“Rym[ing] thee to good”: Didacticism and Delight in Herbert’s “The Church Porch”
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“Rym[ing] thee to good”:
Didacticism and Delight in Herbert’s “The Church Porch”

The first movement of The Temple, “The Church Porch” (1633), has typically been “somewhat of an embarrassment” to critics of George Herbert’s poetry, according to Carol Kessner.1 Altogether unlike the “intimate, deeply moving, frequently charming” lyrics of “The Church” (the second movement of The Temple), “The Church Porch” is “long, ponderous, structurally rigid, sometimes repetitious.”2 In a similar vein, Joseph Summers refers to the “The Church Porch” as a “large and worldly dragon,” which actually hinders the reader’s entrance into “The Church.”3

A close textual analysis of “The Church Porch,” however, reveals that Herbert uses a dizzying, complex artistry that some critics fail to observe, and as such the poem merits more careful attention than it has previously been afforded by the scholarly community. A delineation and an explanation of this complex array of Herbert’s strategies enable a reader not only to perceive the function of this first movement within the design of The Temple, but even to celebrate rather than be embarrassed by its existence. The title, “The Church Porch,” implies that this movement functions as a gathering place preparatory to the reader’s entrance into “The Church.”

“The Church Porch” centers on instruction. Therefore Herbert [End Page 179] applies a number of rhetorical strategies to reach his aim. One rhetorical choice Herbert makes concerns stanza development. He focuses on both method of reasoning and length. Each stanza consists of a precise, tightly knit argument that moves from a general concept to a specific application of that concept. For example, when the poet discusses the proper attitude for the churchgoer, he closes stanza 68 with the ironic assertion that “kneeling ne’re spoil’d silk stocking” (l. 407). With this assertion, the poet confronts his reader not only with the general principle of reverence but also with personal responsibility to act upon that principle before proceeding to read the next stanza. The effect of this deductive method of argument in teaching moral principles encourages the reader to apply the principles immediately upon learning them.

Stanza length is also significant in Herbert’s overall strategy. Unlike any of the other poems found in The Temple’s other two movements, “The Church Porch” is written in 77 stanzas, each of which contains six short lines. Because overt didacticism can be tedious and short-lived, the stanzas might be less intriguing were they longer. To be instructive and to give pleasure simultaneously requires great skill. In choosing to employ brief stanzas, Herbert—to borrow two select phrases from stanza 1—“make[s] a bait of pleasure” and catches the “sermon-flier” (ll. 3–4). Not only is overt didacticism apparent through stanza length but also in the poet’s choice of the imperative mood, a mood that consistently permeates the entire poem. In stanza 54, for example, Herbert uses the verbs mark, take, balance, be, share, and confesse, all addressed directly to the reader.

Mark what another sayes: for many are Full of themselves, and answer their own notion. Take all into thee; then with equall care Ballance each dramme of reason, like a potion.   If truth be with thy friend, be with them both:   Share in the conquest, and confesse a troth.

(ll. 319–24) [End Page 180]

However, Herbert softens the harsh tone commonly associated with the imperative mood by persistently positing his colloquy in a dialectic of binary choices, such as the following examples illustrate: “Abstain wholly, or wed” (l. 13), “Be thriftie, but not covetous” (l. 151), “Dare to be true. Nothing can need a ly” (l. 77). Herbert proffers options between two differing paths of action to make the reader aware of the consequences of certain choices. All the while, he leaves the decision open-ended. The reader is free to make a decision, having been alerted to the consequences of whatever decision is made.

Identification and clarification of certain principles in this opening section assist the reader as well in understanding the complex lessons Herbert imparts in the work as a whole. Because it weds thematic and methodological constructs...