“Jordan II”: A Rededication to An Art of Simplicity in George Herbert’s The Temple

Our journey through The Temple continues with all the richness of touring a soaring Gothic cathedral. That’s the kind of journey Herbert intends for his reader: a rich exploration of the spiritual made physical as he draws on his deep knowledge of the traditions of Christian meditation.

It is true with Herbert, as we’ve seen, that every insight he experiences into the life of the spirit has implications for his art. Art and life must be integrated into one ‘simple whole’. “Jordan II” in this context may be considered Herbert’s rededication to an art of simplicity previously defended in “Jordan I” and following important illuminations into the nature of metaphysical reality seen in terms of the ultimate simplicity or wholeness of God.

As he’s journeyed, The Temple‘s persona has become more conscious that the presence of God is manifest in simplicity in both life and art. If he is to contain the presence or image of God in his art, he must adhere to definite standards of simplicity which are found only in God and not in human effort:

When first my lines of heavenly joyes made mention,

Such was their lustre, they did so excell,

That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;

My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,

Curling with metaphors a plain intention,

Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,

Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:

I often blotted what I had begunne;

This was not quick enough, and that was dead.

Nothing could seem to rich to clothe the sunne,

Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,

So did I weave my self into the sense.

But while I bustled, I might heare a friend

Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!

There is in love a sweetness readie penn’d;

Copie out onely that, and save expense.

(“Jordan II”, ll. 1-18)

As in “Jordan I” we are reminded very much of Sidney’s similar position. In Sonnet I of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney, like Herbert in “Jordan II” is directed toward a greater reality which is the source of the simplicity in poetry that both poets eventually realize must be their chief goal:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show

That she (deare she) might take some pleasure of my pain:

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,

Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:

Oft turning other’s leaves, to see if thence would flow

Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.

But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,

Invention, Natures child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,

And others’ feet still seem’d but stangers in my way.

Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite —

“Fool”, said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

(Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet I)

The poems following “Jordan II” reflect a growing intimacy with God as “immeasurable love” (note how, earlier in The Temple the speaker attempted to “measure” the love of God). Even in his “Dulnesse” he is confident that although he is “lost in flesh” he can experience ultimate union with God and enjoy awareness of a divine order in which all things tend toward simplicity in union with God:

All things that are, though they have sev’rall wayes,

Yet in their being joyn with one advise

To honour thee: and so I give thee praise

In all my other hymnes, but in this twice.

Each thing that is, although in use and name

It go for one, hath many wayes in store

To honour thee; and so each hymn thy fame

Extolleth many wayes, yet this one more.

(“Providence”, ll. 145-152)

In God all things become ‘simple’; they are unified in one cosmic harmony,.  Moreover, with this lesson mastered in the context of the other lessons he has learned, Herbert is prepared to reconcile the baffling ‘complexities’ of “Justice I” so that all things, including himself, may be viewed in relation to the “simplicity of God.”

The poems from “Hope” to “Paradise” as well as emphasizing the poet’s increasing desire for complete union with the Divine embody a progressing illumination which springs out of his new awareness in “Providence” of the ultimate unity or simplicity of all things in God. In “Justice I” Herbert’s limited spiritual vision was unable to reconcile seeming incongrous poles of Christian experience (joy and sorrow), and as a result his own spiritual life was in disarray. By “Paradise”, however, he has, through paradox, placed sorrow into a unified perspective with joy so that he can see that his Christian life is not composed of inexplicable complex opposites (joy-sorrow, sickness-health), but rather his experience is ‘simple’ or unified in the providence of God where sorrow becomes joy and sickness becomes health:

I Blesse thee, Lord, because I GROW

Among thy tress, which in a       ROW

To thee both fruit and order        OW

What open force, or hidden         CHARM

Can blast my fruit, or bring me     HARM,

While the inclosure is thine              ARM?

Inclose me still for fear I     START.

Be to me rather sharp and     TART

Then let me want the hand &   ART.

When thou dost greater judgements    SPARE

And with thy knife but prune and           PARE,

Ev’n fruitfull trees more fruitfull              ARE.

Such sharpnes shows the sweetest   FREND:

Such cuttings rather heal then            REND:

And such beginnings touch their           END.

(“Paradise”)

Through the cumulative illuminations he experiences concerning the spiritual life in general, The Temple‘s persona defines and redefines his relationship to God as individual and poet. Seeking to respond to God effectively, he discovers the full nature of the life in God, the life of simplicity. His ideal response to God through life and art steadily becomes more real to him as he consciously approaches union with the Divine:

What doth this noise of thoughts within my hear,

As if they had a part?

What do these loud complaints and puling fears,

As if there were no rule of cares?

But, Lord, the house and familie are thine,

Though some of them repine.

Turn out these wranglers, which defile thy seat:

For where thou dwellest all is neat.

First Peace and Silence all disputes control,

Then Order plaies the soul;

And giving all things their set forms and houres,

Makes of wilde woods sweet walks and bowres.

(“The Familie”, ll. 1-12)

He is ready to enter into the enclosed garden, his own inner paradise.

 

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blog master at New Westminster Anglican Blog. He believes that George Herbert, 17th century English poet and Anglican priest has something to offer in terms of the contemporary Christian journey. Your comments and contributions are always welcome. 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Jordan II”: A Rededication to An Art of Simplicity in George Herbert’s The Temple

  1. I personally was searching for plans for my personal weblog and
    came across your own post, “Jordan II: A Rededication to An Art of Simplicity in George Herberts The Temple | New West Anglican Blog”, do you care in the event I
    utilize many of ur points? With thanks ,Dick

  2. Bridgette says:

    Where did u acquire the suggestions to publish ““Jordan II:
    A Rededication to An Art of Simplicity in George Herberts The Temple |
    New West Anglican Blog” encoms ? Many thanks ,Cinda

    • Hi:

      I’m a long time George Herbert fan, following humbly in the footsteps of one of my great mentors, Dr. Paul Stanwood, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia.

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