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Jandy Stone

ENG5330: Metaphysical Poetry and Prose

Dr. Robert Ray

8 December 2006


The personal, devotional nature of much of George Herbert’s poetry belies the

volatile religious climate in which he lived. The seventeenth century was a time of more

religious conflict than almost any other time in history, as the divisions initiated by the

Reformation in 1517 were multiplied many times over, leading eventually to the Thirty

Years War on the European continent and the English Civil War. Yet, despite the fact that

Herbert was prominent in higher education, politics, and the church (through his offices

as orator at Cambridge University, a member of Parliament, and finally a priest in the

Church of England), the poems which make up “The Church,” the largest section of

Herbert’s masterwork “The Temple,” are remarkably devoid of explicit references to the

politically-charged religious controversies (Bell 64). That does not mean, however, that

he was uninfluenced by the atmosphere around him; rather, his poetry confirms him as a

devout Calvinist, faithful Anglican, and a liturgical worshiper. These three things may

seem antithetical from a vantage point three hundred years removed from Herbert’s time,

but in fact, they are not, as a closer examination of the historical and religious time period

will show.
The Lutheran Reformation began in 1517, when Martin Luther’s call for a debate

regarding the practice of selling indulgences, or pardons for one’s loved ones languishing

in purgatory. Luther did not intend to start a new church, but thanks to the newly-

invented printing press, his Ninety-Five Theses against indulgences spread quickly

throughout central Europe, caused his excommunication, and led to the foundation of

Protestantism. Luther’s church, centered in Germany, remained very similar in structure

and liturgy to the Roman Catholic church, but centered its theology on a trio of mottos:

sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola scriptura (scripture alone).

According to Luther, salvation from sin came only through faith, not through works; it

came only by the grace of God, not from any human effort or merit; and it was revealed

only through the Word of God, not through the traditions of the church.

In the early 1520s, Ulrich Zwingli led a further reformation in Zurich,

Switzerland, accepting Luther’s reforms but going beyond them in his rejection of “all

forms of false, external worship” (Benedict 24). Zwingli was against the ceremonialism,

decoration, and iconography of the Roman church; under his leadership, Zurich stripped

its churches of all images, statues, altars, and murals. The most heated debate between

Zwingli and Luther was over theology of the Eucharist: Zwingli held a view of the

Eucharist as purely symbolic, as opposed to Lutheran sacramental union, in which the

physical presence of Christ is added to the essence of the bread and wine—a doctrine

similar though distinct from Roman transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine

actually become the body and blood of Christ. Although both Luther and Zwingli were

reformers, Zwingli’s followers are generally grouped under the title “Reformed,” while

Luther’s remain “Lutheran.”

However, the man most associated with the term “Reformed” is French reformer

John Calvin, who based his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin’s two major

contributions to the Reformation were his monumental book of systematic theology The

Institutes of the Christian Faith, and the Reformed community of Geneva. He is most

associated with the doctrine of predestination, which states that God elected specific

individuals to be saved and, therefore, elected others not to be saved. The doctrine was

and is controversial, attacked both for being too harsh (would a loving God offhandedly

condemn people to hell?) and too lax (if human actions mean nothing, what incentive is

there to avoid sin?)—interestingly, it was more common at the time to consider

predestination too permissive rather than too strict (Veith 28). For Calvin, however, it

merely grew out of established tenets of Reformation theology: The idea that God is

sovereign, that he initiates and completes the entire process of salvation, and that man is

unable to contribute to his own salvation. Luther and Zwingli would have held these

positions in common with Calvin (Veith 19), though Luther did disagree with Calvin’s

wording of the predestination doctrine, preferring to concentrate on the saved rather than

the damned. In practice, “Calvin taught predestination as a pastoral-oriented doctrine that

was designed to comfort believers because it assured them that their salvation was not

dependent on their own efforts” (Heinze 175), and thus it was a corollary to the central

doctrine of God’s grace, not a central point in and of itself (Doerksen 14). Regarding the

Eucharist, Calvin took a middle road between Luther and Zwingli. In opposition to

Zwingli, he affirmed that Christ is truly present at the Lord’s Supper, making the meal

much more than just a symbol, but that Christ’s presence is spiritual, not physical, as in
Luther’s understanding (Heinze 176). But concerning church government and the use of

images, Calvin was much closer to Zwingli’s non-hierarchical, iconoclastic views.

