In his book Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton, Achsah Guibbory notes the presence of the conflict over ceremony throughout the poetry of George Herbert but claims that "Herbert stops short of contentiously expressing an ideological position" (77). Although Guibbory's reading of Herbert excuses the presence of several conflicting and contradictory themes, there remains in Herbert's poetry a consistent ideology. Herbert's poetics is one of moderation and hence avoids taking too narrow a view of worship; however, he does reveal a view of the relationship between religion and monarchy--a view that anticipates as much as it denounces the civil disturbance that will develop many decades later. For Herbert the form of worship is less important than whether that worship interferes with the sovereignty of the king, a view most clearly expressed in his poem "A True Hymn."
Whereas the language of the poem might be one of religious tolerance, the title still acknowledges one truth and tacitly accepts the distinction between true and false forms of worship. In addition, the word "hymn" suggests a sort of ceremony and formalism that would be absent had Herbert merely used the word prayer. A hymn is implicitly ritualistic and ceremonial and therefore must be considered in some way opposed to the Puritan aesthetics of worship. As the poem progresses, however, it becomes clear that it is not the aesthetics of the Puritan faith that troubles Herbert but the social threat it poses.
"A True Hymn" is not one poem but two. The first line, "My joy, my life, my crown," begins both poems, which in part suggests a very inclusive reading because the religious struggle in seventeenth-century England was essentially a dualistic one. The formal purity of Herbert's poem is mirrored by the informal, structurally incomplete verse of the poem contained within it. Likewise, the last word concludes both poems. If we were to extract the smaller poem from the larger it would read,
My joy, my life, my crown!
O, could I love! [...] Loved. (1,20)
The last word, "Loved," is not supplied by the poet but by God or the Poet-as-God and completes the six-syllable meter provided by the first line. The larger poem acts as a frame for the smaller one and is self-consciously formalistic, adhering to a rigid pattern of rhyme and meter while the inner poem struggles for formal beauty and consistency. Thematically, this device serves several purposes that have profound religious connotations.
First, if we accept the argument by Guibbory that Anglican literature is marked by a rigid adherence to formal unity that parallels the need for formal unity in ceremonial worship, then the larger poem both contains that unity and actively resists it. The inner poem, which struggles with form, could possibly represent a Puritan voice that fails in formal beauty not from lack of talent but rather from a divergent religious aesthetics.
Second, the poem answers the Anglican claim that formal beauty is necessary for true worship by giving the reader a God's-eye view of the flawed form. The form, though flawed, if it is properly motivated achieves beauty of form through the unity of God and his creation. In this instance, Herbert as poet acts as a creator completing the verse as God would and in doing so maintains the authenticity of the believer. This sort of metapoetry is only one way in which Herbert uses "A True Hymn" as a poetic attempt to justify Puritan dissent and at the same time include that group into a larger religious community.
The word "crown" echoes the true ruling force in religious worship. Herbert tolerates Puritan dissent/nonconformity as long as that dissent does not threaten the current hierarchy. The first stanza presents the reader with Herbert's poetic ego struggling for purity of expression, but his struggle mirrors the larger religious debate concerning purity of worship. "Crown" suggests that despite his own misgivings about the role of ceremonial worship, Herbert's first loyalty is to the established monarchical order.
Herbert not only provides two poems but also two poets. The first poet struggles with the opening line; the second incorporates that writer's block into a larger framework as he apologizes for it, arguing that "the fineness which a hymn or psalm affords, / Is, when the soul unto the lines accords" (9-10). More important than the outward display of unity is the presence of unity between feeling and faith. For Herbert, all that is necessary for a true hymn is the presence of sincerity. The use of the word "art" in line 8 directly combines the religious conflict with an artistic one. Although this stanza may seem like an assault on the ceremonialism of the Anglican Church, Herbert does not denounce ritual directly but only questions its necessity in true worship.
Herbert continues this theme in the third stanza by stating "He who craves all the mind [...] justly complains [...] If the words only rime" (11-14), giving credence to the Puritan charge that ceremony threatens to displace true worship with mere form, or what Guibbory calls carnal idolatry. However, Herbert stops short of assaulting Anglican aesthetics directly. In the context of the rest of the poem, these lines suggest both form and sincerity can be present but the presence of form does not necessarily imply a lack of sincerity on the part of the speaker. Instead, Herbert preaches a poetics of moderation wherein several forms of worship are possible as long as they do not threaten the power of the monarch.
The concluding stanza completes both poems. The lines "Although somewhat scant, / God doth supply the want" (17-18) suggest that imperfection of form can be ameliorated by the perfection of God's creation and the unity of all things in the mind of God. The final line "O, could I love! and stops: God writeth, Loved" (61,italics in original) concludes both poems with the word "loved" being one syllable in the outer poem and two in the inner. At the same time, Herbert finally achieves formal purity as he pronounces his love for the crown, implying that supplication to the monarch is part of that divine unity.
Whereas Herbert remains tolerant of Puritan nonconformity, his poetics provides a clearer understanding of his position in relation to the larger religious debates of his time. The formal unity of the poem suggests that at heart Herbert is a poet who appreciates the aesthetics of the Anglican Church, but thematically he appreciates the criticism brought by Puritans, as long as that criticism does not include an assault on the monarchy.
Guibbory, Achsah. Ceremony and Community From Herbert to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Herbert, George. George Herbert and the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets. Ed. Mario A. Di Cesare. New York: Norton, 1977.
By Paul McCann, Texas A & M University Colleges , South Africa