Heart-Deep Theology | Desiring God
ABSTRACT: Seventeenth-century poet George Herbert once likened the experience of meditating on Scripture to inhaling a shooting star: the Bible disrupted his insides, shook his heart, and demanded visceral expression. So, as pastor of a rural country parish in southern England, he expounded Reformation doctrine and spirituality in what would come to be recognized as some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. A look at Herbert’s canon reveals why he felt the need to express scriptural doctrine in heartfelt verse, and it also illustrates some of the differences between Protestant and Catholic spirituality at the time. By expressing the theology of the Reformation in poetry, Herbert’s work adorns Protestant doctrine with an appropriately affectional response.
In addition to his two English poems probing the intricacies of the Bible, George Herbert (1593–1633) viscerally describes the experience of meditating on Scripture in his Latin poem “In S. Scripturas,” or “On Holy Scriptures”:
Alas, what spirit, and ardent whirlwind
Turns my thoughts
Over in my heart of hearts?
Sitting by the doors at evening
Have I inhaled a shooting star,
What’s more, not knowing how
To lie wholly hidden in a foul lodging,
Is she considering escape?
Did I, in eating honey, eat the bee
Swallowing her home with the queen?1
In “In S. Scripturas,” Herbert links meditation not with its cognate descriptor, ruminating, and the metaphor of a cow’s slow digestion through its four-part stomach, but with windstorms, burning balls of gas ricocheting with uncontainable kinetic energy through the body, and the festering pain of an esophageal bee sting. For Herbert, Scripture moves forcefully and uncomfortably in a place that is “imo pectore” or, as he describes elsewhere, “hart-deep.”2 Tornados, meteors, and beestings are Herbert’s metaphorical amplifications of Scripture’s ability to disrupt one’s spiritual insides, much like the declaration in the book of Hebrews that the word of God can pierce “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12).
Given our modern cultural stereotypes of seventeenth-century Reformation spirituality, we might find ourselves surprised by the bizarre, violent beauty and the ludicrous aptness of Herbert’s comparing an evening spent meditating on Scripture to the shock of accidentally sucking in a shooting star. While the degree of vitality and imaginative energy in Herbert’s verse finds, perhaps, few contemporary peers,3 the activity of moving from scriptural and doctrinal study to composing verse adaptations of Scripture and devotional poetry was popular, even commonplace, in early seventeenth-century English Reformation culture.
Exploring the explicit connections that Herbert draws between scriptural study, the affections, and eloquence, and then setting this see-feel-say chain within the complex devotional culture developing out of and in response to various strains of the Reformation, may help to explain the popularity of theologically oriented verse in Herbert’s day. Within a larger diverse culture of devotional poetry encouraged by the Reformers and the Counter-Reformers alike, seventeenth-century English Protestantism tethered understanding to feeling and expression in ways that fostered theology expounded in poetry.
“For an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent.”
To clarify how a widespread flurry of devotional poetry might accompany the exegetical and catechetical labors of the English Reformation, this essay appeals to Herbert’s canon to demonstrate how early-modern English Protestants turned to poetry to expound and amplify the theological convictions that they rooted in their readings of Scripture. Then, to answer how divergent Catholic and Protestant confessional approaches impacted a widespread culture of devotional poetry, this essay turns to the subgenre of lacrimatic poetry — or the poetry of devout sorrow — to explore how Herbert articulates a theology of godly sorrow. Herbert’s poetry of tears is both wary of Counter-Reformation treatments of penitence and eager to supplant mannered depictions of weeping in devotional poetry with probing, visceral ones. He expands facets of Reformation soteriology by linking tears of contrition to tears shed over Christ’s passion to tears wept for the sins and sorrows of others.
Devotional Poetry as Theological Amplification
One of the English Reformation habits of heart and mind that encouraged the composition of devotional poetry was a conviction that orthodoxy leads to doxology. In other words, for an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent; instead, the more attention one gave to teasing out the implications of a particular doctrine or a passage of Scripture, the more one expected to be moved, and this affective response — whether love and admiration or distress and conviction — found a consistent outlet in the composition of devotional poetry. This is how Herbert’s metaphor of the shooting star works in “In S. Scripturas”: the narrator has taken in some portion of Scripture, and it not only comes in forcefully but will, we expect, come out again with significant force. Thus, in the poem’s argument, meditation on Scripture provokes the affections toward utterance.
