Herbert’s Quest for ‘Awareness’ of God

The Temple poems from “Grace” to “Frailtie” focus on Herbert’s desire to possess a heightened awareness of God in his own life. Underlying this desire is his equally deep desire, as a poet, to fulfill the demands of a dual audience – God and the reader. The speaker as Christian, priest and poet is clearly seeking a more personal entry into “the church” in the light of his previous reflections. The search here is for the means by which to achieve what might be called in mystical terms, a greater “union” with God.

The poems from “Mattens” to “The Windows” specifically examine the concept ‘temple’ or ‘church’, and how the speaker considers his relationship to the church. “Mattens” and “Evensong” with their liturgical base but non-liturgical context suggest the idea of the poet/persona himself as the ‘temple of God’ in the New Testament sense. Similarly, the ‘furniture poems’ (“Church-monuments” to “The Windows”) suggest various levels of the concept ‘temple’, for in them Herbert examines the temple as a physical building, the people of God, individual people, and Christ himself.

Herbert sums up his resolution to seek a deeper communion with God in “Trinitie Sunday” and then turns in “Content” to a more rigorous and formal process of self-examination than that he has previously engaged in. Having discovered the way of simplicity which manifests the presence of God in his life and art, he seeks to heighten that presence through rigorous examination of his own soul so that he might achieve an even greater sense of Divine order therein.

In fact the diction of “Content” suggests once more that the order he seeks in his soul is one that reduces his being to a state of harmonious integrity which is ‘simplicity’, and which fixes all of his powers upon God who is the source of order. He rejects the false and frivolous, the complicating and complex disorder that directs the soul away from simplicity, the “well-furnisht” state of humanity in the image of God:

Peace mutt’ring thoughts, and do not grudge to keep

Within the walls of your own breast:

Who cannot on his own bed sweetly sleep,

Can on anothers hardly rest.

Gad not abroad at ev’ry quest and call

Of an untrained hope or passion.

To court each place or fortune that doth fall,

Is wantonnesse in contemplation.

*   *   *

Give me the pliant minde, whose gentle measure

Complies and suits with all estates;

Which can let loose to a crown, and yet with pleasure

Take up within a cloisters gates.

This soul doth span the world, and hang content

From either pole unto the centre:

Where in each room of the well-furnisht tent

He lies warm, and without adventure.

*   *   *

Then cease discoursing soul, till thine own ground,

Do not thy self or friends importune.

He that by seeking hath himself once found,

Hath ever found a happie fortune.

(“Content”, ll. 1-8; 13-20; 33-36)

The poem again illustrates that the serach for simplicity is often not specified by name, but is nevertheless implicit in the poetry itself as a contrast between the life of order lived in the image of God, and the life of disorder or ‘complexity’ which characterizes the world at large. The true “content” is the “happie fortune” (l. 36), the Augustinian vita beata or ‘happy life’, the simplicity of unfallen Adam in intimate fellowship with God, and uncomplicated by sin in the world.

In “Frailtie” this tension between simplicity and complexity continues:

Lord, in my silence how do I despise

What upon trust

Is styled honour, riches, or fair eyes;

But is fair dust!

I surname them guilded clay,

Deare earth, fine grass or hay;

In all, I think my foot doth ever tread

Upon their head.

But when I view abroad both Regiments;

The worlds, and thine:

Thine clad with simplenesse, and sad events;

The other fine,

Full of glorie and gay weeds,

Brave language, braver deeds:

That which was dust before, doth quickly rise,

And prick mine eyes.

(“Frailtie”, ll. 1-16)

“Frailtie” reaffirms what was stated about the art of poetry in “Jordan I”. Reality or truth is manifest in simplicity in the realm of the spirit and in the realm of poetry. In all realms of experience, Herbert yearns to embrace “simpleness”, the reality of the ordered, harmonious life in God.

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blogmaster at New Westminster Anglican Blog. He long ago dismissed the meaningless “liberal” / “conservative” distinctions to embrace a more meaningful exploration of what it means to be a Christian and an Anglican in 21st century North American. It is his conviction that George Herbert can help us all do that. 

Your contributions and comments are always welcome. 

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