This is a very basic outline of the situation in Europe in the sixteenth century.

England had a few twists of its own to add, largely the fact that its reformation was

politically motivated. Henry VIII declared himself head of the English church in 1534

because he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, something the Roman pope would not

grant. However, Henry remained devoted to Catholic theology and liturgy. His son

Edward VI attempted a more theologically-based reformation, but was thwarted by his

short life and his sister Mary’s ardent Catholicism. Many of the leading Protestants in

England who fled the country to escape Mary’s persecutions went to Geneva, bringing

Calvinism back with them when Elizabeth took the throne. Thus, when the English

Reformation truly took hold under Elizabeth, it was thoroughly Calvinist in theology

(Veith 26). However, Elizabeth was more concerned with securing unity within her

kingdom than with theological concerns in and of themselves, and she tended to resist

many of the demands for changes in the church’s structure and liturgy (Graves 247).

Thus Elizabeth’s conscious via media largely consisted of moderate Calvinist theology

combined with Lutheran/Episcopal church government and liturgy. When James I took

the throne in 1603, he similarly disliked extremism on both Catholic and Separatist sides,

seeing them as threats to his own authority, though he allowed for more autonomy in

matters of ceremony.

By the time of George Herbert, the English religious landscape was spread along

several different axes of opposition: theology, church government, and liturgy. It is far

too simplistic to make dichotomous categories of seventeenth-century English religious

thought, such as “Anglican vs Puritan” or “Anglican vs Calvinist.” The only definite

opposition that can be made is “Protestant vs. Roman Catholic.” Any other distinctions

must be careful to note which axis of opposition is under consideration. The question of

church government sets episcopalianism (rule by appointed bishops) against

presbyterianism (rule by elected presbyters) or congregationalism (rule by democratic

vote). The issue of liturgy is between the High Church, which retains much of the liturgy

and ceremonial trappings of Catholicism, and the Low Church, modeled more on

Zwingli’s simple approach to worship and church decorations. Theologically, the Church

of England was during Herbert’s life almost completely Calvinist. This did change

almost at the same time as Herbert’s death due to the influx of Arminianism. Jacobus

Arminius was a Dutch theologian of the late sixteenth century who argued against

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, claiming that it eliminated free will and personal

responsibility. The Reformed community, including a delegation of Englishmen sent by

James I, officially rejected Arminianism at the Synod of Dort in 1619, but in 1633

William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, and brought the Arminianism firmly

into the Anglican church. Laudianism is directly connected with both Arminianism and

High Church liturgy, thus it is all too easy to equate Anglicanism with liturgical worship

and Puritan anti-liturgical worship with Calvinism. Indeed, this is very nearly a true

picture of the religious standpoints at the time of the English Civil War, but for Herbert’s

only slightly earlier time period, there was no problem at all with being a High-Church

Calvinist, and it seems evident from his poetry that this is exactly what he was.

Herbert is especially concerned, as was Calvin, with man’s utter dependence upon

God for salvation, and the humility that must accompany the knowledge of one’s own sin
and the God’s grace. In “Nature,” he affirms first the essential depravity of mankind:

“Full of rebellion, I would die, / Or fight, or travel, or deny / That thou hast ought to do

with me” (1-3). Continuing on, he says that “If thou shalt let this venom lurk” (7),

suggesting that God must proactively removes the venomous sin from him and “engrave

thy rev’rend law and fear” (14) upon his heart—the speaker cannot do it himself. More

specifically, in “Grace,” he denies that his works do him any good: “My stock lies dead,

and no increase / Doth my dull husbandry improve: / O let thy graces without cease /

Drop from above!” (1-4). The poem continues with “Drop from above” as a refrain

reinforcing the speaker’s constant prayerful need for God’s grace. He shows in

“Giddiness” his inability to come to God without God’s intervention: “Lord, mend or

rather make us: one creation / Will not suffice our turn: / Except thou make us daily, we

shall spurn / Our own salvation” (25-29). This passage suggests that it is not enough

merely for God to fix us, as if our raw material was good but minorly flawed; no, we

must be entirely remade, and daily—because we continue to sin daily.

