George Herbert’s ‘Utmost Art’


The Dedication

Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;

Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,

And must return. Accept of them and me,

And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.

Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:

Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.

-Herbert’s dedication for The Temple


So through his ‘utmost art’, as an Anglican poet and priest, George Herbert seeks to embody profound truth about humanity’s relationship to God and God’s response to us as creature and servant. For Herbert, expression of this profound human reality demands a definite aesthetic simplicity to attend it if human language itself is to be faithful to that truth. For Herbert, to possess insight into the most profound spiritual realities is to manifest that insight in the simplicity of his words.

Yet at the same time, Herbert is an artist – writing for his earthly audience with its expectations that he fulfill the demands of the accepted conventions or “complexities” of his art. In resolving this tension, Herbert appeals to the nature of spiritual simplify itself. Through the cumulative process of spiritual illumination which the drama of The Temple embodies, he comes to the realization that for him as a poet, with the demands of a dual audience to fulfill, the essence of simplicity lies in order. In art as well as in life, God as ultimate simplicity is the source of a Divine Order of things. Conforming to that Order is the way to ‘simplicitas’ or wholeness for the individual and for those who make up the community of Christ. So the true wholeness of artistic expression is achieved, for a poet/priest like Herbert through a unique ordering of complex poetic elements – an ordering which creates a dynamic fusion of the simplicity and complexity at once demanded of him.  Through a conscious ordering of linguistic elements (poetic convention, imagery, ideas, prosody, syntax, word play) he can at once achieve simplicity in the expression of spiritual truths, and can be faithful to the complexities of his art.

Ultimately the dramatic structure of The Temple as a struggle to define the ideals of art and life for a poet/priest is expressed through four related thematic movements:

1. the discussion of the relationship between life and art which stresses that poetry embodying the image of God comes only from a life conformed to that image (“The Thanksgiving”, “Easter”, “Love I”, “Love II”)

2. the discussion of the ordered life which manifests the image of God as a life of ‘wholeness’ or simplicity (“Sinne I’, “The Temper II”, “Providence”, “Content”, Paradise”, “The Familie”)

3. the discussion of the ordered life of simplicity in aesthetic terms (“The H. Communion”, “Frailtie”, “Dotage”)

4. the discussion of the poetic art in terms of a quest for aesthetic simplicity (“Jordan I”, “The H. Scriptures I”, “The H. Scriptures II”, “Jordan II”, “The Forerunners”, “The Posie”, “A Wreath”).

In this context, consider “A Wreath”.

A Wreath

A Wreathed garland of deserved praise

Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,

I give to thee, who knowest all my wayes,

My crooked winding wayes, wherein I live,

Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,

Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,

To thee, who art more farre above deceit,

Then deceit seems above simplicitie.

Give me simplicitie, that I may live,

So live and like, that I may know, thy wayes,

Know them and practise them: then shall I give

For this poore wreath, give thee a crown of praise.

*   *   *

While on its way to being a conventional sonnet, the poem stops at twelve lines instead of carrying on to complete the expected fourteen. Four quatrains with lines ‘hooked’ together as a wreath is woven is the ‘simple’ offering of art and life presented to the Divine. Yet this offering employs poetic artistry while advocating ‘simplicity’. The writer declares it to be “poore”, yet has produced a “crown of praise”. This kind of beautiful and meaningful contradiction appears throughout The Temple and lend the work, as a whole, its rich texture as poet seeks to be poet and priest seeks to be priest simultaneously.

Next we will consider one of the key earlier poems in The Temple, “The Sacrifice” and why it is structured and presented in the way it is. In the meantime, read some of the poems associated with the four themes discussed here.

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a blog master at New Westminster Anglican Blog. Your comments and observations are welcome. Please consider submitting a piece on one of your favourite Anglican writers. I’d be happy to share it here.


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