- A Balsome for Both the Hemispheres: Tears as Medicine in Herbert’s Temple and Seventeenth-Century Preaching
George Herbert, according to the critical consensus, was no weeping penitent. Although repentant tears, sighs, and groans feature prominently in some 20-odd poems in The Temple, Herbert scholars have tended to agree that the poetic speaker who identifies himself to God as “thy clay that weeps, thy dust that calls” only uses tears ironically or metaphorically, in direct contrast to the self-indulgent lachrymose excesses of his Counter-Reformation contemporaries.1 Stating what has become the dominant appraisal of tears in The Temple, Richard Strier asserted some 20 years ago that Herbert’s “Marie Magdalene” displays a “skeptical attitude toward super-abundant weeping” that “would be, to say the least, odd in a Catholic context.”2 More recently, Gary Kuchar has claimed that in the “Calvinist” poem “Grief,” Herbert “parodies the Southwellian tradition by refuting its ability to express a genuinely contrite experience of godly sorrow,” and Elizabeth Clarke has suggested that the weeping in that poem should be read as intentionally mannered hyperbole intended to act as a foil to the poem’s final spontaneous ejaculation (“Alas, my God!”).3 For these critics, it seems that the orthodoxy of Herbert’s poetry would be called into question by association with what Clarke calls the “indulgence in emotion for the pleasure of the reader” represented by a “‘baroque’ style” of emotional excess that “seems alien to English sensibility.”4 These critics agree that Herbert must reject penitential weeping because the Calvinist Protestantism presumed to have dominated in the seventeenth-century English church clearly denied the efficacy of human actions—including bodily expressions of penitence—as a means of obtaining salvation and grace.
But, as recent research has revealed, the tears of repentance were far from empty or metaphorical for early modern English Protestants. Numerous sermons and popular guides to prayer exhort the godly to make tears a constant part of their prayers, and the faithful seem to have complied with enthusiasm.5 Late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century diarists record shedding tears in church (especially when [End Page 559] receiving the sacrament of communion), in small prayer groups, and alone in their closets.6 Lady Grace Mildmay, for instance, upholds devout tears as evidence of the “good example” of piety her mother had given her, describing how
every morning she would withdraw herself alone and spend an hour in meditation and prayers to God, with her face all blubbered with tears. . . . And also to my remembrance, I never saw her receive that holy sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ, his body and blood, but with tears which declared a reverent, gracious and holy mind in her.7
Others shed tears over their inability to weep in a holy enough manner, as Nehemiah Wallington reveals in his distress over the way he “made an Idol of [his] teers,” lamenting, “I have thought very well of myselfe when I had sheed teers and if I have not sheed teers then it could not be well with mee . . . so that you may see I have just cause to weepe and lament over my teers.”8 Wallington’s angst over his perceived failure to weep for the right reasons testifies to the highly fraught nature of Protestant devotional weeping and to its status as a problematically uncertain sign; tears can indicate genuine repentance and sorrow of heart, but they may also result from spiritually empty causes like fear of damnation or sorrow over worldly losses.9 This problem is reflected in Herbert’s own The Country Parson, where he speaks to the parson’s experience of “having doubted sometimes, whether his repentance were true, or at least in that degree it ought to be, since he found himself sometimes to weep more for the loss of some temporal things, than for offending God.”10
Yet despite the problem that tears could indicate worldly as well as spiritual sorrow, seventeenth-century sermons and devotional guides insist almost unanimously on the idea that genuine repentance will result in penitential weeping, and many go as far as to suggest that a lack of tears indicates a dangerous state...