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Devotion in the Present Progressive: Clothing and Lyric Renewal in The Temple

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2021

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Summary

[T]hough our outward man perish, yet the

inward man is renewed day by day

–2 Cor. 4:16

The Temple is about the ongoing practice of faith: the collection's lyrics illuminate a spectrum of religious experiences and attitudes, each poem exploring the emotional and devotional contours of a moment in that process. George Herbert's collection includes recurring metaphors to describe the experiences of the faithful, most conspicuously the architectural conceit that gives Herbert's volume its name. Yet the comparison between devotion and the physical spaces in and near which devotional activity takes place describes not stasis but dynamic process. Herbert's structural metaphors point not only to a building (the sections of a church or its environs) but the act of building itself, the ongoing process of spiritual edification documented by his individual metaphors as well as the incremental, varied meditations in the lyrics throughout the volume. The completed structures–an altar built from broken pieces of the heart in “The Altar”; the allegorical stones of virtue cemented by love and charity in “The Church-floore–belie the ongoing kinetics of creation that inform Herbert's poetry. The edification of spirit is never complete, as so many of Herbert's metaphors of brokenness suggest, but finds its conclusiveness through analogy with what Herbert sees as the ongoing nature of creation itself. If the processes of faith– prayer, repentance, devotion, self-reflection–are impossible to complete, they nevertheless reach closure through their kinship with the continual remaking of God's original creation.

Herbert's collection is deeply analogic: the poet rifles through stores of metaphors from masonry to agriculture to astronomy in order to represent the facets of Christian life. Rather than shift attention away from the doctrinal sensitivities of recent criticism, this article aims to restore a proportional sensitivity to the particularity of Herbert's choices in image and structure, specifically in the recurring metaphor of clothing in The Temple. Herbert's repeated references to dress, both sacred and secular, testify to the flexibility of this vehicle. Earthly, material comparisons like clothing render the experiences of faith that Herbert describes more accessible and thus potentially more moving. Yet analyses even of Herbert's most (literally) concrete metaphors have attempted to construe his use of architecture as purely symbolic.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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