Christianity and Literature, Wntr 2002 v51 i2 p175(17)
Show and tell: George Herbert, Richard Sibbes, and communings with God. Daniel W. Doerksen.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Conference on Christianity and Literature

The poet George Herbert (1593-1633) and Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), a writer of sermons and religious treatises, were both authors whose works were "best sellers" in the 1630s. (1) Herbert wholeheartedly accepted the Church of England liturgy and polity, while Sibbes was undoubtedly a puritan. Until recently the real ecclesiastical differences between them have been exaggerated; in fact, an influential textbook by the nineteenth-century historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner singled out these two as representing opposing poles within the Church of England of their time (82-85). (2) However, modern historians have been substantially revising long-standing views of that church, and particularly the former picture of the Jacobean mainstream (formative for these writers) as Laudian. It can now be claimed that the center of the Church of England before Laud's dominance was Calvinist and contained both moderate episcopalians (like Herbert) and moderate puritans (like Sibbes). (3)

Why were these writers so popular? A likely reason is that both wrote effectively about the spiritual life of Christian believers, (4) and sought to provide spiritual counsel, at a time when Laudian church administrators were preoccupied with the externals of ritual. (5) Herbert on his deathbed called his collection of poems "a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul," and he hoped that it would be of help to "any dejected poor Soul" (Walton 314). The titles of two of Sibbes' most popular works, The Bruised Reed, and Smoking Flax and The Soules Conflict with Itself, indicate that their subjects and purposes are like those of Herbert's book. Elsewhere I have shown that some of the writings of Herbert and Sibbes are closely related, even in such details as diction and phraseology (Conforming 116-34).

In this essay I want to explore further the affinity recently discovered in some of the works of Herbert and Sibbes, but also to call attention to a key difference: when they are writing of the personal relationship between the believer and God, (6) Sibbes describes that relationship whereas Herbert exemplifies it in terms of the speaker's own experience. Both writers similarly affirm that God always takes the initiative yet that human love is significant, even valued and savored by God, in spite of its actual inadequacy. For both Herbert and Sibbes the life with God is marked by spiritual conflicts, which they seek to present realistically, and is also a somewhat hidden one. Because the relation is personal, both writers use human comparisons to describe it. Herbert, like his exemplary Country Parson, is "a diligent observer, and tracker of Gods wayes" (244), and so is Sibbes. (7) However, while Sibbes writes of these matters in the third person, or in a generalizing first-person plural, Herbert vividly uses the first-person singular. (8) The difference is not merely that Herbert, unlike Sibbes, is a poet. As Kate Narveson has persuasively argued, a telling distinction between conformist and puritan members of the Calvinist consensus is that, while both advocated the use of the "holy soliloquy," only the conformists actually published work in this genre. (Narveson refers only to prose works, but the Herbert poems dealt with in this essay are of a similar nature.) (9) Puritans like Sibbes wrote about such communings with God but did not offer specific examples, perhaps because of puritan hesitations about public, formally set prayers. Thus the relationship with God about which Sibbes and other writers give counsel is strikingly exemplified in Herbert. Just how close Herbert comes to the puritan attitude in this respect is suggested in that, while he prepared the poems in The Temple for publication, he never actually published them. Instead, he sent them from his deathbed to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, leaving to the latter the decision whether to publish or destroy them (Walton 314).

A conspicuous feature in the writings of both Herbert and Sibbes is intimacy with God, but though there is real mutuality these Calvinists insist that God is always first. Herbert's "The Holdfast," which Richard Strier sees as a companion piece to the rightly famous "Love" (III), shows the speaker coming step by step to a realization of God's complete initiative:

   I threatned to observe the strict decree
   Of my deare God with all my power & might.
   But I was told by one, it could not be:
   Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
   Then I will trust, said I, in him alone.
   Nay, ev'n to trust in him, was also his:
   We must confesse that nothing is our own.
   Then I confesse that he my succour is:
   But to have nought is ours, not to confesse
   That we have nought. I stood amaz'd at this,
   Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,
   That all things were more ours by being his.
   What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
   Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

Responding to Stanley Fish, who concentrates on the frustration of the speaker in the first ten lines of the sonnet (174-76), Strier offers a good treatment of this poem as dramatizing and even celebrating "the Reformation doctrine of grace" (66).

