Title: GEORGE HERBERT: `THE BEST LOVE' ,  By: Low, Anthony, Renascence, 00344346, Spring93, Vol. 45, Issue 3
Database: MasterFILE Select

George Herbert found it difficult to accept in full the implications of the traditional biblical tropes of love and marriage, in which Christ is figured as the bridegroom and the Church or the individual Christian as the bride. As Donne had urged, in a sermon preached before the King at Whitehall on 24 February 1625/26, the language of sexual love and marriage is especially appropriate in speaking about divine matters: "GOD is Love, and the Holy Ghost is amorous in his Metaphors; everie where his Scriptures abound with the notions of Love, of Spouse, and Husband, and Marriadge Songs, and Marriadge Supper, and Marriadge-Bedde" (7:87-88). Like Donne, Herbert often employs the language of sexual love in his poetry but, as we shall see, he always uses it to figure forth what we may call the "courtship" stage of the divine-human love affair, never the consummation or the marriage stage.[1] Herbert reveals none of Donne's particular nervousness or his inner conflict upon assuming the female role. (For a discussion of Donne's treatment of love and marriage in his divine poems, see Low, Reinvention, chapter 3.) Rather, he avoids continuing in that role to the point of consummation or of marriage. As we shall find, before that point--and sometimes during the course of a single poem--he substitutes for the male-female model of love an entirely different model. So, while Donne revels in the imagery of human sexuality, of marriage, of consummation, even of rape--yet always squirms at assuming the obligatory feminine role--Herbert easily accepts that role--until the moment of consummation. Then he drops it. In its place, as I shall argue, he introduces another, apparently incompatible, love relationship, which is embodied in another traditional biblical trope--the trope of father and son. Donne too uses both marital and parental imagery; but he does not, as Herbert does, substitute the one for the other just at the point where courtship gives place to consummation and marriage. Herbert uses the marital trope for longing love, the parental trope for satisfied love.

What we know about Herbert's basic attitudes concerning human love in its various forms, and especially concerning the love of man for woman, is mainly based on his two well-known sonnets rejecting secular love as a subject for his poetry. According to Izaak Walton, he wrote and enclosed them in a letter to his mother Magdalen Herbert as a "New-years girl" during his first year at Cambridge.[2] A few small clues from Herberts other writings may usefully be touched on, however, before we consider these sonnets. In his collection of Outlandish Proverbs (London 1640), some of which he may have thought wise, others merely telling or amusing, there are a number of scattered sentences on the subjects of love, women, and marriage. (On the proverbs, which are identified by Hutchison's numbers [Herbert 321-55], see Benet, "Magic Shoe.") It is useful to cite them all, in order of appearance, to get some idea of the total picture. First those on love: "Hee begins to die, that quits his desires" (2). "Love and a Cough cannot be hid" (49). "No love to a Fathers" (121). "He that hath love in his brest, hath spurres in his sides" (426). "To bee beloved is above all bargaines" (631). "Love makes one fitt for any work" (646). "The best smell is bread, the best savour, salt, the best love that of children" (741). And there is a cluster of five sentences on love: "Love is the true price of love." "Love rules his kingdome without a sword." "Love makes all hard hearts gentle." "Love makes a good eye squint." "Love askes faith, and faith firmnesse" (540-44). Of all these sayings, only one is predominantly cynical: "Love makes a good eye squint." The others acknowledge love's power, its ability to spur worthy ambition and to gentle the hard of heart, its irrepressibility, its inseparability from simply being human and alive. We cannot know whether Herbert thoroughly approved of all of these sentiments, or some of them, or whether he simply recognized the importance of understanding love's force in the world. Not surprisingly, the sum of these proverbs is--proverbial. That is, they represent the wisdom of the world and of the times, the kind of knowledge we are well advised to turn over in our minds and try to understand, whether or not we always agree.

On the subjects of women and marriage, Herbert's proverbs are, as we might expect, also at one with his times, which is to say that they are usually more diminishing and cynical than those on love. "A faire wife and a frontire Castle breede quarrels" (103). "The wrongs of a Husband or Master are not reproached" (139). "Shee spins well that breedes her children" (144). "Dally not with mony or women" (150). "Advise none to marry or to goe to warre" (236). "A woman and a glasse are ever in danger" (244). "The more women looke in their glasse, the lesse they looke to their house" (250). "A married man tums his staffe into a stake" (366). "Mills and wives ever want" (388). "Hee that hath a Fox for his mate, hath neede of a net at his girdle" (428). "Who letts his wife goe to every feast, and his horse drinke at every water, shall neither have good wife nor good horse" (434). "A house and a woman sute excellently" (468). "A poore beauty finds more lovers then husbands" (481). "Discreet women have neither eyes nor eares" (482). "Prettinesse dies first" (484). "In chusing a wife, and buying a sword, we ought not to trust another" (490). "He that hath homes in his bosom, let him not put them on his head" (567). "Gaming, women, and wine, while they laugh they make men pine" (604).

