Stuck in Herbert’s Temple

George Herbert's architectural approach to poetry is ideal reading when stuck indoors.
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I have recently started attended church services again for the first time since March and the UK’s lockdown. An absence of over six months and the new covid restrictions have combined to make each service equal parts bizarre and uplifting. The hushed hand-sanitising on arrival feels almost sacramental; a reading in which Jesus ‘breathed on’ his disciples sends involuntary germophobic-shivers through the congregation; and, with communion being only in one kind, the dry wafer of the body of Christ gets awfully stuck to the roof of your mouth. Whilst the physical space and liturgical cycle of the church have not changed in six months, a certain feeling of well-known security has.

But, this week, a different kind of changing church has preoccupied me. George Herbert was a priest and poet born in 1593. The Temple – a collection of sacred poems – was published after his death in 1633. How The Temple came to be published is the subject of much debate: Izaak Walton, writing his Life of Mr George Herbert in 1670, is responsible for the long-lived narrative that on his death-bed, Herbert entrusted a ‘little book’ of poems to Nicholas Ferrar with the instruction to burn the text if it could not provide spiritual aid. Ferrar was a scholar who lived with his family at Little Gidding – an informal spiritual community who copied many manuscripts in a particular style.

This story is much debated – the ‘little book’ could have been Herbert’s prose work The Country Parson. But, as it stands, there are two existing manuscripts of The Temple: one held by the Bodleian, Oxford which is generally accepted to be in a Little Gidding hand, and one at the Dr Willliam’s library in London which is much earlier – many of the poems are in a different form to the first print edition – and is thought to have emendations and alterations in Herbert’s handwriting. It is probably indicative of how limited my covid-existence has become that I have genuinely found many of the academic arguments surrounding these manuscripts not just interesting, but hilariously funny. 

As easy as it is to laugh at academic debates over a ‘true’ text, it is also easy to understand why it matters: The Temple is a series of poems so overwhelmingly concerned with form, structure, and materiality. In reading it, you move from ‘church-porch’ into the church itself, and encounter church architecture and furniture. The material existence of the words on the page matters because Herbert cared: he was engaged in making a material structure through his words.

Herbert did not just limit himself to making the whole series a ‘temple’; on the individual level of each poem, the physical placement and shape of the words are key. The most famous examples of this are probably ‘The Altar’ – where the words of the poem spread out and constrict as if to carve a stone table out of themselves – and ‘Easter-wings’, where the lines of the two poems oscillate across the page to give the appearance of birds in flight. With ‘Easter-wings’ however, its instantly recognizable shape on the page – vertical, so you have to turn the book to read it – is arguably a later alteration; in both manuscripts, it is horizontal.

Despite debates over the precise indentation and orientation of Herbert’s poems, reading The Temple is like reading a post-modern attempt to deny Saussure’s binary of sign and signified. The subject is undeniably serious – and Herbert’s faith is legible in every line, stanza, and dialogue – but the collection is also undeniably playful. He tries so many new metres, stanzaic forms, and structures, and is so relentlessly democratic in his intimate conversations with God, Jesus, and death that you could sometimes mistake the book for a particularly un-sweary Frank O’Hara collection, or the page-shifting forms of J. H. Prynne. 

The overwhelming effect of reading The Temple is an all-consuming awareness of how mutable it is, and how wide-reaching in its instability it has been: Herbert altered word-lengths and metres to make his poems visual objects; printers and scribes altered the texts further for their own purposes; eighteenth century lay-people copied the poems into their own miscellanies and altered them further; John Wesley changed forty-nine of the poems into Methodist hymns; and – in our own time – Sir John Tavener is one of many composers to set Herbert’s poems to music. The Temple seems to be everything to all people – visual masterpiece; sacred guide; and sung praise. This unending fluctuation is terrifying – even reading an edited text becomes a partial verdict on so many disputed decisions – but also remarkably freeing: a text that is nearly four hundred years old is made continually, unendingly contemporary.

With everything simultaneously so unprecedented and daunting and repetitive and limiting, there is an awful lot to be said for a Herbert’s modified-Ezra Pound approach: render the old in a new form. If only it was just as catchy … 

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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