Readers should not overlook the personal note in "my deare God," and I take "strict decree" as referring to the Great Commandment to "love the Lord thy God" and "thy neighbor as thyself" (Mark 12:30-31). What gives the poem much of its dramatic effect is the escalating sequence of stances taken by the speaker in lines 1-2, 5, and 8. A very similar sequence can be found at the opening of "The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn unto Christ," the twenty-third sermon of The Saints Cordials, which appeared anonymously in 1629. (10) Here the puritan author, actually Thomas Hooker, lists "such hindrances as really keep men from coming to take hold of Christ at all" (152; I omit the first of these, in which men blindly presume that "all is well with them, when there is no such matter," and I add emphasis both here and below):

2. Being convinced of this thing, bethink how to save themselves by their own strength, and thereupon set upon a reformation of life.... [Cf. Herbert's "all my power & might" in line 2.]

3. The sinner being convinced of this also, now he gets up a stair higher and sees all his performances, and prayers, and duties, are of no power in themselves, but he must leave all and cleave only unto Christ by faith; he thinks he can do that well enough, and so thrusts himself upon Christ and thinks all the work done.... [Cf. Herbert's "Then will I trust ... in him alone" in line 5.]

4. If he sees this fails him too, then he goes yet further and confesses he cannot come to Christ except Christ give him his hand and help him up: now ... thinking that if he do labor and bestir himself hard he shall hammer out a faith of his own making.... [Cf. Herbert's "Then I confesse that he my succour is" in line 8. In the sermon the word "succor" appears twice later (163, 177).]

Just as in Herbert's poem, each effort of the speaker, because it is a self-effort (asserted by the pronoun "I," absent from the concluding lines of the poem), is rebuffed. In fact, the "one" of line 3 might well be the anonymous author of this sermon, who later says that "the way to make the soul lean upon Christ is to pluck away all other props; for ... if we could find good anywhere else we would never go to Christ" (177). What the puritan writer describes in the third person, Herbert speaks of in the first-person singular, so often used in the Psalms.

The plucking away leaves Herbert's speaker "amaz'd" and "troubled, till I heard a friend expresse, / That all things were more ours by being his" (10, 11-12). Although the concluding lines of the poem are manifestly biblical, the "friend" here could easily be a writer or preacher like Sibbes, who in The Soules Conflict with Itself says what line 12 does, though at more length:

   If God be ours, goodness itself is ours. If he be not ours, though we had
   all things else, yet ere long nothing would be ours. What a wondrous
   comfort is this, that ... a believing soul may say with as great
   confidence, and greater too, that God is his, than he can say his house is
   his, his treasure is his, his friends are his! Nothing is so much ours as
   God is ours, because by his being ours in covenant, all other things become
   ours. (1:272)

(This passage also could serve as background for Herbert's related poem, "Clasping of Hands," particularly its first stanza.) As for the last two lines of "The Holdfast," they could be taken as summing up Sibbes' words in the twenty-eighth sermon of The Saints Cordials: "Since Adam lost what he had, it is dangerous to trust ourselves with it any more. Therefore Christ keeps it for us, and makes it ours" (5:372).

Another Herbert poem, "Assurance," similarly asserts the priority of God in the human-divine relationship, here presented in terms of a covenant (11):

   ... in this league,...
   Thou art not onely to perform thy part,
   But also mine; as when the league was made
   Thou didst at once thy self indite,
   And hold my hand, while I did write. (26-30)

Sibbes says virtually the same as the words I have italicized in a preface to John Smith's An Exposition of the Creed published in 1632, a year before Herbert's poems became public: "The answer [our assent to the Creed] is ours, but the power and strength is God's,... who performs both his part and ours too in the covenant" (qtd. in Sibbes 1:civ; see also 3:394). Again, the main difference is in Herbert's use of the first-person singular.

God's love comes first, then: "We love him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Although Protestants often speak of God's love for people, they do not, as Terry Sherwood has noticed, always give prominence to human love for God (38, 41). Both Herbert and Sibbes, however, write of a significant mutuality in the human-divine relationship. In "The Temper" (I) Herbert shows acute (one might say Calvinist) awareness of the disparity between God and the believer (9-16), but he eventually displays that gap as being bridged in the concluding lines: "Thy power and love, my love and trust / Make one place ev'ry where." Human love meets divine love in the middle of the carefully balance line 27, and both together, along with human trust in God's power, bring about unification in the poem's final line. Similarly, Sibbes writes:

   ... these two go always together. There goes somewhat of ours together with
   somewhat of God's, to witness to us what God doth. There goes our choice of
   God, with his choosing of us; our knowing of God, with his knowledge of us;
   our love to him, with his love to us. Therefore, because these are so
   connexed and knit together, he takes the one for the other; and to make it
   familiar to us, he takes that which is most familiar to us, our love to
   him. (4:181; my emphasis)

Whereas Sibbes generalizes in the first-person plural, Herbert speaks of "my" love and trust.

