Through Lent With George Herbert
(Friday after Ash Wednesday)
As Arnold Stein points out in the first chapter of George Herbert’s Lyrics there is a plainness about Herbert’s poetry. The plainness is both obvious and concealed, though, and demonstrate great technical skill. He uses plain and easily understood metaphors, but often the metaphors admit of more than one meaning. Herbert wants his poems to be understood, and so his lyrics are in what for him was contemporary, modern language, and not the already archaic language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible commissioned by James VI & I. He does not create the Latinized English of John Milton (a generation later) and he does not emulate the classical poets. He does not show off his artistry, as Shakespeare so often does (the Sonnets are harder to read through than the poems of The Temple). This plainness of style, veiling deeper meanings that reveal themselves with re-reading, is actually quite hard, and show Herbert to be quite accomplished.
One aspect of Herbert’s plainness in the service of accessibility is the use of the architecture and furniture of the church building as themes for poems. Thus, the second poem is labelled with the Latin term Superliminare, which is the lintel or top frame of the door to the church. The third poem is labelled The Altar. There is also Church-lock and key, The Church-floor, and The Windows. It is as if the reader enters into a church building, and everything is pregnant with meaning. The sight of each of these is a jumping off point for a meditation or devotion.
The first poem is called The Church-porch. The second is the door, and The Church proper begins with The Altar and ends with Love (3) one hundred and fifty-one pages later, and is then followed by a very early poem called The Church Militant. This first poem, The Church-porch, then, is an introduction, a preparation for entering The Church; Superliminare is the transition between the two. The Church-porch has a second name, Perirrhanterium – not exactly a common word. Indeed, the digital Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t condescend to acknowledge it as an English word worthy of inclusion. It means “sprinkler” in ancient Greek, and is what we would normally call an aspergillium, a piece of holy hardware used to sprinkle holy water. In Roman Catholic masses and in some Anglo-Catholic Anglican parishes holy water is sprinkled upon the attendees at the beginning of the service, partly to remind them of their baptisms, but also to symbolically wash their sins away, even as the ancient Israelite priests would sprinkle the blood of sacrifices on the faithful. This first poem, then, is a preparation and a purification.
As Carole Kessner notes in “Entering “The Church-porch”: Herbert and Wisdom Poetry” [George Herbert Journal, vol. 1 no. 1, 1977, pp. 10-25], this poem is a bit of an embarrassment to Herbert enthusiasts:
Long, ponderous, didactic, structurally rigid, sometimes repetitious, it is altogether unlike the intimate, deeply moving, frequently charming, varied lyrics of the devotional second section, “The Church.”
It’s certainly not where one should first encounter Herbert. We no longer desire teaching from poetry, but epiphanies and enlightenment, or perhaps acute observations.However, didactic poetry has a long tradition in the Classics, whether it was Hesiod in Works and Days, or the philosophy of Parmenides, or Virgil’s Georgics which is all about farming. In Jewish and Christian scriptures Proverbs and other wisdom literature seeks to instruct.
It is 462 lines arranged in six-line verses, in the pattern of ABABCC. In the first lines Herbert writes to the reader,
Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good
The second verse warns the reader from lust, the second advocates chastity, the fourth and several following warns against drinking too much wine, the tenth against swearing, and so forth. It is didactic in a way that modern poetry never is. Herbert comes across as an even duller Polonius, giving little indication of what is beyond the Superliminare.
However, this preparation has a purpose. Herbert is well aware that there is a strong connection between spirituality and discipline. If one does not have some sort of Rule of Life one will not be able to grow towards God or one’s neighbour. For the most part the advice is given in The Church-porch is good advice that I myself try to live. It is generous advice, knowing the imperfections of people high and low, but assuming the possibility of change in everyone. As the final couplet notes,
If thou do ill; the joy fades, not the pains:
If well; the pain doth fade, the joy remains.
This is not some gloomy Puritanism – Herbert was certainly not a Puritan – but the advice of someone who has read the scripture and lived life. Herbert had participated in the exercise of power and the ascent to high dignity, and had a mature appreciation of it all. Having moved into ministry in a peripheral rural parish Herbert had let go of what the world celebrated. In words that might apply today he writes,
O England! full of sin, but most of sloth;
Spit out thy phlegm, and fill thy breast with glory:
Thy Gentry bleats, as if thy native cloth
Transfus’d a sheepishness into thy story:
Not that they all are so; but that the most
Are gone to grass, and in the pasture lost. (91-96)
Herbert encourages us, then, to move from a complacency, an idleness about our spiritual condition, to something that allows grace to work within us. May it be so.