George Herbert’s 1633 volume The Temple contains almost all of his English language poetry, and is the work for which he is best known. The collection is divided into three separate sections. Section one, titled “The Church-porch,” includes poetic instructions for proper etiquette when dealing with arguments, financial matters, and the ingestion of alcohol; it contains just two poems. 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 “Praise.” “The Chuch” makes up the bulk of The Temple. The final section is titled “The Church-militant” and abruptly shifts the mood of the collection toward a more apocalyptic expression of the necessity of the collective to band together and use the power of devout Christianity as a weapon of defense and attack against the evil forces wishing to wreak havoc on mankind. This section, like the first, contains just two poems.
The poems contained within all three sections of The Temple are characterized by an attention to construction as well as by their devotional content. Many of the selections are presented with the context of shapes; for instance, “The Altar” looks like an altar on the page, 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 rhyme and meter, such as suddenly ending a poem on a rhyme after several free verse stanzas. These innovations secured his place in literary history.
The poems espouse Herbert’s personal views on God and Christianity. Some of them may be seen to have autobiographical content. For example, The Temple contains a series of five poems under the heading of “Affliction.” In these, the speaker gives an account of his physical and mental suffering. In “Affliction (I),” he reveals that when he first felt the urge to devote his life to God by becoming a priest, he imagined that, though his devotion to God, he would be blessed with many joys. While this was true at first, with the passing of time, he was afflicted by misfortunes and found himself miserable:
My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
"Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans."
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believ'd,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv'd.
This poem, like much of Herbert’s work, focuses on the unknowability of God’s plan and the religious demand for submission. Despite God's seeming unkindness, the speaker feels that he must remain submissive to God: “Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;/ In weakness must be stout.” Though he contemplates giving up the life of a priest and serving some master other than God, the speaker cannot really decide to leave God.
Herbert often meditates on the responsibilities of priests, perhaps drawing on personal experience once again. In “The Priesthood,” the first stanza stressed that the "Blest Order’’ has the power to send souls to Heaven or Hell. Their weapon is the Holy Bible, referred to in this poem as "the word.” The power of the priests resides in the message they transmit to the people, and the Bible is the tool that gives them power. The power of the priests is also compared with a fire, having the power to destroy and to purify at the same time.
At the end of the poem, in the last two stanzas, the speaker points out that the priests had their flaws as well, changing the original meaning of many Biblical teachings to suit their own needs. Still, the speaker is determined to remain faithful, knowing that only God will be able to judge those who run the church.
Despite the faith displayed in this and other poems, as suggested by “Affliction (I),” religious doubt is also a theme throughout The Temple. One of Herbert’s most famous poems, “The Collar,” focuses on a moment of rebellion against God. While the stanzas in “Affliction (I)” are regular, perhaps reflecting a life that continues to be ordered and constrained despite the speaker’s doubt, the roving free-verse lines of “The Collar” reflect mental and emotional chaos and have been characterized by many critics as a “rant.” However, in this poem, as in most of Herbert’s poems, the ending reflects a return to God’s embrace. (Fittingly, the poem also resolves into rhyme.)
While the speaker in The Temple overcomes episodes of religious doubt, he also begs for additional kindness and mercy from God, and an end to trials. In “Discipline,” the speaker asks God to stop expressing his rage:
Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.
Through a series of simple pleas and demands, the speaker admits to his own frailty, maintains his undying faith, and asks for an end to “the rod,” or motivation through discipline and punishment. In “The Pulley,” Herbert explores the reasons for God’s discipline and punishment. The action of the poem starts before the creation of man, when God decided to pour an abundance of blessings on the first man and first woman. Among the blessings given to the people were beauty, wisdom, honor and pleasure. After giving these gifts to the people, God realized how they might in fact make a person stray from God, and thus he also gave them restlessness so that they will not be able to enjoy any gifts given to them.
In the beginning of the poem, the reason why God gave humanity all those gifts appears to be his love for them, but as the poem progresses, it appears he only wants to be worshipped. Thus, he gives humanity something unpleasant on purpose, something which will act as a pulley and drag humanity towards him.
The God in The Temple has more than one side, however. While “Discipline” shows the anger and force associated with the God of the Old Testament, poems like “The Flower” show God’s kindness. After a period of doubt, the poem marvels that his heart has opened again: “Who would have thought my shriveled heart/ Could have recovered greenness?” He realizes that he doubts only because he is not in heaven’s paradise, but on earth:
These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide;
Which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us where to bide;
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.
When one submits to God and God’s love, one sees that true happiness will only be available in heaven. Doubt can only lead one to forfeit paradise and God’s love. Viewed in this light, the speaker’s afflictions and periods of doubt are actually a gift from God that strengthens his faith. This is also the message of “Easter Wings,” a poem in the shape of wings in which the speaker counts his afflictions as his teachers and accepts God’s wisdom and love.
In “Clasping of Hands,” the speaker talks about the pleasures of faith. He starts the poem by claiming he belongs to the Lord and as such, the Lord is free to do with him as he pleases. The relationship between the Lord and the speaker resembles a marriage, and because of this similarity, the speaker claims that the Lord is his as well. In this relationship, the two people involved act as equals, and as such, the Lord has to perform various acts for the speaker as well, giving him everything he needs to live and have a happy life.
The image of faith as a marriage relationship is used to highlight the strength of devotion towards God and the speaker's commitment to religion. This comparison also forwards the idea that the servant has to perform various acts in order to benefit from the mutual relationship between God and the faithful.
Herbert’s religious poetry is not, however, necessarily conservative. His formal innovations including hieroglyphic poems like “The Temple” and free verse poems like “The Collar” are accompanied by daring imagery. In order to convey the psychological and emotional struggle of religious experience and ecstasy, Herbert sometimes draws on the imagery of romantic courtship and sexuality. “The Search,” for example, the speaker laments the fact that he has lost his love, and details his pining:
Yet can I mark how stars above
Simper and shine,
As having keys unto Thy love,
While poor I pine.
Herbert wrote at the height of a period of popularity for courtly poetry that lamented unrequited love. In “The Search,” however, the speaker pines not after a woman but after God. Similarly, in “Love (III)” the final poem in the section “The Church,” the speaker expresses doubt that he is fit to sit and eat at God’s table, and God, in the guise of Love, smiles, encourages, and overall seemingly seduces him to “sit and eat.”
In addition to the poems in The Temple, Herbert wrote several other poems in English, Greek, and Latin. While Herbert’s Latin poetry is less lauded than his English poetry, it takes up the subject of his mother’s death, showing his tendency to draw on his personal experience. In addition, he wrote a work of prose called “The Country Parson,” a guide for country parsons on their duties.
Herbert’s work has had an impact and positive reception for centuries beyond his death. The Temple is a paradoxical volume, as it celebrates both the trials and the joys of religious experience. However, this paradox is not only evident in the variety of poems, but in individual poems themselves. Does Herbert’s speaker give in to God willingly? Does he ever truly believe in his own worthiness for heaven, or is he forever conflicted and doubtful? Herbert’s complex lyric poems still reflect interestingly on both Christian doctrine and on his own religious faith. This, coupled with his formal innovation, has made him an enduring poet—from the Victorian era, to the Modernist era of formal innovation, to today.