restricted access "Use alone": Usefulness and Revision in George Herbert's The Temple
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"Use alone":
Usefulness and Revision in George Herbert's The Temple

Izaak Walton's The Life of George Herbert (1670) includes the story of Herbert's deathbed instructions concerning the handling of his poetic works. Herbert tells Mr. Duncon:

Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.1

This incident identifies a tension between public and private work that informs Herbert's intense interest in the use of his poetry for the aid of others. In "The Church-porch," he begins by justifying his role as "Verser" because "A verse may find him, who a sermon flies" (l. 4).2 Given this uniquely persuasive quality of verse and Herbert's ongoing desire to help others, I will argue that the need to be useful drives Herbert's poetic endeavors and process of revision. For Herbert, the desire to be useful, to write a book that could "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul," is doubly heard; it is a plea to be actively useful - to others, to God, to himself - and it is also an utterance describing a passive state of being use-full,3 a state in which there is no space for anything but use. While it is possible to be a poet, preacher, publican, and so on, while also being useful, it is also possible to inhabit one of those roles without being useful. To be use-full reverses the identificatory labels, placing one's position secondary to one's condition as used, a paradoxical state similar to the sacrificed Christ who at the moment of the [End Page 78] crucifixion when most passively used was also the most actively useful to humanity. While this distinction seems insignificant at first, Herbert's concerns regarding usefulness and productivity seep into every aspect of critical discussion concerning his poetry because his ideas about usefulness instantiate a type of self that is inextricably bound to Protestant theology's view of grace and works.4

Martin Luther's "Preface to the Romans" unites works and faith even while asserting that works can in no way merit salvation: "Hence, the man of faith, without being driven, willingly and gladly seeks to do good for everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of hardships, for the sake of the love and glory of the God who has shown him such grace. It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith."5 For Luther, then, works naturally arise as a result of receiving God's grace, but these works in no way merit that grace. However, "the search for visible proofs of election" often leads to "a doctrine of works"6 because proof or evidence can be read as both resulting from grace or as working in the same manner as the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc. In other words, good works occurred and (presumably) salvation occurred; therefore, good works caused salvation.

While this subtle reversal appears consistent with Luther's point that good works follow from faith (since good works happen either way), in fact, it threatens to undermine the entire notion of salvation by grace. Hence, good works - which are measured by their usefulness and come from a productive person - may be a site of both assurance and anxiety for the believer who may ask him or herself if the works are genuine products of grace or subconsciously motivated efforts to win salvation.7 For Herbert, his works of preaching and poetry occupy a similarly vexed position because of his belief in salvation by grace.

Critics have focused on this vexed position in discussing the self and its agency in Herbert's poetry. Richard...