Herbert’s “In S. Scripturas” is a doxological celebration of Scripture’s affective power, just as chapter 7 of his didactic prose work The Country Parson encourages parsons to bring to their congregation “texts of Devotion,” which Herbert defines as “moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full.”4 Here, Herbert not only assumes that parishioners can and will inhale their own shooting stars in Scripture, but he also expects that his fellow parsons will have already been so moved. He insists that, when parsons preach, they “dip . . . and season . . . all our words and sentences in our hearts, . . . so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is hart-deep.”5 In his culinary metaphor, Herbert exhorts fellow parsons to marinate their words in their affections, knowing that our affections help us to adorn what is already beautiful so as to help others see its beauty.
“For Herbert, ‘hart-deep’ words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.”
For Herbert, however, speech flavored by the affections is the opposite of affectation or what we might call performative, mannered speech. As a professionally trained orator who left his position at Cambridge for the pastorate, Herbert was acutely sensitive to slipping into sounding merely witty, or learned, or eloquent. He took with him to the Bemerton pulpit of southern England his skills of imaginative precision and persuasion, and he wrestled openly in his verse with a fear that the beauty of his poetry might be merely rhetorical show. At the same time, Herbert shouldered the particular responsibility and reality of shepherding in a rural country parish, where he recognized that he would need to take greater pains “by all possible art” to help his parishioners cultivate their attention to Scripture.6 Kate Narveson identifies Herbert’s posthumous collection of English verse, titled The Temple by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, as “didactic devotional guide” within a “culture of practical divinity.”7 If Herbert’s Temple displays his unique elocutionary talent, it simultaneously showcases a pastoral desire to stir up the affections of others toward God. For Herbert, “hart-deep” words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.8
What then does such genuine, heart-soaked speech sound like? Although in The Country Parson Herbert is teaching on the genre of sermon-craft, marinated speech readily suggests rhetorical genres like poetry that linger, amplify, and expound. Fresh paraphrase, arresting comparisons, and resonating word pairs reframe even the most quotidian truths and underscore the most astounding. In The Temple, Herbert returns again and again to spiritual themes demanding further consideration. He has five poems titled “Affliction,” all of which wrestle with the question of suffering from a different angle; he also has three poems on Scripture, three on love, two on prayer, two on baptism, and two on the temper, not to mention the times that each of these themes reappears in other poems. In his poetry, Herbert makes a “study of himself,”9 laboring to explicate his own desires and motivations, his agonies and his joys, as a means of working Scripture’s claims into the woof and weave of his everyday life, making them square with the varied, uneven nature of his own experience.
Scripture in Paraphrase
Herbert’s spiritual-literary habit of writing and rewriting poems on passages of Scripture and doctrines derived from Scripture against the grid of his own experience evinces his participation in a larger early-modern English Protestant surge of scriptural studies, which extended well beyond family and private Bible reading or exegetical homilies into a wide range of Scripture-based activities.
Chana Bloch has described Herbert’s poetic style as “a kind of biblical shorthand,”10 and as Brian Hanson illuminates, Herbert was hardly unique in his habit of amplifying Scripture: alongside devotional poetry, the seventeenth century witnessed a proliferation of devotional prayer books and catechisms.11 Gary Kuchar describes entering a seventeenth-century Anglican church as an experience akin to entering a “scrapbook of scripture,” given the prominence of biblical texts on the walls and windows and in the daily liturgical reading from the Book of Common Prayer.12 Narveson roots the flourishing of devotional poetry, in particular, in the seventeenth-century Protestant treatment of the Psalms as “infinitely expandable” by elaboration and paraphrase, since they provide an example of how to “express and anatomize the godly heart.”13 Catholics and Protestants alike shared a preference for the popularly designated “seven penitential psalms” as “the foundation of domestic devotional culture,”14 particularly in new metrical renderings.15 Even Sir Francis Bacon published a “translation” (an adaptation) of these seven psalms.
