Herbert’s Poetic Dilemma: Language and Simplicity of Life

Herbert’s restlessness with divesting himself from the best practices of poetic language and rhetorical practice is clearly brought to conscious expression in “The forerunners” where his rejection of “sweet phrases” and “lovely metaphors” is less than convincing. “The Forerunners” pictures the poet/persona supposedly in advanced age, losing his poetic skills. In his predicament, he embraces an aesthetic simplicity similar to that which we have seen a number of times before (“Antiphon I”, “Jordan I”, and “A True Hymne”) which will, he hopes, embody the “true beautie” he seeks to celebrate according to his stated intentions in “Jordan I” and “Jordan II”. The tone, however, is one of resignation. He loves his “sweet phrases” and “lovely metaphors”. They have, in fact, helped him to embody “true beautie”, the presence of God in his life and art, all along:

Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.

But will ye leave me thus? when ye before

Of stews and brothels onely knew the doors,

Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,

Brought you to Church well drest and clad:

My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.

(“The Forerunners”, ll. 13-18)

In truth, he has saved the elements of the poetic art from the “soil” of misuse rather than renouncing them in favour of a barren kind of simplicity. His responsibility as an artist makes such a renunciation impossible:

Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,

Hony of roses, whither wilt thou flie?

Hath some fond lover tic’d thee to thy bane?

And wilt thou leave the Church, and love a stie?

Fie, thou wilt soil thy broider’d coat

And hurt thy self, and him that sings the note.

Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung

with canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:

Let follie speak in her own native tongue.

True beautie dwells on high: ours is a flame

But borrow’d thence to light us thither.

Beautie and beauteous words should go together.

(“The Forerunners”, ll. 19-30)

Implicit in the very tones of doubtful resignation which pervades “The Forerunners”, then, is Herbert’s realization that “Thou art still my God” just is not the way to write poems even though this kind of simplicity has been valued in the past. The air of resignation becomes even more marked toward the end of the poem:

Yet if you go, I passe not; take your way;

For, Thou art still my God, is all that ye

Perhaps with more embellishment can say.

Go birds of spring: let winter have his fee;

Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,

So all within be livelier then before.

(“The Forerunners”, ll. 31-36

The “birds of spring” are difficult to give up. That which strips him of resources as a poet is a “harbinger”, indeed, and not a purifier. His art must be full, not scant, and yet ‘simple’. It must fulfill the aesthetic requirements which challenge the master of a beautifully complex art, and yet retain the simplicity which manifests the image and presence of God. Herbert cannot sustain an artistic identity which demands that

Invention rest,

Comparisons go play, wit use thy will:

(“The Posie”, ll. 9-10)

Ultimately, his “crown of praise” is not “Thou art still my God”, or “My God and King”, but the “wreathed garland”, the skillfully woven art of the poet which, when infused with a simplicity that manifests the image of God, becomes a crown of praise:

A wreathed garland of deserved praise,

Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,

I give to thee, who knowest all my ways,

My crooked winding wayes, wherein I live,

Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,

Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,

To thee, who art more farre above deceit,

Then deceit seems above simplicitie.

Give me simplicitie, that I may live,

So live and like, that I may know, thy wayes,

Know them and practise them: then shall I give

For this poore wreath give thee a crown of praise.

(“A Wreath”)

In “A Wreath”, Herbert prays for the simplicity of God which will introduce order into his “crooked winding ways”, making them straight.  Life, found only in the simplicity of God, is identified with that which is “straight” or ordered. Death is found in the “winding wayes”, and is identified with an unordered state of existence. It is the life of ordered simplicity that lives and practices the ways of God, responding to God with the “utmost” in life and art. Awareness of order is the genesis of true simplicity in life and art.  Thus “A  Wreath” in one respect represents a climax of Herbert’s investigations into the nature of the simplicity for which he has striven in seeking throughout The Temple to conform his art to the image of God. The threads of his investigation converge with his final arrival at a complete awareness that simplicity in art as well as in life is the result of a particular ordering of things which without the unifying presence of that order reflect a sheer complexity or disarray foreign to the image of God.

The intimate relationship between life and art that has been celebrated since “The Thanksgiving” is given its ultimate expression through a direct appeal to the ideal of simplicitas which brings together the four thematic movements that we have identified as basic to Herbert’s quest for poetic simplicity in the context of his dual audience : (1) the discussion of the relationship between life and art which stresses that poetry embodying the image of God comes only from a life conformed to the image of God; (2) the discussion of the ordered life which manifests the image of God as a life of simplicity; (3) the discussion of the ordered life of simplicity in aesthetic terms; and (4) the discussion of the poetic art in terms of a search for aesthetic simplicity. The journey is being completed.

Next time: What can we conclude from our journey through The Temple?

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam. George Herbert was a 17th century English poet and priest who represents one important stream of Anglican spirituality. Your comments and contributions are always welcome.


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2 Responses to Herbert’s Poetic Dilemma: Language and Simplicity of Life

    • Thanks, Robert. George Herbert has always meant a lot to me personally and academically. I’m completing this series as a tribute to him and to my beloved mentor and Anglican scholar Dr. Paul Stanwood, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia and member of St. James parish.

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