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  • George Herbert's Sweet Devotion
  • Christopher A. Hill

In his introduction to Herbert's Remains (1652), Barnabas Oley refers to the late poet as the "sweet singer of the Temple."1 It is an assessment redolent of the paradoxical mixture of grandeur and humility in Herbert's life and reputation. He is in some ways the unlikeliest of towering figures: a man whose poetic influence is on a par with John Donne's, yet whose aesthetic and voice are as affectively unassuming as Donne's are singular. This apparently unintentional prominence is all the more striking when one reads other contemporary reactions from such figures as Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Vaughan, Richard Baxter, and Izaak Walton himself, perhaps the most important figure other than Nicholas Ferrar in establishing the parson-poet's exalted reputation. One sees in the mixture of terms applied to the man a significant emphasis on Herbert's saintliness of life, even as it calls explicit attention to his considerable influence as a devotional thinker and poet.2

In describing Herbert's life and work as "sweet," these contemporaries and critics are repeating an idea common in Herbert's own poetry; around fifty of the poems in The Temple include some form of the word "sweet" (including words such as "sweetness," "sweetning," or "sugared"). Herbert uses the term specifically and intentionally, because it helps him describe the conflicts of his soul, differentiate between pleasure and pain, and emphasize the importance of those affections. It helps him approach the idea of propriety, and it helps him explore the means and ends of his poetry in general, both as an exploration of the relationship between his heart and God's heart and as an exploration [End Page 236] of what divine poetry can and should do. Because he is doing all these things in an intimate and self-consciously devotional space, he needs some handle or term by which he can grasp multiple ideas at the same time. The sweetness of love, in the phrase from "Jordan (II)," offers Herbert the matter and the means—the inventio and elocutio—by which he can "turn delight into a sacrifice," in the words from the first stanza of "The Church Porch."3 Delight and sacrifice correspond neatly to the personal and public valences of devotion that persist throughout Herbert's poetry and prose. He uses sweetness as a theoretical and practical aesthetic casting the work and aim of devotion in both directions at once.4

Why should sweetness be so important to Herbert's brand of devotional writing? To work toward an answer, we can start with Anthony Low's use of the four categories of devotional modes articulated by the English mystic Augustine Baker: prayer, meditation, sensible affection, and immediate acts.5 Whereas we might pay a lot of attention to devotional writing in the form of prayer manuals, handbooks, and the like—Helen White's literary explorations of the genre being foundational—Low and others also point to devotional practices as forms of both personal and corporate worship. Chana Bloch, in her account of the biblical basis of Herbert's poetic, makes essentially the same points by highlighting formal expressions born from the Psalms: hymns, complaints, and thanksgivings.6 Seen in the light of this kind of developed devotional practice, the sweetness used in Herbert's poetry works as a physical and spiritual aesthetic operating not only in the private space of the believer's heart but also through the necessarily corporate nature of the church.

Ferrar introduces The Temple by drawing our attention to the poet-parson's care for both private and public worship: "Though he abounded [End Page 237] in private devotions, yet went he every morning and evening with his family to the church, and by his example, exhortations, and encouragements drew the greater part of his parishioners to accompany him daily in the public celebration of divine service."7 One need not be a theologian or church historian to infer that evaluating the distinction between personal and public forms of devotion and their relative merits was a difficult task for Herbert's contemporaries—even as everyone agreed how necessary both manifestations were. In an...


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pp. 236-258
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