- George Herbert and the Mystery of the Word: Poetry and Scripture in Seventeenth-Century England by Gary Kuchar
Gary Kuchar is well known to scholars of early modern religious literature, poetry especially, and to readers of the George Herbert Journal in particular. His two previous monographs include chapters on Southwell, Donne, Lanyer, Crashaw, Marvell, and Traherne, and he has authored an armful of important articles on many of these same writers, as well as Shakespeare and Herbert. George Herbert and the Mystery of the Word is Kuchar's first book devoted to a single author, and it will be an essential inclusion on any Herbert bibliography, though it will no doubt generate debate as well as admiration. (A disclaimer: the Acknowledgments credit me with providing the occasion for the author's initial foray into this topic, but I had no involvement with the book, nor do I have a personal stake in its argument.) Kuchar makes no bones about challenging some of the standard critical perspectives on Herbert and religion, citing a number of studies over several decades that have "undermined any attempt to read Herbert as a Laudian poet" (p. 10 n. 12).
At the mention of Laud, some readers may already be mounting the barricades, but in fact neither the contentious Archbishop nor his ecclesiastical policies play much of a role in Kuchar's book. Kuchar is not interested in arguing for Herbert's proper place on one side or the other of the standard theological-ecclesiastical binaries, whether Calvinist-Lutheran or Puritan-Laudian (or Arminian). The religious culture of early seventeenth-century England was too complicated for such binaries, as post-revisionist historians like Christopher Haigh, Peter White, and Charles Prior have established, and also more peculiar than we have sometimes realized." To read Herbert historically," writes Kuchar, "we need to draw distinctions of time and style as well as distinctions of bare, synchronically received doctrine" (p. 26). Kuchar's book is remarkable not only in its reassessment of Herbert but in its representation of the "time and style" that engendered, in the poems of Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, Traherne, and others, perhaps the greatest period of religious poetry in English. (Marvell and Milton also contributed to the period, of course, but theirs is a different religious style, and they do not appear in Kuchar's book.) [End Page 113]
As Kuchar's title signals, the key is mystery. "Mystery" is that which is irreducible to facts, truths, logic, or doctrine, something beyond the powers of human reason to explain; diverse phenomena may be (in this view) fundamentally mysterious, including theological ideas, Scripture, sacraments, and the liturgy. For at least two reasons, the religion of the early seventeenth-century English Church was experiencing an "eclipse of mystery" (p. 27). First, the legacy of the sixteenth-century Reformation was an increasing emphasis on the clarity of Scripture and the assurance of the godly elect. Luther's principal of sola scriptura led to the argument that the Bible was open to the faithful, even self-interpreting, independent of traditional clerical authority (although, paradoxically, those making this argument produced an enormous body of literature to explicate the Bible for the laity). Justification by faith, on the other hand, led to the argument that, as Calvin put it, "To every man . . . his faith is a sufficient attestation of the eternal predestination of God" (p. 77, quoting the Commentary on John). As Susan Schreiner has demonstrated in Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era, the drive for assurance was an obsession not just of sixteenth-century Reformers but of Catholic theologians as well, who offered not a challenge to certitude but just a different path to it. In addition to this current of post-Reformation ideology, a strain of pre-Enlightenment rationalism or deism pushed some Christians in a similar direction, arguing that the truths of the Bible and religion could be attained by the application of reason.
The drive for certainty, Kuchar points out...