Both Herbert and Sibbes also respond imaginatively to the biblical suggestion that God savors human responses to Him. In "The Odour. 2 Cor. 2.15," Herbert develops this as reciprocity. The words "My Master," like ambergris, register for him a "rich s[c]ent," "an orientall fragrancie" (1-5), with which "I do perfume my minde," thrusting it into this "broth of smells" (6-10). (Cf. Sibbes: God "hath fitted ... all the senses with goodness.... We taste and feel his goodness" [4:196].) In turn, Herbert hopes that for God the term "My servant" might "creep and grow / To some degree of spicinesse" (11, 14-15). Also speaking of loving service, Sibbes is confident of God's response but says in a more general way: "Love sweetens all performances." Just as believers are comforted not so much by the particular favors that God sends their way as by "the love and sweetness of God in the favour" (connoting a love-token), "so it is with God's response to us." Referring to Psalm 34:8, "O taste and see," Sibbes comments: "When [things we do for God] are sweetened with the affection of love,... he tastes our performances as sweet. Love makes all we do to have a relish, and all that he doth to us" (4:198; my emphasis). Again, in contrast to Herbert, Sibbes generalizes in the plural.

Keenly aware of the inadequacies of human love for God, these writers sometimes use quite similar language to express such awareness. "Many," says Sibbes, "are troubled with cold affections, and wish, Oh that they could love!" They need to turn to God and not "think to work love out of their own hearts." Sibbes continues, "We must not think to bring love to God, but we must fetch love from God. We must light our candle at his fire. Think of his love to us" (4:198). Sibbes gives advice about how to meditate, and Herbert's speaker offers the meditation itself in "A true Hymne," in the conclusion of which "th'heart sayes (sighing to be approved) / O, could I love! and stops." The concluding three words can be read more than one way (Strier 204-05), but in one good reading "God writeth, Loved" is exactly what Sibbes recommends--a shift away from self-effort to a realization of God's love, which evokes love as a response (1 John 4:19).

Both Sibbes and Herbert, writing of the choices that followers of Christ must make, link the parable of the pearl with love for God. In each of the first three stanzas of "The Pearl. Matth. 13.45," Herbert balances off nine long lines on the ways of Learning, Honor, or Pleasure with one short line, "Yet I love thee," implying rather than stating the choice he is making. In an eloquent passage where Sibbes cites the same parable, he writes: "Those therefore that will part with nothing for God [Sibbes immediately goes on to mention `honour and pleasures in this world'],... do they talk of love to God? ... If they did esteem him, they would sell all for the pearl" (4:184). (12) While Sibbes talks about devotion in a sermon, Herbert publicly offers the devotion itself.

Part of the reality of the Christian life with God, as these writers picture it, is spiritual struggle. As I have previously suggested, both Sibbes and Herbert care intensely and write eloquently about spiritual conflicts with God (Conforming 122-34). A further example, Herbert's "The Crosse," presents a situation in which, to use the language of Sibbes, "God thinks it good that I shall serve him in weakness, and in want and suffering" (1:170; my emphasis). (13) However, as in Sibbes so in Herbert, "Flesh and blood is prone to expostulate with God, and to question his dealing" (1:207):

   What is this strange and uncouth thing?
   To make me sigh, and seek, and faint, and die,
   Untill I had some place, where I might sing,
   And serve thee....
   And then when after much delay,
   Much wrastling, many a combate, this deare end,
   So much desir'd, is giv'n, to take away
   My power to serve thee; to unbend
   All my abilities.... (1-4, 7-11)

Herbert's speaker goes on to declare himself "a weak disabled thing" (17; my emphasis) and to complain of "grief" (24), "smart" (31), and a want like that of Tantalus:

   To make my hopes my torture, and the fee
   Of all my woes another wo,
   Is in the midst of delicates to need,
   And ev'n in Paradise to be a weed. (27-30)

Eventually he labels God's ways with him "these thy contradictions" (34), just as Sibbes, but in the generalizing first-person plural admits that "God's ways seem oft to us full of contradictions, because his course is to bring things to pass by contrary means" (1:207)--methods that Herbert calls "crosse actions" (32).