Even when a proverb is less cynical than most of these are, it is unlikely to reassure a modem sensibility: "In the husband wisedome, in the wife gentlenesse" (658). And even such limited compliments to women are few. "Hee that hath a wife and children wants not businesse" (778). "A shippe and a woman are ever repairing" (780). "Words are women, deedes are men" (843). "He that marries late, marries ill" (863). "A morning sunne, and a wine-bred child, and a latin-bred woman, seldome end well" (866). "Chuse a horse made, and a wife to make" (871). "The wife is the key of the house" (904). "Hee that tells his wife newes is but newly married" (987). The gist of these sayings is that marriage is a burden and a trap, that virtue and meekness are better in a wife than beauty, and that women are best kept firmly in their place. Do these sentences tell us that Herbert was more patriarchal and oppressive than the norm of his times, as the collective wisdom of our time is likely to conclude? Or do they simply confirm that the stream of folk wisdom on which he drew was usually antifeminist? It is notable that Herbert's selection of proverbs shows no tendency to quarrel with a general pattern characteristic of his and of earlier periods: a tendency to see love or being in love as something positive but the ordinary objects and ends of love--women, women's aspirations, and marriage--as dangerous, burdensome, and disillusioning.

Altogether, Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs are congruent with the typical world-view of a courtly lover, largely disillusioned, who prefers to dwell on unrequited love, to treat woman as an unattainable ideal or as an inspiration to other, implicitly worthier activities. (Even though theory claims that the woman's worth inspires worthiness.) When a man's love is accepted or returned, and the ideal comes down to earth to be embodied in a real-life partner or wife--another person who must be dealt with--the picture immediately darkens. But since it is so difficult to know, without cross-bearings, what Herbert thought about these sometimes conflicting pieces of folk-wisdom, let us take them under advisement for the moment and proceed.

When Herbert wrote in A Priest to the Temple that "The Country Parson considering that virginity is a higher state then Matrimony . . . is rather unmarryed, then marryed" (236-37), he had probably been married to the former Jane Danvers for two or three years.[3] But in giving virginity the preference he was presumably echoing St. Paul, not regretting his choice. (The words however, do separate Herbert from the more Puritan branch of his church, which preferred marriage to virginity.) In the latter part of this chapter, he continues: "If he be marryed, the choyce of his wife was made rather by his eare, then by his eye; his judgement, not his affection found out a fit wife for him, whose humble, and liberall disposition he preferred before beauty, riches, or honour" (238). The sentiment, that a man should prefer inward virtue in a woman to outward beauty or worldly advantage, is not unusual, but the two particular aspects of virtue that Herbert specifies, humility and liberality, are worth dwelling on a little further.

The husband, Herbert argues, is "the good instrument of God to bring women to heaven." Out of his wife's humility he can produce "any speciall grace of faith, patience, meeknesse, love, obedience, etc. and out of liberality, make her fruitfull in all good works." This may certainly appear to us to be marriage as a limited partnership. We may recall Milton's often-deprecated phrase, "Hee for God only, shee for God in him," words that the narrator uses to describe the prelapsarian relationship between Adam and Eve when they are first introduced in Paradise Lost (4.299). Herbert's clerical husband too is the guide and master, and his wife, much more than Eve, may seem to be nearly his servant. Elsewhere Herbert distinguishes between servants and family: "To his Children he [the country parson] shewes more love then terrour, to his servants more terrour then love" (241). A wife normally came above her children in the family hierarchy. Still, Herbert has a firmly subordinationist view of marriage. Whether he was able to put his theories entirely into practice, however, is another question. Walton (though he suggests that Herbert went out and found a wife without much romantic fuss) presents a generally idyllic picture of his marriage. But Aubrey's brief comments raise a discordant note: "His mariage, I suppose, hastened his death. My kinswoman was a handsome bona roba and ingeniose" --which seems to imply that he found her dangerously beautiful and willfully clever. (Charles [143] quotes part of Aubrey's "waspish" remark and attempts to put a mitigating construction on it.) Not only was Aubrey related to Jane Danvers Herbert, but he indicates that he had a knowledgeable informant in "H. Allen, of Dantsey," who was "well acquainted with" Herbert during the first year of his marriage.

In her favor, we know that Jane Herbert agreed to take on a large household, which included Herbert's three orphaned nieces. Walton also credits her with cheerfully putting into practice that part of Herbert's plan that involved converting his wife's natural "liberality" into Christian charity: "he was most happy in his Wifes unforc'd compliance with his acts of Charity, whom he made his Almoner, and paid constantly into her hand, a tenth penny of what money he receiv'd for Tythe, and gave her power to dispose that to the poor of his Parish . . . which trust she did most faithfully perform . . . for she rejoyc'd in the employment."[4] We may guess from these mixed testimonies that Herbert put his plans for an ideal marriage into effect as well as he could, but that he found that a husband, not unlike that God in whose place he deemed himself to stand, must sometimes work with a refractory subject, with a person having a will of her own.

Now we may return to the two sonnets from Walton's Lives. They delineate a love that falls entirely within the Petrarchan, courtly-love tradition.

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus Livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy wayes are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day Worms may chance refuse?

