George Herbert served two terms as a member of Parliament, held the post public orator at Trinity College, was ordained as a deacon and as canon of the Lincoln Cathedral set about actually becoming an authentic example of the pious servant of God who uses his own money to improve his church and help the needy rather than exploiting that position to line his own pockets and gain contributions to construct a ridiculous memorial to himself more than a genuine house for worshipping God. And while doing all this over the course of a lifespan equal to about half the average life expectancy in England today, George Herbert also managed to write the poems for which is most remembered: those works of verse collected in a manuscript titled simply The Temple.
Herbert’s premature death one month shy of his 40th birthday was the result of a lifelong battle with bad health fatally compromised by tuberculosis. Realizing that death was imminent and utterly unavoidable, Herbert sent that manuscript to a friend he’d trusted all his life, Nicholas Ferrar with one simple request: depending solely upon his own critical evaluation, either burn it or get it published. That valuation is made manifest by the widespread critical acclaim The Temple has enjoyed for most of its nearly 400 years of existence.
The collection is divided into three separate sections. Section one, titled “The Church-porch” are poetic instructions for proper etiquette when dealing with arguments, financial matters and ingestion of alcohol. Section two is very aptly titled “The Church” as it deals with topics routinely associated with the practice of attending services such as “Prayer,” “Easter,” and “The Collar.” The final section is titled “The Churchmilitant” and abruptly shifts the mood of the collection toward a more apocalyptic expression of the necessity of the collective to band together to use the power of devout Christianity as a weapon of defense and attack against the evils wishing to wreak havoc on mankind.
The poems contained within all three sections of The Temple are characterized by an attention to construction as well as content. Many of the selections are presented with the context of shapes; for instance, “The Altar” looks like an altar with a narrow central section squeezed between a broader top and bottom. Other poems feature less traditional stanza formations with unconventional and irregular indentation of individual lines within each stanza. Herbert also experiments with poetic devices such as suddenly ending a poem on a rhyme after ending four consecutive stanzas rhymelessly barren.
Oddly, The Temple enjoyed incredible commercial success in the first half-century following its publication before suddenly and thoroughly falling out of favor for the next century. A newly printed edition at the dawn of the 19th century just as suddenly and thoroughly brought the poetry of George Herbert back into public favor and the spotlight on The Temple has never faded since.