify and enable all my powers, that in their full strength they may deliver thy message reverently, readily, faithfully, and fruitfully.” In Chapter 22 of The Country Parson, “The Parson in Sacraments,” he writes, “Especially at Communion times he is in a great confusion, as being not only to receive God, but to break and administer him. Neither finds he any issue in this but to throw himself down at the throne of grace.” Reading George Herbert’s poetry is nothing less than learning through beautiful speech how to join him in throwing ourselves down before that throne of grace. Just as every word in the Administration of Holy Communion prepares us to do this in the Lord’s Supper, so every poem in The Temple draws the reader’s soul through a poetic image, exercise, and experience of what sanctification feels like. The Temple is a liturgical anthology which uses poetics to help readers enact the worshipful perspective it portrays.
To illustrate this effect, an analogy can be drawn between the first poem of the sequence and the Collect for Purity in the Order of Holy Communion. George Herbert lived during the season of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, emended during Elizabeth I’s reign from the 1552 version developed under Edward IV and reauthorized by King James I in 1604. In that version the Collect reads this way:
ALMIGHTY God, unto whom al hartes be open, al desires knowe, and from whom no secretes are hyd: clense the thoughtes of our hartes by the inspiracion of thy holy spirite, that we may perfectly love the, and worthily magnify thy holy name, through Christe our Lorde. Amen.
The emphasis of the visibility of the soul to God stresses the fact that God knows what the heart is doing during worship regardless of any outward show, and reminds the sinner that “no secrets are hid” so that, as the Decalogue and Summary of the Law prick the conscience, repentance is more strongly desired. The cleansing which comes from repentance and absolution is not for its own sake, nor by the penitent’s power, but effected by the Holy Spirit so that the cleansed heart can lift up the name of God and of his son Jesus Christ. In a single prayer, the whole self is called upon to enter into the experience of worship.
Though not nearly as pithy, in a similar way “The Church-porch,” the opening section of The Temple,is a poetic collect for purity which prepares the heart of the reader to enter into the poetic cathedral of the collection. As with a liturgy, the sequence of poems includes confessions, sermonic meditations, sacramental musings, and prayers, as well as investigation of those sub-liturgical realities of human experience which don’t appear in any formal order of worship but are surely there (including doubt, frustration, and confusion which real worshippers always bring with them into the liturgical space). The poem opens addressing the reader, and provides a method for interpreting the poetry:
“Thou, whose sweet youth and early hopes enhance Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure; Harken unto a Verser, who may chance Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure. A verse may find him, who a sermon flies, And turn delight into a sacrifice.”
Evocative of Polonius’s “Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth” to Reynaldo, the notion of using the pleasure of rhyme to bait goodness takes a stance against the Platonic grievance that poetry can mislead the mind. It can also be used by a Verser to help the youthful to learn to love good things, to make a potentially dry sermon sweet, and to create the paradox of making delight itself a sacrifice. The concern that the leisure of reading poetry is indulgent finds an answer here – even as the off-rhyme of “flies” and “sacrifice” mirrors the tension between delight and sacrifice, the iambic pentameter makes it flow. This James-like disjunction–that poetic beauty can help us consider our trials as joy–is articulated in verse which captures aesthetically the very truth it explains.
The subsequent stanzas, then, actually do the opposite – they catalog various sins for which the sinner may be approaching The Temple–”Beware of lust,” “Drink not the third glass,” “If reason move not Gallants, quit the room,” “Take not his name, who made thy mouth, in vain”, and many other–in stanzas which describe in beautiful yet elegantly simple language the sins the reader may carry as burdens. Here the opposite effect is achieved–rather than the enjoyment of beautiful speech becoming something negative (a sacrifice), the ugly, secret desires hidden in the heart are being made known, and it is beautiful and pleasurable to read Herbert’s description of the pain they cause. But in this very way the reader comes to enjoy being rebuked, to find it pleasant and beautiful to be reprimanded and to perceive the aesthetic value of a penitent posture:
In time of service seal up both thine eyes, And send them to thine heart, that spying sin, They may weep out the stains by them did rise: Those doors being shut, all by the ear comes in. Who marks in church-time others’ symmetry Makes all their beauty his deformity.
The poetic notion of turning our eyes upon our hearts renews the image of prayer, so that closed eyes on a bowed head become open eyes, and the gawking, open-eyed person watching others pray becomes the one whose eyes are in fact closed. The ear is better poised to take in the words of prayer with the eyes shut, a paradox for the reader of the poem who has to scan it with eyes open–unless benefitted by having someone else read it out loud. It may be a moment where the reader, having read the previous stanzas concerning various secret sins, may stop reading and take the poet’s invitation to pray with eyes sealed shut. The ugliness which the inner eye sees is then cast in rhyme: the eyes rhyme with “rise,” which is exactly what the soul feels itself doing as it unburdens guilt in repentance, and “spying sin” is faced by the ear through which the words of prayer “come in.”
If read with genuine spiritual effort, the poem can thus teach the reader to see the beauty in the act of repenting of ugly sins, so that the paradox of weeping over stains becomes a kind of joy – turning delight into a sacrifice, so that, as Herbert remarks in the last line of the poem, “the pain doth fade, the joy remains.” The reader has been prepared to meet the following poems of The Temple with a sensitized, opened, cleansed heart by “The Church-porch’s” collect to purity. In my upcoming summer term Davenant Hall class “George Herbert’s Pastoral Poetics,” we will explore more deeply how Herbert’s Temple encourages the soul with liturgical beauty.
Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.