Yet despite Herbert’s deep understanding of his own sin, he, like Calvin, was

quite assured of his salvation. Though he does rebel at times, accusing God of not

listening in “Denial” and striking out against his calling in “The Collar,” he consistently

returns to the security he has in Christ. “Denial” itself ends with the answer to the prayer

it contains, as the last two lines finally rhyme, indicating the final unity between the

speaker and God. In addition to a very real, honest portrayal of the rebellion even a true

Christian sometimes feels against God, “The Collar” clearly shows Calvin’s doctrine of

irresistible grace. Though the speaker is currently unhappy and lashing out at God, when

God calls to him, he cannot help but answer: “But as I raved and grew more fierce and
wild / At every word, / Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child: / And I replied, My Lord”

(35-36). Ultimately, Herbert knows that even in his most disobedient moments, he is still

God’s child, a fact in which he takes comfort. Many other poems show assurance that

God will forgive his sin and bring him to salvation, from “Repentence,” which begins

with the speaker’s confession of his great sin and ends by asserting that “thou wilt sin and

grief destroy” (31), to “Judgement,” which contrasts works-righteousness (“That some

will turn thee to some leaves therein / so void of sin, / That they in merit shall excel” [8-

10]) with the speaker’s reliance upon the substitutionary death of Christ: “And thrust a

Testament into thy hand: / Let that be scanned. / There thou shalt find my faults are thine”

(13-15). Finally, the last poem in The Church leaves no doubt as to Herbert’s assuredness

of salvation. “Love (3)” describes the feast of heaven, which the speaker is not at first

sure he should attend: “yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin” (1-2). But Love

(i.e. Christ) draws him in, reassures him that he, Christ, “bore the blame” (15) and invites

him to sit and eat, which he does. In this one poem, Herbert gives us the sinfulness of

man, the proactive and substitutionary death of Christ, and the free gift of eternal

communion with God.

As we see throughout Herbert’s poetry, the Calvinist awareness of sin leads to a

greater appreciation of God’s grace, and the doctrine of predestination and its corollary

perseverance of the saints lead to an assurance of salvation. Gene Edward Veith suggests

that Herbert’s reliance on Calvinist doctrine is that major thing that distinguishes him

from his contemporary and friend John Donne (Veith 34). Donne is fearful of his own

damnation throughout his religious poetry, and he never seems to find lasting assurance

that God will save him—Veith believes this was due to his Armenianism, which kept him
constantly unsure of whether he had done enough to merit salvation. Herbert’s poetry, by

contrast, shows a man deeply aware of his own shortcomings, but fully convinced of his

own salvation through God’s grace. This is essentially the central theme of Calvinism.

Yet though Herbert holds to Calvin’s Reformed theology, he does not follow the

Reformed views on church government and liturgy. The followers of Zwinglian and

Calvinist in terms of church government preferred congregationally-elected leaders,

rather than appointed ones, as in the episcopal system. The Anglican church is episcopal,

meaning it is overseen by appointed bishops. Herbert himself was a churchman near the

end of his life, duly appointed to the position of Rector of Bemerton, and he did not share

the Swiss Reformers’ low view of ceremony and liturgy. Paul Dyck, in an illuminating

consideration of the construction of the poetic The Temple in relation to Herbert’s

rebuilding of the church at Leighton-Bromswald, points out that Herbert specifically

made the reading pew the same height as the pulpit, though generally in Anglican

churches it was lower. The liturgy was performed from the reading pew, the sermon from

the pulpit. The difference in height was meant to emphasize the importance of preaching,

a preference almost universal in Protestant circles both as an affirmation of the centrality

of Biblical exposition as well as a denial of Roman Catholic ceremonialism. Herbert

deliberately equalized the two, choosing in liturgical matters a middle road between

Rome and Geneva.

