- Full of all knowledg': George Herbert's 'Country Parson' and Early Modern Social Discourse
A recent review of early modern studies noted unhappily a dearth of studies of single authors; amid such laments, the demise of the book-length [End Page 254] study of a single text would seem to be a foregone conclusion. Ronald W. Cooley's 'Full of all knowledg': George Herbert's 'Country Parson' and Early Modern Social Discourse is immediately striking, therefore, for its unusually narrow focus: Cooley takes as his subject George Herbert's relatively slender 1632 pastoral advice manual The Country Parson. Happily, this book is striking also for its intelligent, incisive criticism, and, interestingly, for its remarkable range. Narrowness of focus does not correspond to narrowness of implications; Cooley's thorough, careful examination of The Country Parson's relationship to a panoply of seventeenth-century issues (including the professional, theological, political, agrarian, familial, and literary) amply demonstrates the merits of his approach.
Cooley's cautious introduction positions his work within critical and theoretical traditions. He is more consistent in staking out a middle ground than adhering to particular approaches, and offers measured reflections upon critical debates. Some may find him too measured, but he is persuasively judicious and thoughtful rather than indecisive or uncertain. Of particular interest is his treatment of debates about the use of history in literary criticism. Mindful of critiques of literary historicism by David Cressy and others, Cooley is nevertheless unwilling to dismiss the likes of Foucault altogether, and argues, for instance, that The Country Parson seeks to construct the clergy as an instrument of social control. Instead, in the breadth of engagement of 'Full of all knowledg' he aims for a synthetical complement to historically informed criticism focused on more narrowly defined fields of historical inquiry. That is, while from a literary perspective the focus here is narrow, on a single text, from the historical perspective, the focus is broad.
These areas of historical inquiry shape the first four chapters of the book; each examines The Country Parson in light of a particular historical issue. The first, on church history, puzzles over the very existence of The Country Parson, written when conformity was demanded but standards were in flux. Rejecting depictions of Herbert as Protestant Everyman, Cooley reads The Country Parson as an audacious, historically specific text, consisting of 'calculated interventions, and potentially risky ones, in a highly charged struggle.' Crucial to that intervention is the construction of the clergy as a profession. Cooley's second chapter examines Herbert's rhetorical strategies, whereby the discourses of the emerging professions of law and medicine are used to validate the professional clergy, but also to present the clergy as superior. The third chapter turns its attention to rural and agricultural discourse; here, Herbert is indebted more to the particulars of Wiltshire than to literary pastoral traditions, offering a view of rural life that reflects, Cooley argues, both disruptions in his personal life and remarkable changes to the countryside. Cooley refutes notions of a nostalgic Herbert, and suggests that The Country Parson bears witness to a conversion to agricultural innovation. For Herbert, the parson is not just [End Page 255] shepherd but also father to his flock, and Cooley's fourth chapter discusses The Country Parson's engagement with patriarchal discourse. The parson, as both God's child and God's representative, embodies a 'simultaneously constrained and delegated authority ... represented as having more power than he really has.'
The final two chapters are essentially applied readings. From the start, Cooley rejects the notion that The Country Parson can simply be mined for solutions to interpretive problems in the poems, seeing it instead as the culmination of Herbert's literary development. He does, however, suggest that The Country Parson can illuminate the poems, and his fifth chapter offers what he calls 'enabled readings' of The Temple. These readings are engaging and enlightening; my only concern is that readers might be tempted to mine this chapter alone, which would be unfortunate. The greater significance...