George Herbert and the Post Modern Anglican Context – Part One

Note: NW Anglican blog is embarking on a celebration of Anglican poets and writers. If you have a particular favourite you would like to present here, let us know. We’ll be happy to include her or him. It’s kind of a ‘dancing saints’ presentation – a verbal version of  the wonderful dancing saints painted on the walls  of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Our first poetically dancing saint is George Herbert (1593-1633).

George Herbert, 17th century Anglican thinker and poet who chose the humble life of a rural parish priest rather than court preferment, has proven to be an Anglican writer for all times and places.

Once viewed as “quaint” and “unsophisticated”, Herbert enjoyed a revival of interest with Anglican poet TS Eliot’s investigation of the ‘Metaphysical Poets’ in the early 20th century. Even after Eliot, however, Herbert’s work was considered to be of somewhat lesser significance than that of another great Anglican priest-poet of the time, John Donne.

Not the case, I would venture. Herbert’s art as a poet is quite different from Donne’s – and both stand in the centre of Anglican poetry for different reasons. So focussing on Herbert for the time being, what is it that suggests he speaks strongly to the post modern Anglican context that we find ourselves in?

Post modern Anglicans tend to see their life in Jesus Christ through the metaphor of “journey”. That journey, whether supported by use of a labyrinth, a specific set of spiritual exercises and practices or the development of intentional community, stresses relationship with God and the world over dogma and propositional statements about God. Herbert’s 17th century poetic art – both in its form and content – speaks to the futility of fixing God in dogma or doctrinal pronouncement. It speaks directly to the appreciation of wholeness achieved by living in the Divine Presence and connecting to others through the Mission of God of which we are all a part. Herbert loves the questions rather than the answers. His desire is to achieve spiritual as well as artistic ‘simplicity’ which gets straight to the heart of a living relationship with God and clearly focuses on the primacy of mission and ministry.

Herbert’s great sequence of lyric poems, The Temple, represents a journeying, self-reflecting, questioning individual. Indeed, The Temple is a poetic journal reflection of the most personal kind expressing the journey to wholeness in Christ in life and in art. Here is a major difference between Herbert and Donne; for the latter does not consciously engage in such a journey or quest through purposeful moulding of a lyrical sequence.

As a whole, then, The Temple embodies in  a definite context of seventeenth century Anglican devotion –  the story of an unfolding awareness of the Divine Presence in the life of the individual, and of the ultimate participation of the soul in that divine harmony which emanates from union with its creator and perpetual mover. From this journey flows participation in the Mission of God. So it is interesting to look at Herbert’s awareness of himself in relation to his spirituality and his art in a way that is guided by the dramatic development which the poems of The Temple clearly embody.

In forging the expression of these essential relationships with God and the world in Herbert’s own life, Herbert creates a new combination some cultural traditions of his time including the use of a dramatic lyric sequence best expressed in Herbert’s time by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) in his Astrophel and Stella sonnet sequence, and the spiritual meditative Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits. Like some post-modern Christians, Herbert, in his age, ‘ransacked’ (as TS Eliot might say) older traditions and combined them in new ways.

Herbert’s  echoes of Loyola, then, represent the ideal of ‘simplicitas’ as a spiritual goal expressed through Sidney’s quest for ‘simplicitas’ as an artistic ideal fit to express the heart’s deepest thoughts. Consider Sonnet 28 of Astrophel and Stella:

You that with allegory’s curious frame

Of others’ children changeling use to make,

With me those pains for God’s sake do not take:

I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.

When I say “Stella,” I do mean the same

Princess of beauty, for whose only sake

The reins of Love I love, though never slake,

And Joy therein, though nations count it shame.

I beg no subject to use eloquence,

Nor in hid ways to guide Philosophy:

Look at my hands for no such quintessence;

But know that I in pure simplicity

Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart

Love only reading unto me this art.

The poet-lover symbolically renounces aspiration to “brazen fame” through disassociating himself from the accepted complexities of his art, and dedicating himself to the creation of praise more pleasing to his lady. Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) expresses a similar sentiment in his sonnet sequence, Delia:

Let others sing of Knights and Palladines,

In aged accents, and untimely words:

Paint shadowes in imaginary lines,

Which well the reach of their high wits records;

But I must sing of thee and those faire eyes,

Authentique shall my verse in time to come,

When yet th’ unborne shall say, loe where she lyes,

Whose beautie made him speak that els was dombe.

There are the Arkes the Tropheis I erect,

That fortify thy name against old age,

And these thy sacred verities must protect,

Against the Darke and times consuming rage.

Though th’ error of my youth they shall discover,

Suffice they shed I liv’d and was thy lover.

(Samuel Daniel, Delia, Sonnet XLVI)

Both Sidney and Daniel protest the adequacy – and indeed the supremacy of their ‘simplified’ art as against learned rhetoric and lyric complexities which may fail to convey sincerity:

Let dainty wits cry on the Sisters nine,

That bravely mask’d their fancies may be told:

Or, Pindar’s apes, flaunt they in phrases fine,

Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold.

Or else let them in statelier glory shine,

Ennobling new found tropes with problems old,

Or with strange similes enrich each line,

Of herbs or beasts which Inde or Afric hold.

For me in sooth, no Muse but one I know:

Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,

And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.

How then? Even thus: in Stella’s face I read

What love and beauty be, then all my deed

But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

(Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet III)

The artistic irony in all this for Sidney is this: For Stella, Sidney-Astrophel creates the impression of unvarnished plainness and simplicity; for the reader, however, he includes a larger perspective which at once is able to share Stella’s position and yet go beyond it to share the real complexity of the poet’s rhetoric and lyric craftsmanship.

Herbert does the same applying it to creating a self-reflective spiritual journey.  More of that in Part Two.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St.Laurence, Coquitlam and one of the blogmasters of New Westminster Anglican Blog. He has been a serious reader of George Herbert for many years. Your comments and responses are always welcome.

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