George Herbert, The Temple,
Genre: sacred lyric collection imitating the
architectural structure of a church while tracing the story of the persona's struggle with
All in all, there are
probably more ways to read Herbert than are possible for any other poet in
Form: extraordinary metrical experiments, including "shaped
poems," the most famous of which are "The Altar" and "Easter
Wings." The book as a whole also has the form of a spiritual autobiography in
lyrics, sacralizing the sonnet cycle's obsessive narration of the Lover-Beloved
relationship and redirecting its interest in philosophy to the limitations of
will-directed reason and the power of faith to command the believer.
Characters: Herbert's persona is almost indistinguishable from his historical one,
except that some of these poetic situations clearly are fanciful, and the personae of
"Love," "God," "heart," arise from the medieval allegorical
tradition but transcend it by means of Herbert's dexterous and surprising ability to make
them psychological forces as well as metaphysical phenomena.
Summary: Herbert's struggle tends to reflect his personal ambitions for a
worldly life which were set against the demands of his rural parsonage at
His ambition raised him from the fifth son of a dead Welch father to a member of
Parliament and of the faculty of Cambridge. But the death of patrons led him to
reconsider his objectives, and his last 3 years he lived as a poor country parson and
wrote all the poems in The Temple. If you are strapped for time and need to
read for the core of the assignment, I can suggest no better than "Jordan 1,"
"Denial," "Easter Wings," "The Collar," and "Love
3." See the note to "Jordan 1" to understand the numbers
following some titles--they're important to an appreciation of the enormous
"foreconceit" (as Sidney would have put it) which Herbert brought to the
creation of the whole collection.
Some poems and brief notes on issues:
- "The Altar"--note it is a "broken Altar" that the poem
describes--can you see divisions in the lines? Readers in the next century (Dryden
and Johnson, especially) attacked poems like Herbert's for wrenching the form of language
to make it more extraordinary than its message.
- Can this poem be defended as aesthetically appropriate to its content?
The poem occurs near the beginning of the cycle that makes up The Temple.
- Under what circumstances would a temple's altar be encountered first?
- "Redemption" has clear links to Everyman's discovery that he was only a
vassal of God, not an independent land-owner farming his body. How does this sonnet
use the Crucifixion as a context for the tennant's demand for a new lease? (This
also relates to the "Parable of the Vineyard.")
- "Easter" replays the lute song we encountered in Wyatt (see "My
Lute Awake," 530-1) with a holy text. It also sets up the "broken
string" rhymes of "Denial"'s outrageous parody of the traditional lute
- "Easter Wings" contains two paired stanzas, currently printed by the
Norton above one another. What would it do to your sense of the poem to place them
side by side? Consider them, for instance, on opposing pages of an open book.
To see the Luminarium page containing an image of Herbert's manuscript of the
poem's first stanza, click
Compare it with the UbuWeb Visual Poetry page containing an image of the first edition's printed version,
which you will note also differs from the way the Norton prints it.
Based on Herbert's manuscript page, how do you think he wanted the poem to
be set in print? (Note that he sent his poetic manuscripts to a friend
and died before they were printed.) If you are
interested in exploring more early shaped poems, go to UbuWeb's "Historical"
section and scroll down to "Early Visual Poetry: 1506-1726."
- "Affliction 1" may refer to the tuberculosis from which Herbert died,
as well as his own struggles to remain true to his faith when the pains of his illness
wracked his body. Notice the images we had seen in Donne's Holy Sonnets,
in lines 37ff. Herbert also makes use of a strategy of forgetfulness in the last
lines, a ploy we have seen before in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue."
- How does it reshape the flow of the poem?
"Affliction 1" is so named because it is one of a sequence of
"Affliction" poems that may be read together in a sequence which evolves the
poet's response to the topic. You will see similar numerical indicators in the
sequences about "Prayer," "Jordan," and "Love." Of the
three, the Norton editors only give you one comparison ("Jordan" 1 and 2) but
it's a good example.
- "Prayer 1" is an extended series of metaphors which build an
increasingly audacious set of comparisons, impelled by a rapid rhythm. One
might chart the rise and fall of the metaphors, or their violence vs. softness.
- "Jordan 1" contains the most famous rejection of courtly versifying in
English literature, though one Mary Herbert (no relation) brought out in the
"Piers" in the "Dialogue." This is not a sentiment without other
precedent in English poetic tradition, however. Anti-Petrarchanism in
Sidney's Astrophil and Stella take a similar stance with respect to
well-established poetic conventions for describing beauty, poetic
inspiration, etc. Also compare Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to
a summer's day?" and "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," for their
use of plain diction and the meter of ordinary speech to contrast with the
ornamented speech of other poets. However, Herbert's intentions
are considerable different from Shakespeare's, or Sidney's, except for the
psalm translations Sidney produced with his sister Mary.
