In the Midst of The Temple: Growing Insight into the Perfected Art of Simplicity

Through his imaginative response to God through art, Herbert has established an awareness that the human response to God is defined by God. Through God’s ‘simple’ coming to humanity, humanity is in turn restored to simplicity in the image of God, to the bliss and “ease” of unfallen Adam:

Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,

And all our lump to leaven;

A fervent sigh might well have blown

Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know

To sinne, or sinne to smother;

He might two heaven from Paradise go,

As from one room t’another.

Thou hast restored us to this ease

By this thy heavenly bloud;

Which I can go to, when I please,

And leave th’ earth to their food.

(“The H. Communion”, ll. 29-40)

Adam is a familiar prototype of the life of simplicity or wholeness in God in the writings of both St. Augustine and Thomas Traherne who gave poetic expression to many of Augustine’s ideas. In “The H. Communion” Herbert sustains a contrast between simplicity and complexity as states of spiritual experience, and expresses the contrast in aesthetic terms. The absence of sin is “ease” or simplicity of heart. Enjoying simplicity of heart, humanity is able to communicate with God intimately or ‘simply’, even as Adam enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God in unfilled Eden. Sin introduces ‘complexity’ into human experience even as the negative references to “rich furniture”, “fine aray”, and the “wedge of gold” which exemplify the kind of ornateness or complexity that is foreign to God and God’s coming to humanity suggest the refection of artistic embellishment. Through their negative connotations they suggest an ideal of simplicity for the poet’s art itself through which he can fulfill his desire to embody the image of God in his art, making hat art an acceptable offering of praise.

Herbert now attempts a conscious poetic simplicity in “Antiphon I” which will recur at crucial points in The Temple when he feels the need to achieve simplicity in his art at the expense of complexity rather than through the complex realities of his poetic art as we see in “The Sacrifice.” This trend is evident particularly in “Jordan “, “The Forerunners”,  and “The Posie”.

In “Antiphon I” the speaker simply sings “My God and King” and invites the world to sing with him. For him at this time these four words seem to be the appropriate response of the life of simplicity even as Sidney’s Astophel responded in similar uncomplicated, simple sincerity to Stella. Like Sidney, Herbert is too much of an artist, and too conscious of his more general audience to be satisfied with a simplicity which would hardly meet the demands of their poetic tastes. Singing “My God and King”, although it embodies a markedly simple response to God and reflects in its simplicity the ‘simple’ truth of God’s reign, hardly results in the creation of a poem which embodies the intricate structure that the poet has already revealed in his spiritual delight. Herbert’s technique in “Antiphon I” is very much like Sidney’s in his Sonnet 28 of Astrophel an Stella where the poet-lover can only express his deepest feelings with one word: Stella.

From “Love I” to “The H. Scriptures II”, the underlying dramatic voice Herbert creates throughout The Temple reflects a growing insight into the perfected art of Simplicity. “Love I” and “Love II” specifically renew the speaker’s earlier commitment to an art wholly given over to embodying and reflecting the presence or image of God. There is an awareness that poetry which reflects the presence of God must proceed from a life lived in the presence of God and conformable to God’s image. In “Love I” Herbert complains that poets generally have lost touch with ultimate reality and have perverted art as a gift of God, employing it for a less worthy purpose than the praise of its Creator. Such ‘fallen’ poetry can sing only of “mortall love”, and not of the “Immortall Love” which is the true reality expressed in simplicity and in awareness of the divine order of things. Wrenched from its place in the divine order of things, poetry loses its intended harmony, its potential as a vehicle of divine truth stamped with the image of God, and quickened with God’s presence (see “Easter”). “Who effectively sings God’s praise?” Herbert finally asks. The answer is restated in “Love II”:

Immortall Heat, O let thy greater flame

Attract the lesser to it: let those fires,

Which shall consume the world, first make it tame;

And kindle in our hearts such true desires,

As may consume our lusts, and make thee way.

The shall our hearts pant thee; then shall our brain

All her invention on thine Altar lay,

And there in hymnes send back thy fire again:

Our eies shall see thee, which before saw dust;

Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blinde:

Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde,

Who wert disseized by usurping lust:

All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,

And praise him who did make and mend our eies.

(“Love II”)

The true hymn is born out of the life of simplicity filled with an awareness of God and unified (“made simple”) in that awareness. The prayer in “The Temper I” is that this awareness might be constant; that God will “tune” the speaker’s breast, heightening his perception of the Divine in all things (including his art) and in all places. Only then can he reach his “utmost art”, and “Gladly engrave thy love in steel (“The Temper I”, l.2). In “The Temper II” Herbert again asks that God’s presence might so fill his being that he will enjoy the simplicity, the unity of being and purpose which is the source of his art:

O fix thy chair of grace, that all my powers

May also fix their reverence:

For when thou dost depart from hence,

They grow unruly, and sit in thy bowers.

Scatter, or binde them all to bend to thee:

Though elements change, and heaven move,

Let not thy higher Court remove,

But keep a standing Majestie in me.

(“The Temper II”, ll. 9-16)

The spiritual vision of a priest – poet continues to emerge.


Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, a long time admirer of George Herbert, and one of the blog masters at New Westminster Anglican Blog. Your comments and responses to this tribute to the life and art of Anglican poet-priest George Herbert are welcomed. 


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