While the conventional category of “shape poem” describes only a few of George Herbert’s devotional poems, a bibliographic survey of Herbert’s poetic opus reveals a menagerie of hinted shapes that participate in Reformation debates surrounding church beauty. The visual imperfections of two poems in particular, “The Flower” and “The Collar,” tentatively embody the spiritual and material ambivalence of the early modern English Church. However, there is no single shape that is wholly appropriate to these poems’ content throughout any of their seventeenth-century editions. They are, then, “almost-shape poems,” a category of poetic visuality that exists between the iconoclasm of some church reformers and the supposed idolatries of more sensuous worship. This aesthetic of imperfection challenges not only seventeenth-century polemics surrounding sacramentality but also notions of literary agency and authority. Because “The Flower” and “The Collar” owe their almostness to gradual shifts in line placement throughout the seventeenth century, no one poet, reader, editor, or compositor can be said to fully “author” these poems. They become, rather, a shared project of collaborative devotion that is meaningfully compatible with the communal, visually rich experience of seventeenth-century liturgical worship.


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pp. 544-579
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