Pictures from the Rylands Library 43: Expressive Forms: the Temples of George Herbert Stella Halkyard
In 1633 George Herbert, the twenty-third rector of the parish of St Andrew in the village of Bemerton, lay dying. He called to his side Edmund Duncon, a Hertfordshire clergyman of his acquaintance, saying: ‘Sir, I pray you deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar… if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not let him burn it.’
Straightway, Duncon took Herbert’s fragile morsel of paper, con-
church under Herbert’s direction. On being granted the prebendary of St Mary’s in 1626, Herbert determined to restore it from a state of dereliction. The result is ‘eloquent of Herbert’s churchmanship: pulpit and prayer desk on either side of the aisle balanced in equal height, pews all on a level, and abundant light’ (John Drury).
So, Herbert’s temples reach us in the twenty-first century in heterogeneous material forms. His actual temple, St Mary’s, is fabricated taining the inky scrapings of the text of his English poems, to Little Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar and his family had established a religious community. Many and many a time over Ferrar reads the poems, which plot, ‘the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and [Herbert’s] soul’ and confirms them to be ‘most worthy in the hands and hearts of all true Christians’ (Izaac Walton). And so within the year Herbert’s poems are published on the press at the University of Cambridge under the title of The Temple. Meanwhile, in nearby Leighton Bromswold, the Ferrars were completing the renovation of an actual into architectural space from wood, glass and stone whilst his poems in The Temple are fashioned from words, printed on paper and bound into books in an order that follows the semblance of the shape of a church. Yet, the concrete modalities of buildings and books also operate symbolically as ‘texts’ because as many commentators have observed, ‘forms effect meaning’ (D. F. McKenzie) and meaning is made manifest, even in the smallest of details.
One such small detail can be found in this image, which is taken from the eleventh edition of The Temple, printed in 1679. Here on the threshold (‘Superliminare’) of myriad material and spiritual worlds, poet and printer conspire to create an opulent feast to delight both ear and eye. The poems sing their radiant song, shaped within their ornamental frames, as in a ‘box where sweets compacted lie’. Form, content, medium and message balance in equilibrium. Yet, all is not harmony. The open door of the Church Porch reveals a congregation in the act of worship. Towering above them from his elevated perch the preacher dominates those assembled like the ‘brittle, crazy glass’ of the radical puritan. Out of tune with Hebert’s moderate Anglicanism the image strikes a discordant note in contrast with the ‘quiet polemic’ articulated in Herbert’s ‘deliberate arrangement’ at Leighton Bromswold church where, ‘… equality is the key note: not only of prayer and preaching but also the social equality of everyone on the same level – the furniture of reciprocity’ (John Drury). Happily for Herbert it is the poet and not the printer who is given the final word because, paradoxically, ‘speech alone / Doth vanish like a flaring thing’ unlike the fabric of the church that ultimately inspires ‘strong regard and awe’ and like ‘season’d timber never gives’.
images Left: ‘George Herbert’s The Temple, 1679 (reference code: SC4949A); Below: Portrait of Herbert. (© University of Manchester, 2019)