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  • Putting Things in Perspective:George Herbert’s “Sinne” (II)
  • Simon Jackson

In “Sinne” (II), Herbert contemplates the problem of how we are to confront our sins:

        O that I could a sinne once see!        We paint the devil foul, yet he        Hath some good in him, all agree.Sinne is flat opposite to th’ Almighty, seeingIt wants the good of vertue, and of being.

        But God more care of us hath had:        If apparitions make us sad,        By sight of sinne we should grow mad.Yet as in sleep we see foul death, and live:So devils are our sinnes in perspective.1

It is a poem that bravely articulates a desire and need to know our sinfulness, while at the same time acknowledging the immense difficulty of such an exercise. To see a sin is, for Herbert, a seemingly impossible task – not only because of the abstract, conceptual nature of sin, but because to do so would be an overwhelming experience. The devastating effects of confronting our sins squarely seems akin to the trauma Donne feels when gazing on the crucifixion, “That spectacle of too much weight for mee,” from which he turns away to ride westward on Good Friday, 1613.2 Yet Herbert does not, like Donne, turn his back completely on this traumatic vision: in the conclusion to “Sinne” (II) he proposes instead an alternative mode of viewing our sins. Rather than looking at them squarely, we are invited to view them as devils, “our sinnes in perspective.” [End Page 120]

Herbert advocates, then, a radically new way of looking at the problem; and to understand his concluding proposition we must pay close attention to the poem’s final word, “perspective.” It is imperative, if we are to follow the nuances of Herbert’s argument, that we unpack that dense and surprising concluding word. What does it mean to look at sin in perspective? and how are we to do so? This essay will situate Herbert’s poem in the context of early modern theories about perspective, and explore one of the most spectacular contemporary uses of these theories: the perspectivally-informed scenery of the Stuart court masque.

The secular court masque may seem an unusual context for Herbert’s private, devotional verse, and certainly few critics approach The Temple with an eye on masque performance.3 Nevertheless, Herbert cannot have been ignorant of these phenomenally extravagant secular entertainments. Herbert’s brother Henry was Master of the Revels (1623-73) with responsibility for some important elements of the production of these events, including lighting the stage and production of costumes. M.C. Bradbrook and Michael Schoenfeldt have both made the suggestion that George accompanied Henry to a masque performance while visiting his younger brother.4 Herbert’s aristocratic kinsmen, the Earls of Pembroke, and their wives, regularly performed in these elaborate entertainments. Only a few miles down the road from his rectory in Bemerton, Herbert would have been familiar with the Arcadian splendor of the Pembroke estates at Wilton, a perspectivally-informed Palladian set-piece that has been described recently by one commentator as being “like the background to a masque made real.”5

When we consider “our sinnes in perspective” in this context, we discover that these ‘painted devils’ do far more than simply reveal the distortion and ugliness with which our sins disfigure God’s creation. Such self-scrutiny may be necessary, but is little more than a closed circle. If we understand the perspectival conceit of “Sinne” (II) in its rich contemporary context, we find ourselves engaging with a model that can allow us to comprehend more fully the place of sin within God’s harmoniously ordered creation. Such a reading also allows us to understand the place of “Sinne” (II) within the wider situation of Herbert’s Temple: to see the consoling effects of confronting our griefs as a preliminary step in our progress towards understanding and [End Page 121] participating in the fullness of God’s love, as expressed in the final poem of “The Church,” “Love” (III). So I am interested here in playing devil’s advocate: to show how early modern ideas about perspective and the contexts in which...


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