George Herbert's Pastoral is a fine collection of essays that grew from an international conference held October 2007 at Sarum College near Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England. Its fourteen essays were developed from keynote addresses and selected papers. The conference, and later the book, sought to "locate Herbert's pastoral life and writings more particularly in their place and time - early Stuart Wiltshire," asking how the "specific country place, time, and people" shaped the "life and work of this especially lyrical country priest" (jacket).
The result is considerably varied, focusing only briefly (in essays by Christopher Hodgkins and Donald Friedman) on Herbert's relation to the literary pastoral genre. In the brilliantly written introduction, "Reforming Pastoral: Herbert and the Singing Shepherds," Hodgkins deals well with elements relevant to pastoral in Herbert's poetry and prose, deftly showing how this aspect comports with pastoral in Sidney, Spenser, Marvell, Milton, and the Bible. Hodgkins deals frankly with elements modern readers of Herbert might find troublesome, such as the parson as police officer (p. 21), or his "virtual dismissal of erotic desire from this clerical shepherd's life" (p. 18). Friedman calls Herbert himself a literary critic (p. 35) who critiques pastoral "doubleness" in "Jordan" (I) and (II) but is well aware of necessary ironies in his own verse, which at times pictures experience by "a representation, an artful, artificial, consciously crafted version" of it (p. 38). Herbert, Friedman claims, is "deeply aware of and dependent on the [pastoral] mode's genius for looking at the object of its interest through an initially distorting, but ultimately illuminating, mirror or glass" (p. 39).
Moving from the literary to the spiritual sense of the term, the collection includes three essays dealing with "pastoral practice." In the [End Page 103] first of these, Gene Edward Veith takes up vocation in Herbert, something he equates with "the Reformation's practical theology of the Christian life" (p. 53). For him, The Country Parson is a "treatise on vocation" (p. 56). Veith pictures Herbert as "caught between the old Reformation" (associated with the "historical liturgy and a high view of the sacraments," p. 52) and the later Reformation's "perfectionism, moralism, and earnest desire to serve God" (he seems to mean here "puritan" tendencies, though he avoids the term). The resulting vocational conflicts are generally resolved in the poems by the "theology of presence" (p. 62) which Veith associates with Luther. (But "The Elixir," which beautifully asserts such a presence, echoes a passage in Calvin, as Veith himself noted in his Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert [pp. 239-40]. Calvin's writings were more influential and current in Herbert's England.) Interestingly Veith suggests that the neighbor whom Herbert loves and serves is the reader of his poems (p. 70).
In "Herbert's Holy Practice," Kenneth Graham investigates the balance in Herbert between knowing and doing, doctrine and life, in the light of contemporary writings, such as the Wiltshire clergyman Robert Dyer's The Christians Theorico-Practicon (1633). Protestant theology of the time emphasizes grace, and seemingly "renders doing inessential" (p. 73). Yet like Dyer, Herbert's "The Windows" points to the "rhetorical" value of holy practice to others, in its "persuasive power" (p. 76). Graham's reading of Herbert's "Discipline" shows that it reflects the "characteristically Protestant balancing act" of "believing in the priority of faith while giving works their due" (p. 82). In her essay Helen Wilcox asks "When Is a Poet Not a Priest?" and replies that in Herbert's case, it is never. She describes the priest as a necessarily vulnerable intermediary between God and people (pp. 96, 93), and interestingly points to ways in which Herbert's poems "enact the functions of a priest" (p. 101), by drawing in a congregation, preaching to them, leading them in prayer and praise, celebrating with them the "redemptive death of Jesus," and finally in "The Church Militant" sending out the congregation "to live and work" in the world, "the rough-and...