A Gift for Our Times
Coda: The Church Militant, or the Circumnavigation of the Word
The Temple ends with two poems: a long verse narrative, “Church Militant”, followed by the epigrammatic “L’Envoy”. The former has often been compared with Donne’s verse satires, which is not surprising at all, but its overtly mystical tones, for no apparent reason, are usually overlooked. Why would one ignore the poet’s explicit references to the great love song of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs, which in the Christian tradition serves as a pattern of bridal mysticism and an inspired allegory of the relationship between God and the Church? One possible motive behind this neglect might be the alleged sobriety of the Protestant religion, supposedly inherently suspicious of any mystical raptures. Yet the sheer number of references to the Song of Songs in poetry by Protestant authors, for instance in Isaac Watts’ Hymns, indicates that this view of Protestantism is an oversimplification. There is no doubt that Herbert knew and appreciated the rich allegorical exegesis of this Old Testament text, and made a conscious decision to incorporate it into his poetry both in “Love (3)” and in the poem which follows it at the end of The Temple. The first part of “Church Militant” resonates with the beautiful poetic harmonies of the Song and the commentaries by the Church Fathers which it inspired:
But above all, thy Church, and Spouse doth prove
Not the decrees of power, but bands of love.
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