Entering George Herbert’s ‘Temple’: “The Altar” and “The Sacrifice”

“The Church-Porch”

Perirrhanterium (ie. ‘the sprinkling)

Thou, whose sweet youth and early hopes inhance

Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure;

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance

Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.

A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,

And turn delight into a sacrifice.

The Temple as a whole dramatizes a spiritual journey. One enters The Temple by way of the Church-porch – a set of 77 Lenten-like aphorisms which echo long into the imaginative journey when we reach “Trinitie Sunday”. Taken as a whole, the highly moralistic tone of “The Church-porch” represents the ceremony of Asperges, or the sprinkling of the faithful with holy water before Divine Service. The image represents the preparatory function of “The Church-porch” as a type of the sprinkling of blood in the Old Testament sacrificial ritual which Herbert soon juxtaposes with the sacrifice of Jesus. Throughout The Temple Herbert juxtaposes the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as he seeks to understand the nature of God’s providence, the person of Jesus the Christ, and the ultimate implications of Jesus’ sacrifice for his own life.

“The Church”, the next major section of The Temple, opens with the strong sacramental overtones of “The Altar” in which the poet reveals his intent to raise his own heart as an altar in dedication to God as he seeks to internalize or claim on a personal basis the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.

Following “The Altar” with its altar-like shape Herbert momentarily suspends the dramatic situation involving the poet-persona and God which is beginning to emerge, and inserts a long dramatic monologue, “The Sacrifice”, which is spoken by Jesus himself. “The Sacrifice” is the only poem in The Temple which does not directly involve the poet-persona in some way. Rather the figure of Jesus on the cross pervades the liturgy-like stanzas which cumulatively suggest a timelessness that contrast markedly with the time and space orientation of the main dramatic situation of “The Church”.

As it stands, in many ways outside the immediate dramatic structure of The Temple as a whole, “The Sacrifice” is basic to the unity and significance of that larger dramatic structure. For in this, the longest poem of “The Church”, Herbert presents the very image of God in terms of spiritual simplicity that must pervade his own life and art if he is to embrace the sacrifice of Jesus as he prays to do in “The Altar”. The Jesus of “The Sacrifice” is simplex in the sense that Renaissance devotional and mystical tradition understood that term: unified, whole, in perfect freedom through, and in harmony with, the divine order of things. He is sure of his place in that order, and of ultimate truth. He is aware, in his grief, of the total implications of his situation as he examines it from various perspectives which give rise to the seemingly endless, but powerful procession of paradox and ironies that structure the poem. In short, he bears the image of God.

In one sense, what Herbert does in “The Sacrifice” is not original. His material – the complaint of Christ, with the paradox and ironies upon which his poem is built – comes to him through an already well developed poetic tradition. But as Renaissance scholar Rosemond Tuve pointed out many years ago, the true source of Herbert’s originality in this poem is the new emphasis which he creates with familiar material. Herbert’s poem is full of small shocks, unexpected connections, sudden recoils in the emotion described or produced, and powerful ironic contract and paradox, most of which can be traced to existing symbolic and poetic tradition. Tuve points out that Herbert “makes the ironies much sharper, the antitheses much neater, the double meanings…more clear and terrible” (Tuve: A Reading of George Herbert). What Herbert adds is the emphasis on Jesus as simplex. He possesses a wholeness of being, an awareness of divine truth which contrast with humanity’s confusion and state of spiritual disintegration. Here, in all his integrative simplicity is the suffering servant, the image of God, subjected to blind human arrogance:

Oh all ye, who passe by, whose eyes and minde

To worldly things are sharp, but to me blinde;

To me, who took eyes that I might you finde”

Was ever grief like mine?

The Princes of my people make a head

Against their Maker: they do wish me dead,

Who cannot wish, except I give them bread:

Was ever grief like mine?

*   *   *

Arise, arise, they come. Look how they runne!

Alas! what haste they make to be undone!

How with their lanterns do they seek the sunne!

Was ever grief, &c.

With clubs and staves they seek me, as a thief,

Who am the Way and Truth, the true relief;

Most true to those, who are my greatest grief:

Was ever grief, &c.

(“The Sacrifice”, ll. 1-8; 33-40)

So while the images are for the most part inherited, the contrasts inherent in them are heightened by Herbert in order to achieve a modified emphasis. Humanity is “undone” by rejecting the harmony of universal Divine Order epitomized in the simplicity, or the wholeness and illuminated state of Jesus who becomes our Christ.

All in all, what the dying Jesus says in “The Sacrifice” represents a skillful and complex blending of poetic, symbolic, and liturgical traditions. The way in which it is said represents Herbert’s creation of a new emphasis in the context of established tradition.

We have now entered Herbert’s ‘temple’. Have a look at “The
Altar” and “The Sacrifice” and read them with a fresh perspective. Next time, we’ll continue to look at Herbert’s spiritual journey of complexity and simplicity of life in art as we continue to explore this unique ‘temple’ of words.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence Coquitlam and a long time George Herbert fan. Your comments are always welcome as we continue this celebration of remarkable Anglican poets and writers. If you have a favourite Anglican writer, why not celebrate her or him in our New Westminster Anglican Blog. Contributions are welcome and may be submitted to steve_bailey@telus.net. 

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