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Baconian Investigation and Spiritual Standing in Herbert's The Temple
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Baconian Investigation and Spiritual Standing in Herbert's The Temple

Over the last six decades, scholars have puzzled over the remarkable friendship between George Herbert and Francis Bacon, curious that these men followed such disparate paths and yet enjoyed deep mutual regard.1 Critics have repeatedly pointed out that Herbert's Latin translation of The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605) for Instauratio Magna so moved Bacon that he dedicated his Certaine Psalms (1625) to "his very good friend."2 While commentators have acknowledged Herbert's praise of Bacon's work, they have disagreed about how much, and how consciously, the country parson drew on the Lord Chancellor's ideas. Typically, scholars have focused either on the two men's linguistic similarities or the parallels between their vocations.3 However critics differ, they tend to assume that Herbert, following Bacon, separated religion and natural philosophy. Thus William A. Sessions, speaking of both men, observes how "different their premises and their results" are, whereas Charles Whitney declares that "in The Temple Herbert consciously decided to ignore whatever he learned from Bacon about the possibilities of natural philosophy."4 Andrew M. Cooper at least perceives that each man sought "an ulterior, nonverbal truth accessible only to the intellectus spiritualis," but Cooper finds in "Baconian method" just the "same intuition as religious worship," not the ability to carry that worship out.5 Although these scholars recognize that there is some overlap between each man's search for illumination and the way each pursues it, they refuse to grant spiritual efficacy to Bacon's method, and so dismiss the possibility that Herbert could have relied on it when constructing The Temple. Yet Herbert's verse shows that his engagement with Bacon's knowledge program is as much methodological as it is rhetorical or conceptual. Herbert realizes the spiritual potential of his friend's investigative method by applying this method in a way that Bacon does not foresee. By probing the dark corners of the soul scientifically, Herbert hopes to inspire more intelligent devotion in his readers. [End Page 55]

Part of the reason why critics fail to perceive how Bacon's approach to truth helps to shape Herbert's religious poetry is that they often base their studies solely on "The Agonie," "Vanitie" (I), "The Pearl," and "Divinitie," lyrics which seem to reject academic learning as a guide to the divine. Of the critics who take this tack, Kenneth Alan Hovey comes closest to uncovering Herbert's procedural link to Bacon. Late in his essay, Hovey notes in passing the formal resemblance between The Temple and Bacon's masterwork, stating, "Much like Bacon's own Magna Instauratio, the exterior form is there, but within that form it [The Temple] seems a loosely related collection of experimental pieces."6 But Hovey cannot unpack this trenchant remark because of his earlier assertion that Herbert's "ardent Baconianism" is characterized by "its separation of science from divinity . . . and its limitation of the use of reason in the mysteries of the faith."7 The idea that The Temple's "loosely related collection of experimental pieces" could result from the application of scientific method does not occur to Hovey because he reduces Bacon's influence on Herbert to the latter's decision to gather " 'brief observations' based on Scripture."8 More recent examinations of Temple poems on earthly knowledge rightly suggest that Herbert absorbs other ideas from Bacon. Margaret Turnbull and Christopher Hodgkins both stress that Herbert allows natural philosophy a religious function, provided that researchers align their motives and aims with God's will.9 Still, these critics miss the ways in which the specific means researchers use to investigate nature can facilitate worshipful devotion. Consequently, no one has attended to the methodological compatibility between natural philosophy and religion in Herbert's verse.

In the following essay, I probe the formal ties between The Temple and Instauratio Magna so as to display Herbert's awareness that Baconian investigation can illumine human nature, specifically, one's moral and spiritual standing before God. I argue that in his poetry Herbert combines his understanding of trial as a spiritual test with Bacon's notion of trial as a scientific...