Even in repudiation, none but conventional courtly or Petrarchan love themes and images are embodied in this first poem. Here we find Venus and Cupid, hot flames of passion, elevation of the lover's spirit by love of his mistress, and conversion of love into the production of smooth verses, offered up in sacrifice to a deified mistress on a pagan, venerian altar. The rejected lover's stance, too, as exemplified by his language, is entirely courtly. His poetry wears "Venus Livery" like a feudal servant, and it elevates his mistress into the heavens while it offers itself up to be burnt. Ironically, Herbert tums this worship of the mistress, which originally derived its terminology from the parody of religion, back toward its original object, as the sonnet becomes a parody of a parody.[5] Of course, Herbert evokes the old Petrarchan formulas only to criticize and reject them. Still, in vowing to turn to God he rejects neither the courtier's manner and stance nor his longing to serve and adore, but only his object.

As Louis Martz has pointed out (The Poetry of Meditation 141), the classical English statement on sacred parody of secular love poetry is provided by Robert Southwell (Preface), who argues that the sacred lover may employ the same passions and affections as the secular lover, provided that he redirects them upward toward God. Herbert's final tercet follows Southwell's advice strictly. The fires of love, the improving pains of passion and longing, are not to be condemned or expunged, but simply redirected from the worship of a falsely deified mistress to the living God who created human passions and is their best and fittest object.

The second Walton sonnet focuses on the proper use of imagery. As with the passions, the images of secular love poetry are not to be condemned but converted to better and more legitimate uses. The right use, in each case, is to praise the Creator. All of creation mutely praises its maker, and, as Herbert will make explicit in "Providence," one of the poet's proper offices is to become their articulate spokesman, the "Secretarie of [God's] praise" (1.8).

Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and Lillies speak thee; and to make
A pair of Cheeks of them, is thy abuse . . .
Such poor invention bums in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some Ink bestow.
(ll.4-7, 9-11)

Thus the second sonnet continues along the general lines set by the first. Poetic images, like passions, should be restored to the true Creator of the objects from which the poet originally draws them. God is the author of beauty. The poet's misused faculty of invention, which finds these images and puts them to false ends, should be tamed and redirected upward.

The final tercet, however, introduces a shocking turn, which echoes but far exceeds the troubling but more nearly conventional tercet of the first poem:

Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when, Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.
(ll. 12-14)

In part, the sentiment is ancient: flesh dies, but God and the spirit are eternal. Yet the particular imagery and the nature of the poetic gesture are, for Herbert's time, disturbingly modem and scientific. They evoke not only the traditional momento mori but also the most disillusioning aims and discoveries of the New Philosophy. They involve the true poet in actively attacking and metaphorically mutilating the false poet's imagined mistress, and not merely in pointing out her eventual mortality or even her sinfulness. They are an anatomy, which murders to dissect. They violently cut, open up, and savagely destroy not only the Petrarchan mistress's lovely face, but the ideal Petrarchan vision itself. (On the emotional and philosophical import of the anatomy, see Hodges.) They recall the deeply disillusioning yet fascinated unease with which Donne reacted to the New Philosophy, of which the anatomy is so characteristic a manifestation. Donne too uses the literary anatomy as a method to disturb the air of some of his stranger love poems.

Of course, had he not written The Temple, no one but a few specialists would now read Herbert or trouble to ask what he thought about love. But love is central to The Temple. In a significant article Rosemond Tuve estimates that "all but some twenty of the hundred and seventy odd poems raise one or more of the many traditional questions which surround the problem of the nature of Christian love" ("Caritas" 168). Tuve rightly argues that the form of love that dominates The Temple is agape, God's perfect love for man. She has much of value to say concerning the major traditional treatments of that love, with which Herbert would certainly have been familiar.[6] Some of the best-known and most important exponents in the main tradition were St. John (the Evangelist), St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventura, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bernard. (A more recent authority is Nygren. Most critics who discuss Herbert necessarily discuss love, yet few have taken it as a main theme.) But if divine love comes initially and overwhelmingly down from God, it also poses the problem of how, or whether, or in what way, God's love can be returned by man. (On the problem of reciprocation, see Benet, Secretary.) Unlike Martz, Tuve is largely concerned to draw a sharp distinction, one might almost say a wall of separation, between human love and divine, which, she thinks, certain unnamed critics have been guilty of blurring and confusing.[7] To a degree, she makes a valid theological point but does less than justice to Herbert the human being as opposed to Herbert the theologian. Perhaps Herbert strove to find a way of returning agape in all its purity to God, if only by admitting the human impossibility of doing so. But in even the purest and most elevated of devotional poets, sacred love takes on the coloration of human emotions, sensibly accomodates itself to human understanding and feelings, and, in putting itself into words and images, models itself on familiar human relationships. As Donne argued in his Paul's Cross sermon of 24 March 1616/17, "Relations constitute one another." (1:183-84). So the question still arises. What view of human love or human relationship lies behind Herbert's great religious lyrics?

