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Magdalene Herbert: Towards a Topos for the Anglican Church by Heather Asals "Shee never diverted towards the Papist, in undervaluing the Scripture, nor towards the Separatiti, in undervaluing the Church ? In his sermon in commemoration of Magdalene Herbert after her death in 1 627, John Donne paints for us the portrait of a lady as the Anglican Church, defining the path of the "middle way." Even the manner of her dress, Donne informs us, "never eumptuou», never aordld," proclaimed the principle which directed her life: "Her rule was mediocrity." To begin by mentioning that the via madia discretion in fashion possessed by the mother of George Herbert is identical to the taste in attire demonstrated by Anglicanism ("Neither too mean, nor yet too gay") in Herbert's poem, "The British Church," is to begin with a very simple point. But attire is no simple metaphor in the poetry of the Renaissance: the garment is poetry itself Language, the stuff of the garment of poetry, is the sacred gift bequeathed him by his mother, Herbert tells us in Memoriae Metri» Sacrum, his volume of Latin poetry in memory of his mother (printed together with Donne's funeral sermon in 1627) "You taught me how to write," he comments: "That skill owes you praise."2 Her art of wr iting was her art of dressing She did not indulge in the excesses of language and of ceremony, in the overdressing of the Roman Church: she did not spend the day in "idle talk" ("language being chaos since/ The time of Babel"). Nor did she "Pile up her hair as high as pride," Herbert further comments, "but after doing up her hair/ In a simple style," she beseiged the Lord with "Sharp and fiery" prayer.3 Her method in language presents to Herbert an idea of the middle way of the condition of language itself, its paradoxical reconciliation of extremes, "this very grece of speech": "Stern winsomeness," "wit/ And wisdom mixed," "Thought and word exactly in accord."4 By providing us with a parallel set of images for the Anglican Church in the literature about her life, Magdalene Herbert presents to the literary critic a key to the ontology of Herbert's poetry itself, the poetry of "The Church," to the locus and nature of the "being" of a Herbert poem My central text in all that follows here is a three-line passage from "The British Church" which defines the "place" from which George Herbert writes (the "face" of the apologetics of Anglicanism): Heather Asáis Beautie in thee takes up her place, And dates her letters from thy face, When she doth write.5 The Church, and specifically the Anglican Church, provides an entelechy for Herbert's transcendent aesthetic. The human analogy, in turn, between the Church and an admirable but individual woman of seventeenth-century England finds its roots in a tradition which, once recognized, leads us to read Herbert's poems "Heaven", "Lent", "Marie Magdalene," and "Sepulchre" more sensitively , and it brings us to the heart of Herbert's hermeneutic, based as it is on apostolic activity. "Place." "letters", "face," central words m "The British Church," are also tepo/current in the literature about Magdalene Herbert. These topol are the very substance of George Herbert's poetic, the very basis on which "The Church" writes, "When she doth write." In Magdalene Herbert Donne finds a "place" where Church and Scripture meet and are reconciled: "the rule, tor her particular understanding of the Scripture, was the Church." It is such a "place" that Herbert's poetry in "The Church" defines and names ("Beautie in thee takes up her place"). Donne's discursive analysis of the Church "actuating" Scripture, of the Church as the "Echo" of Scripture, is of particular use to us in coming to terms with some of the major poetic transactions in The Temple. "In Scriptures you have Preeceptum. The thing it self, What," Donne observes, "In the Church, you have the Nunc. The time, When. The Scriptures are Gods Voyce; The Church is his Eccho; a redoubling, a repeating of some particular syllables, and accents of the same voice."6 This conjunction which Donne speaks of between...


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