The student of George Herbert seeking a sustained discussion of the poet's pastoral manual, A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson has a modest bibliography to consult. To be sure, most critics of Herbert's poetry offer some incisive remarks on the prose work, and Herbert's biographers, Amy Charles and Cristina Malcolmson, have considered the book with due care. But there have been only a handful of studies devoted primarily to The Country Parson. Among these, two essays by Kristine A. Wolberg stand out as particularly substantial and influential. Hence the appearance of a full-length book on The Country Parson by Wolberg, extending and amplifying the argument of her 1989 essay in the John Donne Journal and its companion piece, which appeared in 2007 in the George Herbert Journal, is a cause for some celebration in the Herbert community.
All Possible Art takes its title from the first of those two essays, and from Herbert's remark in The Country Parson that a skilful preacher "procures attention by all possible art" (Works, p. 232). So it comes as no surprise that Wolberg's book extends and amplifies the argument of her 1989 essay and its 2007 companion piece. Wolberg sets out to show that Herbert's book is itself composed using "all possible art," that it is "so outstanding among other works of its type [Protestant pastoral manuals] to suggest that Herbert was artfully shaping the genre to some purpose" (p. 13). Specifically, she argues that in composing The Country Parson, Herbert recast what had been primarily a homiletic genre in the mode of Renaissance humanist courtesy books like Castiglione's Courtier and (especially) Stefano Guazzo's Civile Conversation. The book's merits are its lucidity, its overall persuasiveness, and its clarity of purpose. Its main shortcoming is a slight lack of ambition. Admirers of Wolberg's essays may well find themselves wishing she had gone further, extending her insights in new directions.
Chapter one, "Doctrine and Life in the Country Parson," proceeds "polemically," enumerating Herbert's departures from the models of pastoral instruction offered by his contemporaries. It opens with a brief reading of "The Windows," a poem Wolberg sees as "undercutting the power of doctrine . . . [while it] underscores the power of right living" (p. 18). The [End Page 110] chapter proceeds to argue that this theme (a minor theme in The Temple) "is developed at length in . . . The Country Parson" (p. 18). Wolberg breaks down her discussion into a series of parallel binaries: The Country Parson, she argues, emphasizes the minister's external appearances over his inward experiences; it emphasizes life experience at the expense of doctrine; and it permits "good works" to "usurp the central role usually assigned to faith in Protestant thinking" (p. 14). In framing the theological issue this way, Wolberg aligns herself with commentators like Daniel Doerksen, Christopher Hodgkins, and Cristina Malcolmson, who characterize Herbert as a conforming early-Stuart Protestant who pursues the via media by recommending "strategies that cross party lines" (p. 14). Throughout the chapter Wolberg's reading of The Country Parson is perceptive and judicious.
Still there are points with which readers might be inclined to quibble. Many of Wolberg's conclusions depend on the space Herbert devotes to a topic (an important measure but not an entirely reliable one), and she sometimes dismisses points Herbert makes emphatically but briefly. In his chapter on "The Parson Praying," for example, Herbert devotes considerable space to the Parson's expressive gestures because they signify that he is "first . . . truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God" (p. 231). In other words, Herbert insists, along with his Protestant contemporaries, on the priority of inward experience, even as his book concentrates on externals. An argument could certainly be made that these are pro forma gestures on Herbert's part, but Wolberg nowhere makes this argument explicitly. Wolberg might also be overstating her case on the dichotomy between doctrine and experience. Following the lead of R.T. Kendall, many commentators have pointed out...