Rosemond Tuve has already argued extensively and persuasively that courtly love is not a model for The Temple. The essence of courtly or Petrarchan love is that the mistress should be haughty and unapproachable, but, as Tuve points out, "Here is a love poet who never mentions, or implies, or fears, that his love is unrequited." As she also points out, "The forms and attitudes of secular love pleas are little use as models in a situation where the partner who pleads is also the partner who is unready." Finally, she observes that the "speaker is a most well-beloved one asking help against self-caused suffering, not an unregarded servant in love with submission" ("Caritas" 177-79). In brief, Herbert's devotional poems simply lack the main characteristics of the Petrarchan love relationship. He borrowed much of his style or verse technique from Sidney, as Martz argues, but not his amatory technique.

To Tuve's cogent observations we may add another. There is hardly a suggestion, anywhere in The Temple, of fulfilled love between the sexes, whether courtly or of any other kind. Nor does Herbert noticeably represent sacred love by means of sexual or marital metaphors. This relative lack of secular love imagery is especially surprising when we remember the devotional poems of two of Herbert's fellow poets and near-contemporaries, Donne and Crashaw, often thought of as belonging to the same school, one his predecessor and the other his successor. Or we may also remember the ancient and (however troubling to the modem mind) thoroughly orthodox tradition of devotional writings along similar lines stretching all the way back to the Song of Songs. (On the Song of Songs, see Stewart.) This devotional tradition included, in seventeenth-century England, writers as diverse as the Laudian and Catholic Crashaw and the Calvinist Francis Rous, who produced such observations as: "There is a chamber within us, and a bed of love within that chamber wherein Christ meetes and rests with the soule" (cited by Bertonasco 49).

Calling to mind, too, St. John of the Cross's typically lush and passionate imagery, let us consider the last stanza of Herbert's "Even-song," which is about the closest that he comes to the biblical tradition of the divine marriage between God and the soul or God and the Church:

I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night: that is the gale, this th' harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that the garden, this the grove.
My God, thou art all love.
Not one poore minute scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.

The imagery is movingly beautiful, with its walks and arbors, gardens and groves, which insistently recall the Song of Songs, or such poems based on that work as St. John's "En una noche oscura" and (at a later date) Vaughan's "The Night." Characteristically Herbert's language is understated but the feelings he expresses still are powerful. We are persuaded that for Herbert God is, indeed, "all love." Nevertheless, the love in which the poet finally rests, as in a bed, is not the "bed of love" that Rous derives from the Bible. It is a bed not of near-sexual ecstasy but of secure feelings. One might more appropriately imagine the poet not as a bride enjoying her husband's embraces, but as a child, content after a long absence to be home in bed.

Once we have realized that this is so, that Herbert sometimes skirts the sexually suggestive yet avoids fully evoking it, we find that the same is true of other poems in which we might expect him to employ traditional metaphors of sexual passion or of marriage. "Love" 1 and 2, for example, which have often been read as mature versions of the two Walton sonnets--as, in fact, precisely the kind of love sonnets to God that Herbert had earlier promised to write, prove to be nothing of the kind. Although he addresses God in the opening of the first sonnet as "Immortall Love," and in the opening of the second as "Immortall Heat," any expectation we might have of finding a continuous imitation or parody of secular love poetry is aroused only to be dissipated. "Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde, / Who wert disseized by usurping lust," Herbert promises his God, toward the close of "Love" 2. But in the very next lines he discloses a chaste resolution of this promise. His former lust is replaced not by sanctioned love and marriage but by an obviously joyous yet sexless obeisance: "All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,[8] / And praise him who did make and mend our eies" (ll. 11-14).

Likewise "The Search" seems to begin in the tradition of the Song of Songs, evoking the love-sick bride overcome with longing for her absent spouse:

Whither, O, wither, art thou fled, My Lord, my Love? . . .

I sent a sigh to seek thee out, Deep drawn in pain,

Wing'd like an arrow: but my scout Returns in vain.

(ll. 1-2, 17-20)

But when at length the poet imagines his God returning to him, there is no longer any suggestion of a sexual or marital relationship:

When thou dost turn, and wilt be neare;
What edge so keen,
What point so piercing can appeare
To come between?

For as thy absence doth excell
All distance known:
So doth thy nearnesse bear the bell,
Making two one.

The image of two persons who have grown so close that they become inseparably one reminds us of the secular love tradition--for example, of Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" or Donne's "The Extasie." Yet once again Herbert excludes from the consummation he has longed for any explicit hint of a sexual metaphor or even the chastest of marital comparisons.

I should add that the few poems I have cited in this connection are exceptional in The Temple, not because they refrain from extending the initial suggestion of a sexual metaphor to describe sacred love itself, but because they even begin to allow that such a metaphor may be possible. Most poems in The Temple refrain entirely from alluding to even the most refined sort of secular love, and certainly from anything noticeably sexual, except when they describe truancy or sin. "Discipline" is our final example of a poem that introduces a refined metaphor of sexual love, which the reader might expect Herbert to develop to its logical conclusion. Once more, however, he refrains.

Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.

For my hearts desire
Unto thine is bent:
I aspire
To a full consent. . . .