His respect for the physical church building can be seen in the series of poems

beginning with “Church-Monuments,” which show how the building itself and a person’s

movement through it can be beneficial for the devotional process. “Church-Monuments”

shows the proper use of burial monuments, not to increase the status or secure the
memory of the deceased, but as a reminder of man’s mortality. “Church-Music,” far from

eschewing the use of music in worship, as some of the more radical branches of the

Reformation did, celebrates the ability of sacred music to bring the worshipper directly

into the presence of God: “But if I travel in your company, / You know the way to

heaven’s door” (11-12). And “The Church-Floor” sees the very tenets of Reformed

spirituality (patience, humility, confidence, and charity) symbolically displayed in the

physical properties of the floor of the church. The “Church-” series of poems shows that

there can be something instructive about church decoration, and that the sort of complete

iconoclasm that Zwingli performed in Zurich may have, in fact, destroyed something of

value to the Christian life. In “The Priesthood,” Herbert implicitly accepts the

appropriateness of the Episcopal form of government while also recognizing that no man

is worthy to be a priest of God, except by God’s grace. And in “The Holy Communion,”

he points out that it is not “in rich furniture, or fine array, / Nor in a wedge of gold” (1-2)

that Christ comes to us, but in a meal, and even that meal comes only by grace (19).

Throughout his poems, Herbert balances a respect for the contributions to liturgy and

beauty inherited from the Roman Catholics with an understanding that the ceremonial

elements are only valuable so far as they draw the worshipper closer to God. All of these

poems, though dealing with public acts of worship in public places, are very focused on

the individual’s experience of grace. They are truly Reformed theologically, but do not

throw the Catholic baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, as some of the more

reactionary branches of the Reformation did.

One of Herbert’s most seemingly anti-ceremony poems, “Sion,” suggests in its

opening stanzas a dichotomy between ceremonial and plain worship styles: “Yet all this
glory, all this pomp and state / Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim” (7-8).

However, when we reach the bottom of the poem, it is not really a simpler worship style

being contrasted with the ornate carvings and gold inlays of Solomon’s temple, but the

groans and heartfelt pleas of the people. The differentiation Herbert is making is between

an “inner devotion against an outward devotion that is an end in itself. For the person

committed to keeping external forms, the danger always exists of relying upon those

forms rather than upon their end” (Dyck 240). The outward beauty of Solomon’s temple

was not a bad thing in and of itself, but it must not be the aim. Finally, “The British

Church” sums up Herbert’s liturgical position, preferring the middle way of Anglicanism

to either the completely externalized “wanton” worship of Rome or the too-plain worship

style of Geneva/Zurich. The important thing to note about “The British Church” is that it

is concerned not with theology per se, but with adornment of churches and forms of

worship (Veith 30).

Herbert’s combination of Calvinist theology, centered on the grace of God, and an

appreciation for a ceremonial liturgy is a healthy, tolerant one. He clearly sets himself

against Rome both liturgically (“The British Church”) and doctrinally (“To All Angels

and Saints”), but he is not reactionary even toward Rome. In “Anagram,” he reveres

Mary for her role in the birth of Christ, but he refuses to pray to her in “To All Angels and

Saints.” Though the Church of England may have been “but halfly reformed” according

to the sixteenth-century reformers who desired to implement Calvin and Zwingli’s

liturgical reforms as well as their theology, the poetry of George Herbert shows it is

actually possible to hold a Reformed view of the personal relationship between man and

God and still value the beauty and tradition of liturgical forms of worship.

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Delaware Press, 2004. 13-27.

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