Some readers of "The Crosse" will interpret the disabling weakness of the speaker, like that of "Affliction" (I), to be an illness that interferes with his loving service of God. In The Soules Conflict with Itself Sibbes advises, "If God will ... take us off from business by sickness, then we have a time of serving God by patient subjection to his will" (1:240). In Herbert's poem the speaker's real problem (from the Christian point of view) surfaces in his admission that "things sort not to my will / Ev'n when my will doth studie thy renown" (19-20; my emphasis). After all, says Sibbes, "If [God] means to use our service any further, he will restore our health and strength to do that work he sets us about" (1:240). Moreover, "There is no condition but therein we may exercise some grace, and honour God in some measure." Another comment by Sibbes suggests why Herbert's speaker prays as he does in this poem: "Because some enlargement of condition is ordinarily that estate wherein we are best able to do good in, we may in the use of means desire it, and upon that resign up ourselves wholly to God, and make his will our will" (1:170). Such a resignation concludes the poem when the speaker echoes Christ (Luke 22:42): "With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done" (36). What Sibbes gives as analysis and counsel, Herbert presents in powerful dramatic form as a personal encounter with God.

Marked by struggle, the Christian life is also a partly hidden one--hidden from the "worldly" eye. Sibbes frequently cites "Our life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3), and Herbert writes a poem neatly embodying that idea by means of a "hidden" pattern in the sun's motion. However, while Paul uses the second-person plural and Sibbes appropriates it in the first-person plural, Herbert's speaker makes it his own in the first-person singular. Elsewhere a comment by Sibbes on the same Pauline verse recalls the second and third stanzas of Herbert's "The Flower":

   [Our life] is hid. There is no man knows it in regard of the full
   manifestation; because here it is covered with so many infirmities, and
   afflictions [readers of Herbert will think of the five poems titled
   "Affliction"], and so many scorns of the world are cast upon the beauty of
   the Christian life; it is hid in our head Christ. It is not altogether hid,
   for there is a life that comes from the root, from the head Christ to the
   members, that quickens them; but in regard of the glory that shall be, it
   is a hidden life. (4:168; my emphasis)

This passage is a beautiful gloss on both poems, perhaps suggesting a link between them. Specifically, "root" recalls "mother-root" and "quickens" the "quickning" power of the Lord ("The Flower" 11, 16). Sibbes seems even closer to "The Flower" in another observation on Colossians 3:3: "Even as in winter time the trees have a life, but it is hid in the root, so a Christian hath a blessed condition at all times, but ... there is a cloud between him and his happiness" (1:112; my emphasis). Always, though, Sibbes generalizes with either the third-person or the first-person plural, while Herbert makes it truly personal with the first-person singular.

"The Flower," one of Herbert's most distinctive poems about the relationship with God, looks as if it could have been written in response to the counsel of writers like Sibbes. Vivid expressions such as God's "Killing and quickning" (16) can be found suggested in Sibbes, as when he says that "No man must think this strange, that God deals with men ... in this harsh manner, as it were to kill them, ere he make them alive; nor be discouraged, as if God had cast them off for ever" (7:370; my emphasis). Elsewhere Sibbes says, "Whom [God] will revive, he will kill first" (1:262). (14) Just as in "The Flower" Herbert calls God "Lord of power" (15) and "Lord of love" (43), Sibbes writes that Christ "draweth us with the cords of love sweetly. Yet remember withal, that he draweth us strongly by a Spirit of power" (1:80). (15) Herbert's reference to God's "anger" and his question "What frost to that? what pole is not the zone, / Where all things burn, / When thou dost turn, / And the least frown of thine is shown?" (31-35) are similar to Sibbes' remark about an experience in which "the great God sets himself contrary to his poor creature" (that wording also recalls "The Temper" [I] 15, "Sion" 16, and "Sighs & Grones" 5): "None can conceive so, but those that have felt it. If the hiding of his face will so trouble the soul, what will his frown and angry look do?" (my emphasis). And "least frown of thine" in its context is like Sibbes' observation that the soul "rests not whilst anything remains that may breed the least strangeness betwixt God and us" (1:277).