Love is swift of foot;
Love's a man of warre,
And can shoot,
And can hit from farre.

Who can scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou are God:
Throw away thy wrath.
(ll. 1-8, 21-32)

This, one of Herbert's strongest, simplest, and most affecting lyrics, comes perhaps as close as any of his poems to the language and the characteristic stance of the Song of Songs. But even here Herbert is, to say the least, reticent. His lines irresistibly recall the imagery of pagan lyrics and of elegies to Cupid as well as the Song of Songs. Yet, even though an undeniable element of sexual longing shows through the poet's expression of dissatisfaction, no corresponding scene of sexual fulfillment or of marriage ultimately emerges.

Herbert explicitly dismisses the marriage metaphor for Christian love in "The Size."

Content thee, greedie heart.
Modest and moderate joyes to those, that have
Title to more hereafter when they part,
Are passing brave. . . .

A Christians state and case
Is not a corpulant, but a thinne and spare,
Yet active strength: whose long and bonie face
Content and care
Do seem to equally divide,
Like a pretender, not a bride.
(ll. 1-4, 31-36)

Given the context, a praise of fasting, and the tone, which seems comical, this cannot be taken as Herbert's definitive rejection of the bridal metaphor for a Christian's relation with God. But it certainly falls in with his reluctance to employ it elsewhere, and it may be read as an implicit criticism of those who presume to cast themselves in such a role.

As Herbert avoids speaking clearly about the marriage of God and the soul, he also avoids the long accepted, closely related image, on which Donne plays so shockingly in "Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and clear," of the Church as the bride of Christ. In Herbert's poems the Church is regularly the dignified and beloved Mother of its incorporate members, but, with one minor exception, never the bride of God. Once in "The Church Militant" Herbert uses the formula to describe the Church's origins (ll.9-16), but in the balance of the poem, as the Church descends from its first origins and grows increasingly corrupted, he drops it. In "The British Church" he noticeably uses conventional variants of this traditional image only in speaking about those churches he considers to be false. The Catholic Church, like the Whore of Babylon, "wantonly / Allureth" her followers. She has so often kissed her "painted shrines / That ev'n her face by kissing shines" (ll. 13-16). The Puritan ideal of the Church, to the contrary, is so "shie / Of dressing" that, in another surprisingly suggestive image, she "nothing wears" (ll. 19-24). Only the Anglican Church deserves to be legitimately honored as our "dearest Mother." Yet God shows his love for Herbert's Church more as an architect or as a military commander than as a familiar husband: he can be counted on to "double-moat" her with his grace. Herbert depicts only false religion in sexual terms, while the true Church, apparently, has become the loving mother of its members without ever having been Christ's bride.

Nowhere does Herbert explicitly put forward the view, neognostic rather than strictly Christian, that sex is simply and intrinsically evil. Yet he was clearly uncomfortable with the use of sexual imagery in certain religious contexts in a way that Donne was not. One might speculate from the mainly negative evidence of The Temple that he was naturally inclined to such tendencies. His poems evoke the seductive, the sensual, and the scatalogical only in order to exemplify sin or temptation. Sometimes they embody religious longing in the language of romantic love, but they refrain from even the mildest suggestion that there might be a resemblance between a man's pure love for a woman and Christian caritas, or that God's love for souls and for his Church might be like a husband's love for his wife.

Although Herbert's two sonnets to his mother seem to promise that he intends to take Southwell's advice and to rechannel his secular passions into similar but higher sacred passions, and the same promise is at least implied in several of his other poems, Herbert always disappoints us. Or, more accurately, he manages quietly and very unobtrusively to redirect us, since (so far as I know) none of these poems has given its readers the impression that the poet has wavered, or has failed to deliver what he promised. I think this would not be the case if Herbert simply went from concrete, human imagery in describing his repudiation of secular love to vague, merely abstract, imagery in describing his conversion to the sacred. His poems often move from body to spirit, certainly, but without a corresponding loss of human warmth. I think that this paradoxical result is possible because Herbert substitutes for romantic love certain other, equally human, kinds of love, which help make his poems emotionally convincing.

One of these kinds of love is a servant's loyalty to his master. This is, of course, a stance or an attitude very similar to the love of a Petrarchan poet for his mistress, but as we have seen, Herbert simply avoids making this timeworn connection when he moves from the secular to the sacred. In "Jordan" 1, he exchanges the "fictions" and "false hair" (l. 1) of the courtly lover not for a redirected love of God leading to spiritual betrothal, but for a simple yet loving act of obeisance to an absolute superior and ruler: "Nor let them punish me with losse of rime, / Who plainly say, My God, My King" (ll. 14-15). (See Lowe, "Court Masque.") In "Jordan" 2, although he closely parodies the first love sonnet of Astrophil and Stella, he replaces Sidney's mistress with a "friend" (l.15) whom he would honor and serve. In "Discipline," as we have seen, he does not approach God as a lover. Rather, here too he is the most abject of subjects, of a great king, not of a mistress: "Yet I creep / To the throne of grace" (ll. 15-16).

