Herbert’s Union with the Divine: The Offering of the “Utmost” in Life and Art in terms of Achieved Simplicity

By “Praise II”, having unified justice and mercy in the simplicity of God’s providence, Herbert’s poet/priest persona is ready to embrace the Unitive State from which will spring his “utmost art”:

King of Glorie, King of Peace,

I will love thee:

And that love may never cease,

I will move thee.

Thou hast granted my request,

Thou hast heard me:

Thou didst note my working breast,

Thou hast spar’d me.

Wherefore with my utmost art

I will sing thee,

And the cream of all my heart

I will bring thee.

(“Praise II” ll. 1-12)

“An Offering”, which immediately follows “Praise II”, demonstrates how the bringing of himself as a gift, illuminated in the image of God, gives him the ability to create his “utmost art” which is perhaps represented by the “hymne” that closes the poem.

The way is open for the final union of both life and art with God. It is natural that Herbert should turn at this point in the journey of the soul to reconsider himself and his response to God as human being and poet in the specific context of the awaited union. As creature, he seeks now to respond with his “utmost” in the role of priest. He realizes that his fulfillment as a human being is in the perpetual spiritual child-likeness which God offers him in the priesthood.

This notion is reinforced in “The Collar” where the image of God in the priest is ultimately expressed in the one word “child”. His consideration of his priestly vocation in particular begins in “The Bag” where Christ is pictured as high priest, and culminates in “The Priesthood.” In the midst of this poem-group, “Clasping of Hands” restates the ideal of union which the speaker seeks as priest. It pictures a complete merging of identities as the poet is lost in the ‘simplicity’ or unity of God.

“The Flower” reinforces the theme of “utmost art” that springs from the ordered life of simplicity:

And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing: O my onely light,

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom they tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,

To make us see we are but flowers that glide:

Which when we once can finde and prove,

Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.

Who would be more,

Swelling through store,

Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

(“The Flower” ll. 36-49)

The garden where humanity dwells is again the life of ordered simplicity or wholeness in the presence of God, analogous to the external Eden of Adam in his unfallen simplicity. This garden image echoes the image of the ‘inclosed garden’ explicit in “The Familie”, and implicit in “Paradise”, both of which carry a similar meaning. In God’s inclosed garden, humanity is ordered )”pruned” as in “Paradise” so that the individual “buds”; life and art are perfected (“I live and write”).

As Herbert’s persona marvels over the fact that he can “bud” again, he immediately contrast his own spiritual vitality to the “Dotage” of others, again placing the ordered life of simplicity beside the false, complicated “guilded emptinesse” of the world which does not know the reality of God. The markedly aesthetic terminology is again reminiscent of both “Jordan I”, “Jordan II”, and “Frailtie”, as well as of “The H. Communion”, all of which embody similar contrasts relating the poet’s art to the spiritual life:

False glozing pleasures, casks of happinesse,

Foolish night-fires, womens and childrens wishes,

Chases in Arras, guilded emptinesse,

Shadows well mounted, dreams in a career,

Embroider’d lyes, nothing between two dishes;

These are the pleasures here.

True earnest sorrows, rooted miseries,

Anguish in grain, vexations ripe and blown,

Sure-footed griefs, solid calamities,

Plain demonstrations, evident and cleare,

Fetching their proofs ev’n from the very bone;

These are the sorrows here.

But oh the folly of distracted men,

Who griefs in earnest, joyes in jest pursue;

Preferring, like brute beasts, a lothsome den

Before a court, ev’n that above so cleare,

Where are no sorrows, but delights more true

Then miseries are here!

(“Dotage”)

The cumulative effect of the diction and the contrasts that emerge are already familiar. Again the true and the false, the simple and the complex, the real and the illusory are paralleled one to the other, and represented in terms of aesthetic simplicity and complexity or adornment. “Chases in Arras,” “guilded emptiness”, “Embroider’d lyes” as against “Plain demonstrations evident and clear” are suggestive of contrasts we have seen repeatedly in the course of  The Temple. The ideal of simplicity in both life and art is itself again reiterated two poems later in “A True Hymne”.

Herbert’s “true hymn” is simply to sing “My joy, my life, my crown!” He defends such simplicity by appealing to the kind of life from which it springs. His simple hymn, he says, is “the best art” if his soul itself mirrors a corresponding simplicity of God. But at the same time, he admits that such simplicity is “somewhat scant”, even though acceptable to God, reflecting God’s image of simplicity.

It is to this artistic tension the next poems in The Temple turn.

 

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blogmaster at New Westminster Anglican Blog.  The current blog series is intended to provide a reading guide to 17th century Anglican priest and poet’s cycle of poems, The Temple.    Your comments and observations are always welcome.

If you have a favourite Anglican writer you would like to celebrate, you are welcome to submit to stephendouglasbailey@gmail.com.                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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