The more cheerful notes in "The Flower" also have parallels in Sibbes, as in "quickens" mentioned above. At one point Sibbes suggests what Herbert calls God's "returns" (16) ("The Flower" 2) in language evocative of other Herbert poems as well: "God comes more immediately to them now than formerly he was used"; "God sometimes lets down a beam of comfort and strength" (1:273; cf. "Mattens" 20, "The Glance" passim, and "let down" in "The Pearl" 38). Though Sibbes was not a poet, and never offered his own personal meditation as a public example, the following words suggest the sort of occasion and joyful tone present in the first and sixth stanzas of "The Flower":

   Praising of God is then most comely, though never out of season, when God
   seems to call for it by renewing the sense of his mercies in some fresh
   favour towards us. If a bird will sing in winter, much more in the spring.
   If the heart be prepared in the wintertime of adversity to praise God, how
   ready will it be when it is warmed with the glorious sunshine of his
   favour. (1:249)

Such stimulation would encourage personal communing with God like that in "The Flower," but the poetry is Herbert's own.

The relationship with God as these writers present it can be tumultuous, but it is often felt to be a calmer, personal, intimate one, like that with a close "friend" (see Lewalski 292, 296; Sherwood 50; Schoenfeldt 82-82), as Herbert repeatedly suggests ("Sunday" 4; "Love Unknown" 1, 43, 61). Thus it is appropriate (if a little surprising) for the poet to make social comparisons in "Unkindnesse":

   Lord, make me coy and tender to offend: In friendship, first I think, if
   that agree, Which I intend, Unto my friends intent and end. I would not use
   a friend, as I use Thee. (1-5)

Sibbes also cares about social relationships, and the phrase "tender to offend" is similar to something he writes in The Bruised Reed: "It were a good strife (17) amongst Christians, one to labour to give no offence, and the other to labour to take none. The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others" (1:53; my emphasis). Here Sibbes is speaking of human relationships, but elsewhere he compares our treatment of God to our treatment of people, as Herbert does in "Unkindnesse":

   If a man promise us a thing again and again, we believe him; but if he
   swear and confirm the same with an oath, then we doubt no more; and yet
   when God he promiseth again and again unto us many precious promises, yea,
   and giveth the earnest in hand,... yet, lo our wretchedness, we trust not
   with assured confidence in him; a mortal man would take it ill to be thus
   used at our hands. (7:163; my emphasis)

Sibbes is even closer to Herbert in The Soules Conflict with Itself:

   When we consider that, if we answer not kindness and favour shewed unto us
   by men, we are esteemed unworthy of respect, as having sinned against the
   bond of human society and love, we cannot but much more take shame to
   ourselves, when we consider the disproportion of our carriage, and unkind
   behaviour towards God, when, instead of being temples of his praise, we
   become graves of his benefits. [Herbert's poetry, of course, seeks to be a
   Temple of praise.] What a vanity is this in our nature, to stand upon
   exactness of justice, in answering petty courtesies of men, and yet to pass
   by the substantial favours of God, without scarce taking notice of them!...
   If unkindness and rudeness be a sin in civility, it is much more in
   religion. (1:253; my emphasis)

Such language about a relationship with God seems very distinctive, especially to modern ears. (18) However, only Herbert incorporates it into a direct address to God.

In the relationship with God, as in human relationships, there are various kinds of proper responsiveness to observe, and in "The Method" Herbert deals with one of these. At the beginning of the poem the speaker, addressing his own heart, confronts the problem of why "God refuseth still" to grant a particular request. In probing for reasons, just as a person might ask why a friend or lover has become unresponsive, he can think of two, both of which involve "motions" (19, 23; see Sherwood 126; Doerksen, Conforming 125): he was recently careless or thoughtless in prayer to God (14-16), merely going through the motions, so to speak; and he resisted a motion or impulse given him by God (21-23). In The Saints Cordials Sibbes sets such a situation in the context of grieving the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, cautioning readers not to "quench ... his sweet motions by anything contrary to him" (6:410). Much like the speaker of "Unkindnesse," Sibbes here notes that "those that have guests which they respect will do nothing that may be offensive to them." He then goes on to give advice that the speaker of "The Method" seems to follow closely. One who has grieved the Spirit and "lost the sense of his being in me" (19) should "consider how didst thou lose him? Was it by negligence? by omission of duties?" (6:410-11). Herbert's speaker not only probes into the reasons for the loss but also specifically identifies "negligence" (stanza 4) and "omission of duties" (stanza 6). In the conclusion, addressed to his own heart, he further heeds the advice to "endeavour the recovery by a contrary way" (6:410), the injunction "Down with thy knees" certainly countering "negligence" in prayer.