Michael Schoenfeldt has so thoroughly and convincingly discussed the poetics of patronage in Herbert's poetry that it is unnecessary for me to argue again how important, pervasive, and subtle this pattern is. The imagery of God as King or as feudal superior and of the poet as his servant runs all through The Temple. In perhaps the greatest of Herbert's poems on caritas, "Love" 3, a conversation takes place between a host and a guest, a master and a servant. They contest the nature of love indirectly by contesting the nature of service. Although the poet sits down to a meal which represents both the Eucharist and the heavenly banquet, there is no recollection of the particular occasion for the banquet in what has seemed to many critics to be Herbert's chief biblical source, the parable of the guests invited to a wedding feast.

The poet typically begins "Redemption" by identifying himself as "Having been tenant long to a rich Lord"--as a retainer, not a lover. "What pleasures could I want, whose King I served?" he asks in "Affliction" 1 (l. 13). "Rise heart; thy Lord is risen," he begins in "Easter" (l. 1), with a celebratory emphasis on Christ's title that immediately conveys his own inferior position.[9] The relation between Herbert and his God is that of a subject and his king, a servant and his master, a client and his patron. The subject rejoices in his master's glory. Yet if that were all, and if Herbert's religion were merely a matter of power politics, of dominance and submission, or even of what has come to be called hegemonic mystification, it is unlikely that his poems should be so widely liked and so accessible in an age that so deeply suspects and resents all such political and economic relationships--or for that matter, in any other age. Mere subservience to power would scarcely move most readers.

The answer to this puzzle, as I have suggested earlier, is to be found in still another kind of loving relationship that pervades The Temple, that of father and child. Donne had argued, on the evidence of Genesis, that the highest of human loves is that of a man for a woman in marriage. But only two of Herbert's sayings about love in Outlandish Proverbs are couched in superlatives. In those two Herbert also speaks with noticeably greater warmth. One of them says that "The best smell is bread, the best savour, salt, the best love that of children." The imagery in this proverb is homely, fundamentally nourishing--and biblical. The other saying is the obverse of the first: "No love to a Father's." We might rather have expected Herbert to say "No love to a mother's," knowing the story of his life and remembering the sequence of poems he wrote on her death, Memoriae Matris Sacrum. They reveal an intense love for his mother, as obsessive and all-consuming in its way as D. H. Lawrence's. Herbert's father died when he was three and a half. Although Herbert seems to have liked and respected his step-father, Sir John Danvers, that later relationship could not have accounted for what, in his poems, appears to be such a deeply-felt psychological imprinting.

It is tempting to indulge in amateur psychologizing. We have in Herbert's case an absent father, an overwhelmingly powerful mother, and a child who was the youngest of several dominating brothers.[10] God filled the lacuna. But it is safer simply to turn back to the poems and to note again the pervasive longing for a father's love they so clearly reveal. "H. Baptisme" 2 is typical:

Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.

O let me still
Write thee great God, and me a childe:
Let me be soft and supple to thy will,
Small to my self, to others milde . . . .
Childhood is health.
(ll. 4-9, 15)

Herbert draws, with great warmth and seeming intimacy, on the biblical imagery of childhood as a state of receptiveness to grace, in a way that he never does on the imagery of marriage. In The Temple, divine courtship and human desire are sometimes the preludes to love, but only in sonship does Herbert find loving contentment.

Rebellion against a mere political tyrant or an economic master would be admirable, but it would be inadmissable if that master were also a loving and beloved father. Even when the familial relationship is not spelled out, the bond between father and son, more than any kind of sexual love, seems to underlie the tone of overtly political relationships. "Nature," which follows "H. Baptisme," is such an instance:

Full of rebellion, I would die,
Or fight, or travell, or denie
That thou hast ought to do with me.
O tame my heart.
(ll. 1-4)

This, the voice of a subject addressing his lord, could also conceivably be the voice of a bride addressing her husband-to-be, but it sounds far more like a disobedient child penitently addressing his father. In "Affliction" 1, he reveals that obedient service to his lord and master is synonymous with love:

Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
(ll. 63-66)

Despite the urgency of his complaints, the speaker never really considers a change of service, I believe. One can no more change such service than one can repudiate a father. As even the arch-individualist Satan ironically realizes in Paradise Regained, "relation stands" (4.519). So in "Assurance," the troubled poet proclaims that there is only one answer to those who say that the "league was broke" between him and his God: "But I will to my Father" (ll. 11, 19).

We should remember that in the seventeenth century public service, professional employment, personal loyalty, and family relationship often converged in a single bond. The term "family" included not only the nuclear family of parents and children, and the larger blood family of uncles, aunts and cousins, but also the full extended family of inlaws, clients, retainers, and servants. Herbert seems temperamentally to have been inclined to ignore or tacitly to reject the natural parallel which others of his time so often drew between the attraction of exogamous love and service to a patron, but he embraced the other familial model, so often evoked by James I and so many lesser lords and masters, of a loving father and his children. In "The Collar," no more than a word is needed to calm the poet's bitterest doubts and his passionate feelings of resentment against duty and obligation:

Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply'd, My Lord.

