A Gift for Our Times
The idea of writing a book devoted entirely to George Herbert’s The Temple came to me when I was working on a project on the use of poetic prosopopeia, a figure of counterfeit voice, as George Puttenham called it, in medieval and Early Modern English religious poetry. This study led me to think intensely about the different voices that inhabit The Temple, and the more examples I analysed, the more convinced I became that Herbert’s poetry was the outcome of an artistic experiment which has not received sufficient critical attention. Nowhere before or after have I read poems so obviously shaped by the need for attentive and truly hospitable listening, rather than by the common desire to impress the reader with witty word-play, elegant form or apt metaphors. The focus in The Temple falls on accepting the Word rather than offering words of praise, despite the speaker’s unswerving desire to be a servant of God. This, I came to realise, is not just a matter of Herbert’s obvious indebtedness to sacred scriptures, visible in the numerous biblical echoes, references and allusions in his work that critics have repeatedly pointed out. These poems were distinctly different from other poetic prayers inspired by the reading of the Bible. The inherently dialogic nature of English metaphysical poetry in general, and Herbert’s poems in particular, has frequently been stressed, but, once again, I thought I needed a formula which would allow me to adumbrate the difference between Herbert’s poetic dialogues and the...
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