The Poetic Art and the Spiritual Ideal of Simplicity

It’s no accident that after the prayer of “The Temper II” Herbert should turn in “Jordan I” to a direct discussion of the poetic art in the context of the ideal of simplicity to which he must commit himself if his poetry is to be a true hymn of praise to God.

In “The H. Communion” the spiritual awareness of simplicity is expressed in aesthetic terms that set up a contrast between the simplicity of God and the ornate complexity (in a pejorative sense of ‘obscuring’) of “sin’s force and art” that blinds one to the simplicity of God. The connection between the life of simplicity and the life of poetry as human language is becoming increasingly evident. Moreover there is a strong relationship between “The Temper II” and “Jordan I” in terms of the concept of “chair” in the sense of ‘kingly throne’ which occurs in both poems. The concept of “chair of grace” in the former poem is incorporated into the structure of the artistic argument of “Jordan I”. The ‘true’ chair implied in that poem is none other than the simple reality of God’s grace.

In theme and tone, “Jordan I” bears a marked resemblance to Sonnet XV of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in which the speaker specifically discusses that to which the true poet responds, and the nature of his response itself:

You that do search for every purling spring,

Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,

And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows

Near thereabouts, into your poesy wring;

You that do dictionary’s method bring

Into your rimes, running in rattling rows;

You that poor Petrarch’s long deceased woes,

With new-born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing.

You take wrong ways: those far-fet helps be such

As do bewray a want of inward touch:

And sure at length stol’n goods do come to light.

But if (both for your love and skill) your name

You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,

Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet XV

“Jordan I” becomes much more meaningful when viewed in the light of Sidney’s sonnet, and in the light generally of the whole question of aesthetic simplicity and complexity which we see in Sidney and have traced up to the point of “Jordan I” in The Temple. Sidney values the response of simplicity because his specific audience, Stella, compels him to that response. The true poet, says Sidney, does not “poor Petrarach’s long deceased woes,/With new-born sighs and denizen’s will…sing”, but rather responds in order to behold reality, embodying that reality in his verse in such a way that it is in no way obscured by the false adornments with which poets generally have obscured reality.  Similarly, Herbert asks:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair

Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?

Is all good structure in a winding stair?

May no lines passe, except they do their dutie

Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves

And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?

Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?

Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;

Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:

I envie no mans nightingale or spring;

Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,

Who plainly say, My God, My King.

-“Jordan I”

Like Sidney’s, Herbert’s poet – persona rejects “fictions” and “false hair” in favour of a more attractive reality to which to respond in poetry. For Herbert, adherence to an art of simplicity will create a poetry that manifests the presence of God who is ultimate simplicity. His art of simplicity will embody the true reality every poet must seek if poetry is to assume its rightful place in the divine order of things as a sacrifice of praise to the Creator of that order. In openly embracing an art of simplicity, Herbert ‘baptizes’ his poetic art, and it is filled with the presence or reality of God even as Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the river Jordan.

But in all this aesthetic of simplicity, what is an accomplished poet to do to satisfy his – and ours, the reader’s- demand for “utmost art”? His answer in the progressive revelation that is The Temple is not yet clear. But his present recourse is to ask for greater grace as he again senses his own inadequacy:

If as a flowre doth spread and die

Thou wouldst extend me to some good,

Before I were by frosts extermitie

Nipt in the bud;

*   *   *

Let me not languish then, and spend

A life as barren to thy praise,

As  is the dust, to which that life doth tend,

But with delaies.

-“Employment I” ll. 1-4; 13-16

As he concludes the concentrated discussion of poetry which has occupied him since “Love I”, Herbert turns from the sense of frustration that he describes in “Employment I” to consider God’s poetry, the Holy Scripture, which has very real implications for his own poetic art. “The H. Scriptures I” describes the Scriptures as an embodiment of divine truth, “A full eternity” which reveals ultimate reality, and reflects the simplicity of spiritual truth, giving it forth in unobscured poetry if he is to meet the demands for simplicity and the perceived ‘complexity’ of rhetorical art. His stance clearly demonstrates that he is no naive Biblical literalist, but one, who as a master of the tools of language, listens for the Word of God as it emerges from the medium of human discourse in Scripture even as he listens to the ‘word of God’ in his own artistic creation. As priest and poet, Herbert is heading for a renewed vision of art and life.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a devoted George Herbert reader. This article is part of a series on the poetic and spiritual voice that emerges from   The Temple. Your comments are always welcome. My wish is that readers discover George Herbert for themselves.

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