That one word "child," of course, is a reminder that the servant is also a beloved son, and that his omnipotent and demanding Lord is also a loving Father.

Although "patriarchal" has in recent years become a term of abuse and resentment, in the Renaissance, as Debora Shuger reminds us, the fatherly had broadly positive implications, which people willingly extended to God and to the king. "Power" and "authority" have been subjected to wide-ranging (if sometimes suspiciously obsessive) inquisition at the hands of New Historicists and others, from political deconstructionists to feminists to Marxists. But George Herbert shows us what it is like to think and to feel that ultimate power and authority can coexist with perfect, selfless love, as in the loving, fatherly figure of God in The Temple. If this observation is credible, one hopes it will not dissuade readers who love justice from continuing to read, to like, and to ponder Herbert's poetry.

In what respect might Herbert be said to change or to "reinvent" received, conventional ideas about sacred love? For him to say that God is a loving father appears, at first sight, to represent not much more than the height of conventional orthodoxy. To say that one should love one's father is to agree with the Elizabethan Book of Homilies and to reaffirm the social order. But I know of no other important writer after the English Reformation and before Vaughan, Milton, and Traherne, who captures as well as Herbert what it feels like to be the loving and trusting child of a fatherly God.[11] Although God as a loving father--as "avinu malkenu," "our father, our king," in the Hebrew hymn, as "abba" in Mark 14:36, and as "Our Father" in the Lord's Prayer--is deeply encoded into the very fabric of both Judaism and Christianity, the relationship may seem more natural, affectionate, and comprehensible to some ages than to others. Our own recent times are a negative case in point. Herbert may be said to have helped prepare the way for the benevolent God of the eighteenth-century man of sentiment and the fatherly God of Victorian piety--now so much out of fashion and so subject to ignorant caricature as almost to be unmentionable.

At the same time, and more radically, Herbert nearly excised from his devotional poetry the ancient idea of God as the spouse of the Church and of the individual soul. What seemed so natural to the middle ages and to many of Herbert's contemporaries--to speak of God as a loving husband, or (in another tradition) as a tender nursing mother--came in the England of succeeding centuries to seem grotesque and unsuitable (as so much twentieth-century criticism of Crashaw reveals). We have no evidence that Herbert felt anything like this sort of "wheyfaced" priggishness.[12] Yet we do find him, in such poems as "Jordan" 1, repudiating the love of mistresses for the service of a Father God, and in "Even-song" and "Discipline," moving from the woman's role in sacred courtship borrowed from the Song of Songs to the alternative role of a loving and obedient child. Although the changes that took place in religious attitudes in succeeding centuries obviously cannot be laid entirely at Herbert's door, he was, as we know, extremely influential among later English devotional poets and, over a longer stretch of time, among Anglican and Methodist hymn writers. Herbert may well have been at least partly responsible for furthering the characteristic Anglo-Saxon attitude of reserve in religion. Much of the English-speaking world shrinks or bridles at any suggestion of connecting sexual matters with religion. Alternatively, as if in over-compensation, others can no longer tell them apart.


1) For a recent view of sexual love and gender roles in Herbert divergent from mine, see Schoenfeldt (230-70), who usefully notes the misplaced squeamishness of some Herbert criticism. For a classic discussion of Herbert's sacred parody of secular love, on which I depend in general terms though not in detail, see Martz (184-97,259-73).

2) Herbert was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, on 5 May 1609. As Novarr has demonstrated, and many others have agreed, Walton cannot be unreservedly trusted. Still, we must rely on him as our only source for the text of the letter and sonnets and as our best contemporary authority for the circumstances of their composition. Supplementary biographical information is found in the Introduction to Herbert's Works, from which all quotations from Herbert are taken, and in Charles.

3) The wedding took place 5 March 1629. A Priest to the Temple, first published in 1652, is dated "1632" at the conclusion of Herbert's preface, "The Author to the Reader."

4) Walton (306) adds that Herbert dispensed further alms himself, beyond Jane's tenth. On the nieces, see Walton's Life, Herbert's letter to his brother Sir Henry (Hutchison 375-76), and Herbert's will (382-83).

5) On sacred parody of secular love poetry, important for discussing the relationship between the two, see Jonas (211-27), Martz (184-93), Wilson, Freeman, Warnke (93-96, 130-33), Wardropper, and Merrill. For a notable contrary view, which stresses "parody" as strictly the setting of sacred texts to secular music, see Tuve, "Sacred Parody." The greatest of sacred parodists was Herbert's near-contemporary, Lope de Vega (1562-1635).

6) Since Herbert has recently been portrayed as something of a biblical fundamentalist by Strier, Bloch, and others, it may be useful to recall Herbert's own words: "The Countrey Parson is full of all knowledg. They say, it is an ill Mason that refuseth any stone. . . . The Countrey Parson bath read the Fathers also, and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proportion of all" (228-29).

