George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

Genre: sacred lyric collection imitating the architectural structure of a church while tracing the story of the persona's struggle with faith.   All in all, there are probably more ways to read Herbert than are possible for any other poet in English literature. 

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 Bemerton.  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:

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. 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 Temple.
  2. 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?
  3. 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 poems as 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" super-plenitude.   
  4. 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: Richard Crashaw (1629-43).  The link also will give you access to poems other than those in the Norton.
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.
Main Collection 826.3 H53Ht
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 recommend the 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.

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