- What does this poem's strategies tell you about Herbert's aesthetic and the problem of poetic ornament?
How would you compare it with Marvell's later, similar meditation on the
problem of writing religious verse,
bears a number which indicates Herbert meant it to be read in the context
of "Jordan 2," a second poem on the same subject, how to write about
sacred subjects using secular poetic techniques. Its title also
alludes to the river the Jews had to cross in order to enter the Promised
Land of Israel. Why would the poem be like that river?
- "Church Monuments" may readily be compared with Donne regarding the
body as the soul's container, shell, cover, etc.
- "The Windows" contrasts two kinds of preaching, one which sounds in the
ear and the other which sounds in the conscience. What kinds of windows does Herbert
refer to when he describes "This glorious and transcendent place" (4)?
- "Denial" has another wonderfully faulty rhyme scheme. See why I
made you pay attention to it before? If you had never noticed the trouble poets took
to rhyme, you'd never appreciate Herbert's studied resistance to rhyme in the narrative of
his disorderly mind's rebellion, until God remedies the defect in the last couplet.
- "Virtue" turns on the fourth's stanza's reversal of the previous three
stanzas' terminal refrain. Dying and living are, for Herbert, not merely physical
- "Man" returns to the man-microcosm theme to describe the human frame as
"God's house," a position that might be compared with Marvell's
- "Jordan 2"
strongly resembles Sidney's first sonnet in Astrophil and
Stella, both in its strategy and in its resolution of the problem it describes.
Its title indicates
Herbert intended it to be read in the context of "Jordan 1," which
addresses the same problem, how to write about sacred subjects using secular
- "Time" remarkably anticipates Marvell's "mower" poems in the
view of Death the Mower, and reflects a view similar to Mephistophilis' of the paradoxical
nature of time without access to the divine.
- "The Bunch of Grapes" takes up Christianity's "Old Law vs. New
Law" explanation of its relationship to Jewish tradition and makes of the "New
Law" a "wine" pressed from the Law at the Crucifixion.
- Who would the "grapevine" be and with what divinity does that associate him?
- "The Pilgrimage" follows the long line of Christian poetry viewing life
as a pilgrimage, which we first encountered in Chaucer and which might be considered an
answer to the "Wanderer"'s use of the ubi sunt theme. Note that it
develops as an allegory in which the landscape relates to spiritual states.
- "The Holdfast" returns in a theoretical way to the puzzle
of our existence in a borrowed form, on loan from God, and to the
constraints that places on the recipient's capacity to express thanks.
Remember that we're emerging from feudal world views about the naturalness
of lord-vassal relationships, with their presumed dependencies and
celebrated hierarchies. The emergence of an egalitarian,
proto-democratic culture sets up some serious challenges to those "in
debt." How can you repay a loan with borrowed money? This
attempts to resolve the paradox--but who's the "friend"?
- "The Collar" resembles Donne's Holy Sonnets in its use of violent verse
to depict violent spiritual crises. Its rhyme (see "Denial") is slightly
off, a kind of mockery of rhyme that challenges the "free" poet's rebellion
while he rants about what he's going to accomplish when he abandons religious verse.
This stumbling meter drops irregularly into dimeters until the final four lines bring true
rhyme in the sudden dialogue between a hithertofor ignored persona (i.e., "My
Lord") who has been overhearing the poem we've been considering ourselves the sole
- What does this do to us, as well as to the speaker?
- "The Pulley" condenses much of the argument of Everyman's final
sequence into three stanzas in an argument about the purpose of labor and suffering in
- "The Flower" seems intimately related to Marvell's view of the natural
Garden as God's creation (vs. the human-created one) and the danger of relying on
- "The Forerunners" follows the "Jordan" poems in its satire on
the love poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
- "Discipline" resembles a courtier's plea to an angry lord, which is, of
course, what it is, but it also uses the "Cupid's bow" motif, which we saw in
Surrey's "The Long Love," but shifts it to a dread of the power of divine love.
- "Death" plays the same game with the dreaded messenger of Everyman
that we see in Donne's Holy Sonnet #10.
- "Love 3" takes place in the context of the Christian Eucharist
feast which has its most famous example in the Last Supper but which occurs in every
sacrament of communion. "Love," the persona in which Herbert invokes God,
plays the seducer of the bashful Herbert, and Love-the-host utters gentle commands similar
to those we heard in "The Collar" and "Jordan 2." One also might
compare Julian of Norwich's description of her visionary God's "homely" behavior
- How might Julian's use of this word explain something important about Herbert and about
English ideas of the proper behavior of the mighty?
