As we near the end of our journey through The Temple, we see that Herbert’s ultimate ‘crown of praise’, is the ‘icon’ of his poetry. His art is an offering to a loving God with whom he is in relationship in the fullness of who and what he has been called to be. His poetry, as icon, represents a fusion of aesthetic simplicity and complexity through the introduction of a definite kind of order into the elements (prosody, statement of truth, imagery, diction, symbol, allusion, rhetorical devices) of specific poems so that those poems will be acceptable to God and spiritually illuminating to the human reader. As a poet/priest, the persona Herbert creates in The Temple serves both the God in whom he dwells and the human community where he has been placed to minister.
Nowhere is this situation more vividly illustrated than in such poems as “The Collar” and “Aaron”. In the former, the verse pattern moves from a marked disorder (which the poet initially conceives of as freedom) reflected in the rhythm and rhyme patterns to an ordered simplicity, a structural unity from which emerges the truth of the poet’s completed state of “childhood” in God. As Herbert scholar Joseph Summers noted some time back, in the last quatrain of the poem the “order in violent disorder” of the first eight quatrains is replaced with a true order which signifies Herbert’s renewed submission to the simplicity of God.
In contrast to the complexity in disarray of the first eight quatrains of “The Collar” is the completely ordered complexity of “Aaron”, the ultimate effect of which is a simplicity from which emerges the ‘simple’ truth of Christ’s all sufficiency for humanity. “Aaron” is thus faithful to the simplicity of spiritual truth which Herbert sought to reflect in his poetry; yet it illustrates Herbert’s mastery of complex poetic skills.
“Aaron” in its complexity (intricate bell-shaped stanzas, complexly woven verse patterns with rhyme and line parallels, and the pervading music metaphor — all of which practically invite one to read the poem six different ways by juxtaposing parallel lines) represents the creation of simplicity by a beautiful symmetry. If we look back in The Temple, we begin to see more and more of this deliberate ordering of poetic intricacies from the subtlest pun to the most profound ‘metaphysical conceit’. The ultimate effect is a simplicity that for him manifests the presence of God in his art through the ‘simple’ statement of spiritual truths, but which does not destroy the complexity and subtlety in which the reader delights. Truly, the simplicity arises from the complexity.
Thus a spiritual ideal of simplicity, the basis of which is a particular concept of the nature of cosmic order and harmony, is translated into concrete aesthetic terms. In effecting this translation of ideals from the realm of the spirit to the realm of art lies much of Herbert’s true greatness as a lyric artist.
We close with a word about “Love III”, the climactic poem of “The Church” that represents the poet’s achievement of full Union with God. In “Love III”, the ideal and the real, or the transcendental and the everyday world, time and timelessness come together as the poet is lost in the simplicity or all-encompassing wholeness of God. It’s one of the most powerful moments in The Temple , for the most complex and heightened state of spiritual awareness is ultimately conveyed in terms of overwhelming simplicity; the poet approaches mystical Union with God as he sits down to a meal in response to a simple invitation:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Not only does “Love III” reflect Anglican spirituality at its best, but it represents a skillful and aesthetically complex ordering of mystical, conventional love, and domestic statement, diction, and imagery. Yet the essence of the whole is a simplicity emerging from a purposefully ordered symmetry which in turn manifests both the spiritual simplicity of God seen in God’s response to humanity as all-embracing love (“You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat”), and God’s demand for nothing but humanity’s response of faith in return. The ordering of the spiritual life is the continual experience of the simplicity or the wholeness of being which is the image of God (“So I did sit and eat”).
In “Love III” Herbert once more fulfills his desire to embody the reality or presence of God in his art. For Herbert, ‘child of God plus priest plus poet’, makes an integrated personal whole. Herbert’s “utmost art” is this personal integration – a being at peace with itself as a perceived simple whole and as part of a greater simple whole. This situation, for Herbert, is to be ‘fully alive’.
We are all called to create the icon of “Utmost Art” in our lives in Christ, and we each take our own paths to get there. Insight into George Herbert’s path makes us richer as Christians, as Anglicans and as human beings. We are all called to Simplicity in God as a state of life, ordering ourselves as part of something we embrace that is beyond ourselves.
That is the challenge of our Anglican expression of Christian faith; it is the basis of our wonderful Anglican diversity and opens us to the most profound questions about the Gospel and the One who embodied it, and whom we serve.
Thank you, George Herbert.
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This series of essays on George Herbert is presented in honour of my beloved mentor Dr. Paul G. Stanwood, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia who inspired me in my own exploration of our rich Anglican spiritual tradition as embodied in the literature of 17th century England. It is based on a thesis I completed under Dr. Stanwood’s supervision, entitled “George Herbert’s Search for Simplicity in The Temple: Art and Life in the Image of God”.
Dr. Stanwood is a long time member of St. James’ Church in Vancouver. My son, Mark, also enjoyed Dr. Stanwood’s teaching as part of his degree in Religion and Literature. Paul has impacted two generations of the Bailey family. Thank you, Paul.
Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a blog master at New Westminster Anglican Blog, blogsite of the Diocese of New Westminster. Your contributions and observations are welcome.