The Poetry of Scripture
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Roughly two hundred years after George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote his poetry, another English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, praised him: “I find more substantial comfort now in pious George Herbert’s ‘Temple,’ which I used to read to amuse myself with his quaintness . . . than all the poetry since the poetry of Milton. If you have not read Herbert, I can recommend the book to you confidently.” Coleridge was not the only writer to commend Herbert. The Anglican divine found admirers in poets as diverse as John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, and W.H. Auden. Both Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot, who greatly regarded Herbert’s writing, offer flattering imitations of Herbert’s poetry in such modern masterpieces as “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Waste Land.” In several ways, Herbert’s The Temple (C. 1633) anticipates the exalted poetry of the American Puritan poet Edward Taylor’s God’s Determinations and Sacramental Meditations. Finally, a group of contemporaries and near contemporaries, including Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, and Henry Vaughan not only imitated Herbert’s work but developed his style in their own poetry.
As much as Herbert has influenced such writers, the poetry of John Donne, who tearfully delivered the funeral sermon for Herbert’s mother, influenced Herbert. Like Donne’s poems, Herbert’s poems addressed itself to the intellect and engaged in intellectual wordplay and ingenious comparison. In the poems in The Temple, Herbert’s ingenuity can be found not only his plays on words but also in his playfulness with the structure of the poems. His poems take the shape of the object they are narrating. Thus, “The Altar” is shaped like an altar, and “Eastern Wings” takes the shape of butterfly wings. Herbert’s poetry is also personally passionate, attempting to weave feelings and thought into a larger pattern. For Herbert, this means reliving as passionately as possible Christ’s sacrificial passion (“The Sacrifice”), as well as entering thoughtfully into the sacraments of the Church (“Baptism”). Herbert’s poems like “The Bunch of Grapes” and “The Windows” also display his love of wit and paradox, irony and ambiguity.
Herbert’s distinctness comes not only from his shaping his verse to match the objects he is describing but also from his punning with words and his use of acrostic structures. “Paradise” depends heavily on poetic punning, where each line in each stanza ends with a rhyme that is one letter shorter than the word in the previous line. Thus, “I bless thee, Lord, because I GROW/Among thy trees, which in a ROW/To thee both fruit and order OW(E).” In “Colossians 3:3,” Herbert ingeniously implants the entire verse of Scripture in bold letters strategically placed acrostic style in the poem. While these stylistic devices can sometimes make Herbert’s poetry difficult to read, patient readers will be richly rewarded. As T.S. Eliot once observed: “The Temple should be a document of interest to all those who are curious to understand their fellow men.”
For the last nine years of his life, Herbert served as the dedicated country parson to the church in Bemerton. In the poems in this collection, readers can hear the voice of a pastor instructing his congregation in doctrinal and liturgical matters. In addition, Herbert confesses his own struggles to be worthy of God’s love and redemption. These poems are at once intensely personal and passionately ecclesial, and may be read as meditations on the seasons of the Church calendar, the teachings of the Church, and the establishment and growth of Christian community.
The Temple is actually a sequence of poems that are shaped by the order of church ritual and liturgy. At the heart of the sequence stands The Church, poetry that structures itself on the pattern of the Church’s liturgical calendar and discusses theological ideas such as death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Herbert’s poetry is at once personal and confessional. His poems about the sacraments of the Eucharist and holy baptism, for example, are not only general theological explorations of the sacraments, but also the poet’s expressions of his struggle to reconcile his physical desires with his spiritual desires.
The poem sequence is patterned after the architecture of the church. It opens on the “Church-Porch,” a long poem that encourages readers to prepare themselves to enter the church itself. Herbert offers a number of maxims—“Be useful where you live”; “Let vain or busy thoughts have there no part”; “Judge not the preacher, for he is your judge”—that individuals wishing to enter the church must embrace in order to cleanse themselves before entering. Once these maxims have been accepted, congregants are prepared to cross the threshold of the church: “Thou, whom the former precepts have/Sprinkled and taught, how to behave/Thyself in church; approach and taste/The church’s mystical repast.”
Those who enter the church first approach “The Altar,” where Herbert emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the bond between individuals and Christ. In the final lines of this poem, Herbert cleverly introduces the subject of the subsequent poem in the sequence, “The Sacrifice”: “O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,/And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.” In “The Sacrifice,” Herbert attempts to make Christ’s sacrifice his own. The poems that follow “The Sacrifice” weave the threads of these first two poems into a rich tapestry depicting humanity’s dependence on God, their struggles to be reconciled to God in Christ, and their struggles to purify themselves of all earthly vanity and affliction. Throughout the collection, Herbert stresses that the human soul is God’s temple.
Herbert’s The Temple emphasizes the idea that a divine plan exists for the universe and that humans have a clear place in that design (a little lower than the angels with the possibility of falling below animals) in a church with well-ordered and elegant rituals. Herbert weaves Scripture elegantly in his poems, and he is also a masterfully uses Old Testament allusions to refer to New Testament themes.
The Temple was published posthumously, but in a letter to one of his friends Herbert declared his uncertainty about how much his poems might help others. “. . . tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it . . .”
We are much the richer that these poems were not consumed by fire.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.