Issues and Research Sources:
Richard Crashaw (1629-43).
The link also will give you access to poems other than those in the Norton.
- Herbert's anguished drama of faith can seem alienating to some modern readers who prefer
to consider modern popular agnosticism or atheism as the result of our
"progress" in overcoming ancient superstitions. Others dislike witnessing
a man's innermost religious agonies, preferring (oddly) to listen to the erotic or
political disorders of other poets. Herbert's work went through 13 editions between
the first in 1633 and 1679, a total of over 20,000 copies (small for a
modern press run but enormous for this era!).
- What does this tell us about the poems' insight into the hearts and mind of readers in
the mid-seventeenth century, and what does the nearly complete extinction of interest of
Herbert in the next century (1709-1799) tell us about the ensuing shift in cultural interests?
- Why does Herbert's work become more popular in the 19th century than
he was in the 17th (based on number of editions)? Think about that
when you reach the Victorian era in English 212. To consult the
published editions of The Temple, use the Library's
"Electronic Resources" list and pick "WorldCat."
Search for "Herbert, George" as author and "The
Temple" as title--you'll get a few weird hits for an Egyptology
text, but all the others are individual printings (c. 150) of Herbert's
- The typography and mise-en-page (layout of the lines on the page) of poetry can be a
powerfully expressive tool for the artist. Modern printed editions, laboring under
the burdens of high reproduction costs and somewhat limited appreciations of the poet's
graphical sophistication often reduce the poems to the most economical form for
reproduction, a strategy which might violate a key aspect of the author's intentions.
- What might you find were you to look at the volume of Herbert's work as it was first
printed in 1633?
Since Herbert did not live to see his work through the printing process, but rather
consigned this task to a friend in London, it also is possible that even the first printed
edition might not reflect his actual intentions.
- From what kind of source might we recover his actual intentions, and does such a source
exist for Herbert's The Temple?
- Herbert's lyrics can be profitably compared with those of John Donne,
whose collected poems were also posthumously published in 1633, the same
year as the first print edition of The Temple.
When we compare John Donne's lyrics with
George Herbert's, you should be struck by how amazingly different their
diction is from the poems of their contemporaries, like Jonson's or
Herrick's. Particularly in poems like "To the Sun Rising" and
"Canonization," by Donne, and "Redemption," the two "Jordan" poems and "The
Collar," by Herbert, you suddenly hear the ordinary spoken Early Modern
English of the street in a poem about erotic love and love of God. The
rhythms also are spectacularly vernacular, which produces some of the exotic
variations in line length and meter we see in the poem's shape on the page.
"The Modern is coming!," both poets proclaim, though in other ways their
verses still hark back to Medieval values. If you think about the
verbal "dances," moving on their verbal "feet" (iambs, trochees, etc.) in sudden
thrusts and spins, you also can get a feel for what will become known in later
generations as "Mannerist" style, a precursor to Milton's (and Bach's) "Baroque"
- Herbert's religious lyrics also often are compared with those by Richard
Crashaw. If you are interested in specializing in lyric poets, you might
want to read a few of Crashaw's poems in order to have some way of putting
Herbert's work in context. Though they both write lyrics about Christian
themes, their verse is strikingly different. To see a Crashaw study
page, click here:
- If you are interested in the first part of this problem, you may wish to consult this
volume in the Julia Rogers Library:
- AUTHOR Herbert, George, 1593-1633.
TITLE The Temple. Sacred poems and private ejaculations. Being a facsimile reprint of the
first edition, with an introduction by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart.
PUB. INFO. New York, The Baker and Taylor co., [n.d.]
DESCRIPT xvi, 4 p. l., 192 p.
NOTE Contains three facsimile title pages.
ALT AUTHOR Grosart, Alexander Balloch, 1827-1899.
LOCATION CALL NO. STATUS x
Main Collection 826.3 H53Ht LIB USE ONLY
- If you use this volume, please take great care with it, as it is extremely rare.
Such precautions include washing your hands immediately before opening it (hand oils and
acids from sweat are death to C19 paper), bracing the open covers of the book from beneath
so the spine does not crack, and turning the pages with care so as not to tear the brittle
paper. To read the poems in a modern scholarly edition, I
library's copies of Hutchison's 1941 The Works of George Herbert,
which contains The Temple in its original print order along with his
other surviving works. If you would rather view all of The Temple's
poems online but in the order in which Herbert intended them to be published,
you can read them at
this web site
hosted by Calvin College and intended for serious Protestant readers.
Back to English 211,