7) She names Martz, but only as the most "careful" and useful of critics who see a connection between sacred and secular love in Herbert (204n). Presumably she is chiefly concerned to scotch any tendency to freudianize or to confuse one kind of love with another. "For certainly never was a world more loveless (as Herbert defines love) than ours, nor confusion more rife as to the nature and connections of the many affections which we try unsuccessfully to denominate by that single word" ("Caritas" 174-75).

8) Is this, as Schoenfeldt seems delicately to lead his reader to infer (239), a double-entendre? I think not. Sometimes, as Freud is said to have remarked, a cigar is just a cigar.

9) This acclamation is connected with an ancient, basic form of thanksgiving, which rejoices in the supremacy of God. Compare the phrase "Adonai Elohayna," the Lord is our God, in Hebrew prayer "Hear, oh Israel," or consider the royal psalms of praise.

10) On Herbert and his brothers, see Held; for further psychological speculations -but with less than persuasive application to the poems --see Pearlman.

11) On the theme of childhood, with some discussion of Herbert from another perspective, see Marcus.

12) "Cultural conditioning has sponsored a wheyfaced Herbert" (Fraser 581; cited by Schoenfeldt 231). But if in matters of religion later generations of English were far more priggish than Herbert, he may have helped lead the way.

Works Cited

Aubrey, John. Aubrey's Brief Lives. Ed. Oliver Lawson Dick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Benet, Diana. "The Magic Shoe." Like Season'd Timber: New Essays on George Herbert. Ed. Edmund Miller and Robert DiYanni. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. 139-50.

-----. Secretary of Praise: The Poetic Vocation of George Herbert. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1984. Bertonasco, Marc F. Crashaw and the Baroque. University: U of Alabama P, 1971.

Bloch, Chana. Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Charles, Amy M. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Donne, John. The Sermons of John Donne. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter. 10 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1953-62.

Fraser, Russell. "George Herbert's Poetry." Sewanee Review 95 (1987): 560-85.

Freeman, Rosemary. "Parody as a Literary Form: George Herbert and Wilfred Owen," Essays in Criticism 13 (1963): 307-22.

Held, George. "Brother Poets: The Relation between George and Edward Herbert." Like Season'd Timber: New Essays on George Herbert. Ed. Edmund Miller and Robert DiYanni. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. 19-35.

Henricksen, Bruce. "Donne's Orthodoxy." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14 (1972): 5-16.

Herbert, George. The Works of George Herbert. Ed. F. E. Hutchinson. 1964; Oxford: Clarendon P, 1941.

Hodges, Devon L. Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985).

Jonas, Leah. "George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan." The Divine Science: The Aesthetic of Some Representative Seventeenth-Century English Poets. New York: Columbia UP, 1940.

Low, Anthony. "Herbert's 'Jordan (I)' and the Court Masque." Criticism 14 (1972): 109-18.

-----. The Reinvention of Love: Poetry, Politics and Culture from Sidney to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Marcus, Leah Sinanoglou. Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth-Century Literature. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1978.

Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954.

Merrill, Thomas F. "Sacred Parody and the Grammar of Devotion." Criticism 23 (1981): 195-21.

Novarr, David. The Making of Walton's Lives. Ithaca: Cornell UP,1958.

Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros. Trans. Philip S. Watson. 1953; New York: Harper, 1969.

Pearlman, E. "George Herbert's God," English Literary Renaissance 13 (1983): 88-112.

Rous, Francis. The Mysticall Marriage. Experimentall discoveries of the heavenly marriage betweene a soule and her Saviour. London, 1631.

Schoenfeldt, Michael C. Prayer and Power: George Herbert and Renaissance Courtship. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Shuger, Debora K. Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Southwell, Robert. Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares. London, 1591.

Stewart, Stanley. The Enclosed Garden: The Tradition and the Image in Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1966.

Strier, Richard. Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Tuve, Rosemond. "George Herbert and Caritas." Essays by Rosemond Tuve: Spenser, Herbert. Milton. Ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970. 167-206.

-----. "Sacred Parody of Love Poetry, and Herbert." 207-51 Essays by Rosemond Tuve: Spenser, Herbert, Milton. Ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970. 207-51.

Walton, Izaak. The Life of Mr. George Herbert (1675). In The Lives of John Donne. Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Robert Sanderson. The World's Classics. 1962; London: Oxford UP, 1927.

Wardropper, Bruce W. "The Religious Conversion of Profane Poetry." Studies in the Continental Background of Renaissance English Literature: Essays Presented to John L. Lievsay. Ed. Dale B. J. Randall and George Walton Williams. Durham: Duke UP, 1977. 203-21.

Warnke, Frank J. Versions of Baroque: European Literature in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972.

Wilson, Edward M. "Spanish and English Poetry of the Seventeenth-Century." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 9 (1959): 38-53.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The old rectory at Bremerton, where George Herbert died on March 1, 1633, in a bedchamber overlooking the River Nader. (Photo courtesy of Jan Rhodes.)


By Anthony Low

Professor of English and Chair of the department at New York University, Anthony Low, has published The Blaze of Noon: A Reading of Samson Agonistes, Love's Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, and The Georgic Revolution. His next book, The Reinvention of Love: Poetry, Politics and Culture from Sidney to Milton, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.