It would be reasonable to conclude that the method of Herbert's title is one learned in a school (the Jacobean Church of England) where Sibbes was one of the teachers, but applied in a public way, as conformist Calvinists found it comfortable to do. Elsewhere, in another sermon from The Saints Cordials (printed four years before Herbert died and The Temple was published), Sibbes writes: "Our God, which is a `consuming fire,'... doth not endure a cold prayer.... That man is but a mocker of prayer, that would have God to hear him, when he hears not himself" (7:234). This seems like a prose version of lines 17-19 in "The Method":

   And should Gods eare
   To such indifferents chained be,
   Who do not their own motions heare?

A similar and related passage is the first stanza of Herbert's "Church-Lock and Key":

   I know it is my sinne, which locks thine eares,
   And bindes thy hands,
   Out-crying my requests, drowning my tears;
   Or else the chilnesse of my faint demandes.

The Sibbes parallel also supports "fire" in lines 5-6 ("Cold hands are angrie with the fire, / And mend it still") as referring to God, who is being wrongly blamed in the second stanza. Another play on the idea of God's hearing occurs in "Praise" (II), where the speaker exclaims:

   Though my sinnes against me cried,
   Thou didst cleare me;
   And alone, when they replied,
   Thou didst heare me. (13-16; my emphasis)

This is an instance of genuine prayer, and in such a case Sibbes affirms that "God can pick sense out of a confused prayer. These desires cry louder in his ears than thy sins" (1:65). (20) Here Sibbes is the conforming puritan preacher, giving counsel, and Herbert the conformist poet, modeling a prayer to God. What Sibbes tells, Herbert shows.

It is fascinating that in the period that climaxed in the 1630s with what Julian Davies has called the "Caroline Captivity of the Church," when King Charles I and his archbishop managed to alienate many (and, of course, excite others) by a great emphasis on the externals of worship, two non-Laudian writers, one a moderate episcopalian and the other a moderate puritan, could have written so similarly and so inspiringly about the spiritual life and a personal relationship with God. Both met a perceived need, as is shown in the popular reception of their books in the 1630s and later. Both writers were steeped in the Bible and in the moderately Calvinist ethos of the Elizabethan-Jacobean church in which they had grown up (see Doerksen and Hodgkins). The same word-centered church that produced the Authorized Version encouraged people like Sibbes, Herbert, and their readers to be keen "trackers and observers" of the ways of God with people.

In an appendix I discuss the extent to which one or both these writers had an influence on the other, but what is clear is that Herbert, though not himself a puritan, shares some distinctive ideas and language with conforming puritan church writers of his time, who had also participated with him in the so-called Jacobean "Calvinist consensus." The common ground between these two writers provides some confirming evidence of that consensus, which has been disputed (Fincham 6-10), and one indication of the effects it could have. At the same time their writings bear out the distinction made by Narveson--namely, that while "contented conformists" (like Herbert) and moderate puritans (like Sibbes and Hooker) were alike keenly interested in personal communings with God, only the conformists (like Herbert) actually embodied such communings in first-person singular form and prepared them for publication. There was thus a literary distinction between these two Calvinist styles of piety.


In this essay and in Conforming to the Word: Herbert, Donne, and the English Church before Laud, I have shown that there are significant links between more than twenty poems of Herbert and passages in certain writings by Sibbes. (21) The Sibbes texts that have such links are often related to more than one Herbert poem, sometimes even a cluster; by contrast, there seem to be no such parallels in other Sibbes writings, which Herbert either did not know (most were published after the deaths of Herbert and Sibbes) or did not find stimulating.

When both were in Cambridge during the period of 1610-16, Herbert was a student and Sibbes a prominent preacher, fifteen years older. He was chosen as preacher not only at his own college, St. John's, adjacent to Herbert's Trinity, but also at Holy Trinity Church, where his sermons were widely attended, and not only by those who could be labeled "puritan" (Dever 36-40). (22) Later Francis Bacon, a friend of Herbert's and resident of Gray's Inn, where Sibbes was the divinity lecturer, may have provided a connection. Herbert and Sibbes were probably not close personal friends, since one would otherwise expect some specific evidence of it to have survived, as is the case with Herbert's and Sibbes' other friends. (23) The links I have discovered suggest the strong likelihood that Herbert knew and admired some of Sibbes' sermons and writings, specifically works in print from 1629 to 1633 (The Saints Cordials, The Bruised Reed). He may have owned copies of one or both of these, and he certainly could have heard at least some of the sermons on which The Soules Conflict with Itself was based, and probably the four sermons in Sibbes' A Glance of Heaven, first published in 1638 but containing quite a number of Herbert parallels. He might possibly have seen either of these texts in a manuscript version.

