George Herbert and the Dilemma of a Dual Audience (Part Two of a series on Anglican Poets and Writers)

As an Anglican poet, Herbert sensed very real tensions about the nature and function of his art as he searches for an ideal art to offer both God and a community of human readers. Like Sidney and Daniels, he wrestles with the role of the artifice of language in addressing his dual audience. The question becomes, “what is an ideal poetic art in terms of simplicity and complexity which will meet the expectations of a distinct and radically different dual audience”?

Fortunately a look at specific poems in The Temple in their dramatic context – the individual journeying to God through art – provides insight into Herbert’s solution to his artistic dilemma. Herbert invites us to journey with him in his search for “simplicity” as he seeks to resolve his own artistic and spiritual quest focussed on perfecting both life and art in the image of God.

A good place for us to start this journey with George Herbert is to observe the quest for “simplicity” that is basic to his religious and artistic experience and expressed in the dramatic structure of The Temple itself. We can readily identify the significance of “simplicity” as a spiritual ideal, and then trace Herbert’s transferring of that ideal to his conception of his art. Such an appreciation of The Temple opens up distinct thematic patterns that emerge at different times and ultimately come together to resolve the problem of simplicity and art with which one of our chief Anglican poets concerns himself.

As a spiritual ideal, a state of “simplicity of heart” came to be, in late Renaissance devotional writing, equated with a heightened, and at times even mystical awareness of God in the individual soul. An individual, through “practicing the presence of God,” could be finally united to God, and be made “simple” in the likeness of God. The image of God was conceived of, to a large extent, in terms of an ultimate simplicity which expressed the unity, or oneness and perfection of the Divine Godhead. The great 15th Catholic theologian and devotional writer Savonarola (now a TV star thundering down the wrath of God on the Borgia papacy of Alexander VI) wrote in his treatise De Simplicitate Christianae Vitae:

“Simplicity of heart requires purgation from earthly affections, in order that the whole spirit and the whole soul should may be directed toward God, and may become like unto God, that the whole man may be made simple (unified, whole) in the likeness of God….For the contemplation of Divine things requires the greatest tranquillity of heart: and therefore he who wishes to enjoy Divine illuminations must remove himself as far as possible from the clamour of this world (ie. the ‘complexity’ or ‘enmity with God’) which separates creature from creator….Therefore the more each man shall strive to achieve simplicity in his proper degree, the greater consolations he shall receive from Christ.” (Book 2, Conclusion I, De Simplicitate).

Forgiving, I hope, Savonarola’s obvious sexism here, we can see a key devotional concept  still popular and much written about and practiced in Herbert’s 17th century Anglican world. For Herbert, then, the desire for an ideal simplicity in life and art gives birth to one of the most powerful and significant thematic movements in The Temple : the poet/persona’s search for his own “utmost art” in terms of the whole journey of the spirit which The Temple portrays:

Praise. (II)

King of Glorie, King of Peace,

I will love thee:

And that love may never cease,

I will move thee.

Thou hast granted my request,

Thou hast heard me:

Thou didst note my working breast,

Thou hast spar’d me.

Wherefore with my utmost art

I will sing thee,

And the cream of all my heart

I will bring thee.

Thou my sinnes against me cried,

Thou didst cleare me;

And alone, when they replied,

Thou didst heare me.

Sev’n whole days, not one in seven,

I will praise thee.

In my heart, though not in heaven,

I can raise thee.

Thou grew’st soft and moist with tears,

Thou relentedst:

And when Justice call’d for fears,

Thou disentedst.

Small it is, in this poor sort

To enroll thee:

Ev’n enternitie is to short

To extoll thee.

God, as the ultimate image of simplicity or uncomplicated unity, wholeness or integrity responds to humanity out of that simplicity of being; the implication is that one must ultimately respond in similar terms to God through both life and art as one seeks to embrace the infinite love of God.

There is definitely something very contemporary about that approach to one’s relationship to the “mission” of God that reaches, often dramatically, outside the established religious institutions so often not trusted by, in particular, western post modernism. In terms of contemporary ideas on ‘simplicity of being’, consider a look at Sallie McFague’s new book, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming. 

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a blogmaster for New Westminster Anglican Blog. You are invited to contribute to this series by submitting some thoughts about a favourite Anglican writer. The series on George Herbert will continue. Herbert lovers are encouraged to comment.

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