Herbert’s Journey Through “The Temple” Continues

Having come to understand a more complete picture of the reality of his relationship to God and his response to God as human being and poet, the narrative voice in The Temple is now able to embrace the sacrifice of of Jesus personally through symbolic baptism. “H.Baptisme I” contrasts markedly with earlier poems which epress the speaker’s attempts to meet God on his own terms by measuring his own sinfulness against the love displayed in the Jesus story. In this later poem, he demonstrates that he is now able to accept that love through faith as he realizes that God alone is the one to ‘measure’: “Redemption measures all my time” (H. Baptisme I, l. 10). In “H. Baptisme II”, he completes his present act of dedication by acknowledging the image or the presence of God in his life in terms of simplicity. In identifying himself as a ‘child of God’, he is made ‘simple’, compete, or whole as he submits to the transcendental reality which he has acknowledged as the source of both life and art:

O let me still

Write thee great God, and me a childe:

Let me be soft and supple to thy will,

Small to my self, to others mild,

Behither ill.

Although by stealth

My flesh get on, yet let her sister

My soul bid nothing, but preserve her wealth:

The growth of flesh is but a blister;

Childhood is health.

(H. Baptisme II”, ll. 6-15)

So simplicity of spirit ultimately is shown forth in simplicity in art – specifically poetry in Herbert’s case. In the eight poems from “Nature” to “Antiphon I”, Herbert goes on to consider in greater detail the whole probe of human response to God – a theme that has been developing implicitly and explicitly since “The Altar”.  Following his symbolic act of dedication in “H. Baptisme I” and “H. Baptisme II”, he is keenly aware of human weakness and his need for total dependence on God. Then, more particularly in the eight poems between “Love I” and “The H. Scriptures II”, he considers poetry itself as a response. The beginnings of self-knowledge which he experienced in the poems following “The Sacrifice” provide a solid foundation for these more detailed phases of self-examination. In the former group which moves generally from a discussion of humanity’s state in nature to its state in grace, and concludes with a song in praise of that grace. In “Nature”, the soul is described as “full of rebellion” (“Nature”, l. 1), rejecting the disciplined life of simplicity described in “Sinne I” which  “One cunning bosome-sin blows quite away” (“Sinne I”, l. 14:

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!

Parents first season us: then school masters

Deliver us to laws; they send us bound

To rules of reason, holy messengers,

Pulpits and Sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,

Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,

Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,

Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,

Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,

The sound of glorie ringing in our eares:

Without, our shame; within, our consciences;

Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.

Yet all these fences and their whole aray

One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.

(“Sinne I”) [note the sonnet form]

The “fences” that Herbert describes are those things which God provides for the guidance of God’s “children” walking in the way of simplicity. Through the “fences” of God, life is given a single purpose, wholeness and unit — in short, simplicity in the renaissance devotional sense.

This extended focus on appropriate human responses to God comes to a climactic moment in “The H. Communion” which in expressing God’s ultimate response to humanity in terms of simplicity gives evidence of new insights that will help the poet /speaker in his own response to God as human being and as poet. In “The Sacrifice”, we saw the simplicity of Christ manifest. In “The H. Communion”, we see, through the sacramental Eucharist,the perpetuating of that simplicity in God’s continuing response to humanity:

Not in rich furniture, or fine away,

Nor in a wedge of gold,

Thou, who for me wast sold,

For so thou should’st without me still have been,

Leaving within me sinne:

But by the way of nourishment and strength

Thou creep’st into my breast;

Making thy way my rest,

And thy small quantities my length;

Which spread their forces into every part,

Meeting sinnes force and art.

(“The H. Communion”, ll. 1-12)

The reality of God (the essence of which Herbert perceives is simplicity — unity, wholeness) comes to the speaker in terms of a simplicity he can understand in a human context; a simplicity which stands in contrast with ornateness and complexity exemplified by the “force and art” of sin. In plainest terms, God’s spiritual simplicity is manifest in God’s ‘uncomplicated’ response to humanity. God’s truth and ways are ‘simple’. Moreover, the concrete terms of verse one which convey the contrast between ornate complexity and God’s response to humanity in simplicity carry very definite artistic connotations. There is a rejection of ornament in favour of embracing a reality which is simplicity. The opening lines of the poem sound very much, in fact, like a Sidneian rejection of poetic embellishment in favour of a plain simplicity, and indeed we shall see other similar rejections of poetic ornament in The Temple itself. But at this point, in “The H. Communion”, Herbert is definitely transferring his spiritual awareness of simplicity into aesthetic terms as he becomes increasingly concerned with his own desire to imitate and radiate the reality of God and of Divine truth in his art.

In this approach to unifying form and substance, spiritual and linguistic, Herbert is unique among poets. His accomplishment in The Temple is far greater than is generally acknowledged among those who appreciate Anglican art and spirituality and the relationship between the two.

We turn next to some of the theological implications of Herbert’s unique approach to art and life developed in a context of meditative spirituality.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a blogmaster at New Westminster Anglican Blog. Your thoughts and comments are welcome. If you wish to celebrate an Anglican writer or artist on these pages, please send your contribution to stephendouglasbailey@gmail.com

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