Though Herbert is clearly (from the literary point of view) much the greater writer, it seems likely that if there were an influence it was mostly, if not all, from Sibbes to Herbert rather than vice versa, because parallels are strong between Sibbes' 1629-33 publications and Herbert's poems, but the latter were not published or presumably available to Sibbes until after Herbert's death in 1633. Although The Soules Conflict with Itself was published in 1635, not long after Herbert's The Temple came out, it was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1632.

The discovery of some parallels in these two sets of writings does not in the least detract from the achievement of Herbert, who is clearly an outstanding poet. It has long been understood that a writer gets ideas and patterns from somewhere; after all, how many original plots did William Shakespeare create? Because Herbert writes so well, many have tried to probe some of those origins. Rosemond Tuve, for example, looks to medieval liturgy and iconography, and Louis Martz to Ignatian meditations. Chana Bloch has explored a very basic source, the Bible, and Jeanne Clayton Hunter some puritan writings. All of these explorations have merit and shed significant light on Herbert's writings. (I want to make it clear that I have been discussing only one aspect, important though it is, of Herbert's poetry.) Discovering more about the early seventeenth-century Church of England has made it quite understandable that Herbert could have been inspired by the writings of Sibbes, who, one should remember, was a puritan in full conformity with the Church of England, as well as a widely respected preacher (Dever 27-48).

If we try to assess what Herbert could have found in Sibbes, it seems that it was not just ideas about spiritual conflicts but often lively phrases and patterns of language that contributed to some of the distinctiveness of Herbert's own poetic expression. Ezra Pound said poetry must "make it new," probably echoing Sir Philip Sidney's recognition of the poet as a "maker." At least some of that making is not ex nihilo but making over. Here are some of the vivid, sometimes wonderful expressions in Herbert that I have shown can be linked with the language of Sibbes: "griefs without a noise," "my deare angrie Lord," "without a fence or friend," "few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love," "When first thy sweet and gracious eye / Vouchsaf'd ... / To look upon me," "When thou shalt look us out of pain," and "the taste / Of mine inheritance" (Doerksen, Conforming 119-31); also, "all things were more ours by being his," "Thy power and love, my love and trust," "O, could I love!" "these thy contradictions," "Killing and quickning," "tender to offend," "I would not use a friend, as I use Thee," and "Though my sinnes against me cried, / ... when they replied, / Thou didst heare me." Besides such verbal parallels, significant patterns in Sibbes (and Hooker, in one case) may have contributed to structuring in Herbert's "Bitter-Sweet," "Affliction" (I), "The Agonie," "The Glance," "Gratefulnesse," "The Church-Militant," "The Holdfast," "The Crosse," "The Flower," "Unkindnesse," and "The Method." The only thing that may prevent an incontrovertible conclusion regarding the relationship of these texts is the lack (so far, at least) of any overt mention of either of these writers by the other, or of evidence external to their writings clearly demonstrating a link.


(1) See Pollard and Redgrave. Herbert's The Temple (1633) went into six editions within the first ten years; Sibbes' The Bruised Reed, and Smoking Flax (1630) had six editions and The Soules Conflict with Itself (1635) three by 1640. The Short-Title Catalogue lists a total of twenty-eight titles by Sibbes, nine of which had more than one edition.

(2) Gardiner incorrectly identified Herbert as a Laudian but more properly saw Sibbes as a moderate if powerful puritan writer.

(3) See Doerksen, Conforming 16-23, and historians cited there. Some non-Calvinists, such as Lancelot Andrewes, were present and even influential at court, but they did not constitute the mainstream. While Herbert admired Andrewes (as even the young John Milton did), he was neither a Laudian nor a puritan.

(4) See Hunter's "George Herbert and Puritan Piety." She does not concentrate, however, on Sibbes. It also should be borne in mind that these writers were much concerned with the practical outworkings of that inner life (see Doerksen, Conforming 144n51).

(5) For an indication of how the Laudians viewed their emphasis on the external forms in relation to the inward or spiritual, see Guibbory 20.

(6) See Sherwood 122-23. Unlike the writings discussed in this essay, Herbert's The Country Parson is a manual on another topic. For puritan promotion and Laudian disapproval of this work, see Doerksen's "`Too Good for Those Times.'"

