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GEORGE .HERBERT 'AND THE HUMANIST TRADITION MALCOLM MACKENZIE Ross UNLESS one is content with abstract definition one can no longer discuss the meaning of humanism without c.oncern and even trepidation. Perhaps if one is ready to admit that this meaning is subject to change, . and that 'the petsistence of the word from the Renaissance to the recent embalming of "T}le Hundred Best Books" is another indication of the poverty of language, one may avoid the trip ·and stumble which use of the term so often occasions. In our day the word humanism has frequ~ntly been employed defensively by those who resist the implications of science for modern life, and by those who seek to conserve amid the disturbing flux of social and cult11ral values some ideal construction of values gleaned from a reading of the past. For Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More (whose thought is characteristic of this defensive kind of humanism) the word clearly implies restrictive habits of thought and feeling, and this, I think, despite a healthy insistence on objectivity and aesthetic discipline. Unlike the humanists of a younger .· time, these men praise the fugitive and cloistered virtue, and draft an ethic out of inhibition.· Yet there are still among us those· for whom the word is wide enough and deep enough to contain all of man's .capacity and all of man's destiny. My own approach to the _ problem is historical and relativist. , This essay ' is, in a sense,· a study in the contraction o.f a word-value, and will contend that the value of humanism, like the 'value stored up in any word of long life, is by no mean~ constant and can even contradict itself in a changed historical context. · From this point of view it is instructive to re-examine the work of George Herbert, not only to gain a surer understanding of his poetry, not only to demonstrate the danger of static critical touchstones and catchphrases , but also to observe a C\lltural phenomenon in motion. Herbert's · po.etry has usually been regarded as the typical expression· of Anglican humanism. However, by analysing the imagery within the frame of its socia.I reference one can detect the tradition in the process of transforming .itself into something· quite unlike the Anglican humanism of a genetation before. Most s.tudents have found in Herbert a quality of religious feeling intimate yet moderate in expression which places his work in the direct line of descent from the via media of Ho.oker and the spirit of the Elizabethan compromise. H~tchinson,s critical examination of the text has saved· Herbert's reputation from any taint of the romantic ·agony. Certainly there would seem to be no evidence, psychological or factual, to. justify Palmer's "placing all the happier poems at the beginning of the Bemerton secti'on, and then passing through ·poems of reflection and restlessness to 169 170 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO .QUARTERLY poems of suffering and death."1 The sense 'of crisis is never absent from Herbert, but it is crisis tentatively if not finally resolved in a quiet, reasonable , though intense faith. While recognizing thes.e qualities in Herbert which ·seem, by hindsight at least, to typify the spirit 9f the humanjst tr~dition as it unfolds from the theology of Hooker, we must bear in mind that Herbert was not an Elizabethan and did not write under the pressure of those forces which went jnro the making of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Poliiy. The cQurt of Charles may have been n-o more than astone's throw in time from the court of Elizabeth, but it no longer represented the collective energies of the Englishlnation; and the Church of Laud, no matter what it may have owed in theory to Hooker's conception of the Christian Commonwealth, was no longer, in the fullest practical sense, the Church of England. Division w~thin· the state and Church (and finally between state and Church) destroyed the Elizabethan synthesis, both secular and ecclesias6cal. It is to this period of disintegration that Herbert's work belongs, and unless one is to regard humanism as wholly timeless and abstract, one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 169-182
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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