(7) Throughout this essay Herbert's verse, according to custom, will be documented by line, not page, numbers.

(8) See Bloch's interesting discussion of generalizing and particularizing tendencies in Herbert, where she appropriately challenges Helen Vendler by insisting that Herbert's is not just a "private case" (197).

(9) In "Discerning God's Voice, God's Hand: Scripturalist Moderation in Donne's Devotions," I take issue with Narveson's term "soliloquy" and also suggest that poetry like Herbert's should be considered along with the genre she identifies.

(10) Most of these sermons are by Sibbes, but this one is by Thomas Hooker (147-86). Not until 1637, after the death of Herbert, was it printed as being by that author.

(11) See Hunter's "Salvation under Covenant." On Sibbes and the relation of puritan covenant theology to Calvinism, see Dever 109-21.

(12) See Hunter, "Salvation under Covenant" 211, for a different but complementary reading of this poem in the light of Sibbes (and John Preston).

(13) This is a rare case of Sibbes' use of the first-person singular. It is put not as his own voice but as part of a question posed to the preacher.

(14) These linkings of killing and making alive of course echo such Scripture passages as Deuteronomy 32:39 and 2 Samuel 2:6.

(15) See Strier 5-6 for the recurrent pairing of the terms in Herbert. Sibbes also repeatedly links them.

(16) The Psalms repeatedly call for God to return (6:4, 7:7, 90:13). There appears to be a close relationship between "The Flower" and Psalm 90, and Psalms 6 and 7 may have been paraphrased by Herbert (see Works 219-22).

(17) Herbert uses the expression "good strife" in much the same way at the beginning of The Country Parson (224).

(18) It is possible that Herbert and Sibbes may owe such ideas to a common source, but so far I have not been able to find one. Schoenfeldt offers a good reading of "Unkindnesse" (81-83).

(19) Again, Sibbes here uses the first person for the words of a questioner of his sermon or discourse.

(20) Compare with Tuve's interpretation ("George Herbert" 324n22). Tuve's substantial piece, in seeing human love for God as gratitude, offers much support for a Calvinist reading of Herbert without ever saying so. (Strier makes the point well but emphasizes Lutheranism more than seems applicable in the English context [xviii-xix].)

(21) In Conforming I reported finding very few close parallels in Herbert to the writings of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker (88-94). I have not yet made a thorough survey, but I suspect that the sermons of John Donne will reveal significant links to Herbert's poetry, though perhaps not as many as the writings of Sibbes.

(22) In the Herbert family's middle-of-the-road London church, the vicar and vestry promoted puritan lectures (Doerksen, Conforming 55-56).

(23) In Conforming I trace some of the Herberts' other puritan connections (44-47). Dever discusses Sibbes' "circles of friendship," which included Archbishop Ussher and Sir Robert Harley, a puritan who married Herbert's first cousin (49-70).


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Davies, Julian. The Caroline Captivity of the Church: Charles I and the Remoulding of Anglicanism, 1625-1641. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Dever, Mark E. Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England. Macon: Mercer UP, 2000.

Doerksen, Daniel W. Conforming to the Word: Herbert, Donne, and the English Church before Laud. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997.

--. "Discerning God's Voice, God's Hand: Scrripturalist Moderation in Donne's Devotions." Forthcoming in Doerksen and Hodgkins.

--. "`Too Good for Those Times': Politics annd the Publication of George Herbert's The Country Parson." Seventeenth-Century News 49.1-2 (1991): 10-13.

Doerksen, Daniel W., and Christopher Hodgkins, eds. Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way. Forthcoming.

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Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. The First Two Smarts and the Puritan Revolution, 1603-1660. 1876. New York: Crowell, 1970.

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Hunter, Jeanne Clayton. "George Herbert and Puritan Piety." Journal of Religion 68 (1988): 226-41.

--. "Salvation under Covenant: Herbert's Poeetry and Puritan Sermons." Praise Disjoin'd: Changing Patterns of Salvation in 17th-Century English Literature. Ed. William P. Shaw. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. 201-19.

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

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Daniel W. Doerksen is Honorary Research Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. In addition to Conforming to the Word: Herbert, Donne, and the English Church before Laud (1997), he has contributed articles to Milton Quarterly, Early Modern Literary Studies, Philological Quarterly, Literature and History, George Herbert Journal, Seventeenth-Century News, and English Studies in Canada.