The easy metric adaptability and the expressive vulnerability of the Psalms were not the only devotional models that scriptural study provided early-modern readers; Herbert’s “Holy Scriptures II” underscores Scripture’s syntopical mode, where “this verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.”16 Early-modern Protestant devotional poetry, including a significant corpus by women poets, cultivated habits of comparative reading by joining and juxtaposing passages.17 Like the handmade Scripture harmonies produced by Herbert’s friends at Little Gidding,18 composing devotional poetry was often an activity of analysis and organization just as much as it was an exercise in spiritual reflection and expression. Its beauty, therefore, was often one of parataxis and collation.19
Poetry of Tears
As cataloged by Hannibal Hamlin, however, seventeenth-century English devotional poetry’s popularity was not limited to Reformation spiritual practices. The Catholic Counter-Reformation also placed a strong emphasis on a culture of devotion, including the composition, circulation, and reading of devotional poetry. While we could catalog the general differences between Catholic and Protestant English devotional poetry, it might be more helpful to pick one shared mode — the poetry of tears, which Kuchar identifies as a “literary agon” of the day — and use it to distinguish between Counter-Reformation impulses and Protestant ones.20 We can then assess how Herbert engages this popular (and theologically contested) subgenre as he explores the characteristics of godly sorrow.
Kinds of ‘Devout Sorrow’
While the connection between tears and contrition was common and significant both to Catholic and Protestant devotional traditions in the seventeenth century, Richard Strier distinguishes two important differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions as it relates to tears’ role in repentance: early-modern Catholicism approached repentance as a multiple-step process, including contrition, confession to a priest, and satisfaction.21 Strier clarifies, and Hanson corroborates, that Protestant traditions expected contrition and its visible tears as integral to repentance, but they understood such tears to be the fruit of forgiveness rather than its cause.22 Hamlin summarizes the distinction: both seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation and Protestant theological traditions shared practices of penitential devotion, including rewriting, reciting, and adapting the penitential psalms, but only Catholic practices of penitence required further acts of penance.23 As a result, in devotional verse, Counter-Reformation depictions of weeping are often mannered or stylized, as seen in the poetry of Herbert’s Catholic contemporary Richard Crashaw, as distinct from a rawness and “introspective intensity” in Protestant verse employed to communicate what Barbara Lewalski identifies as a markedly affective response to God’s work in the heart.24
In addition to the penitential verse that often foregrounded the activity of weeping, Kuchar identifies a shared Protestant and Catholic devotional tradition of devout sorrowing over Christ’s passion and his agony, what he calls the “compassio” — one in which the weeper suffers in remembering Christ’s suffering.25 Herbert’s poetry of tears reflects Kuchar’s first two modes of devotional sorrow: penitential and compassio sorrow. Herbert’s “Grief” and the weeper in “The Thanksgiving,” who responds to Christ’s tears in “The Sacrifice,” for example, display penitential tears as the fruit of genuine repentance that then overflow in remembrance of Christ’s suffering. But Herbert’s canon offers us a distinct third category of devout sorrow — a weeping over the sin and suffering of others, as demonstrated in Herbert’s “Church-Rents and Schisms.” I identify these tears on behalf of others as second kind of compassio, which is at its heart an evangelistic compassion — modeled after God’s grieving for us, whether Christ’s in “The Sacrifice” or the Holy Spirit’s in “Ephesians 4:30,” and rooted in Herbert’s understanding of genuine love as a concern for another’s holiness.
In his penitential mode, in his compassio meditations, and then in his compassionate tears, Herbert presents crying as a form of labor doomed, in part, to the failure of insufficiency. Nonetheless, across his poems, he suggests the real possibility of spiritual gain by means of tears in the midst of and even because of their insufficiency. If tears cannot be proportional to that which there is to grieve, what does the apparent failure of tears in Herbert teach us? In presenting the insufficiency of our tears, Herbert recalibrates devotional expectations for the “literature of tears” in Protestant practice by illuminating how tears of contrition, tears of compassio for Christ, and tears of compassion for others all transform the weepers, drawing them closer to Christ in an increased knowledge of self, an increased gratitude for Christ’s atoning death, and an increased imitation of Christ.
Sorrow over Self
If the knowledge of one’s sin is ever expanding, such a theological framework demands an ever-increasing degree and scope of mourning over sin. No matter the amount of tears, Herbert’s logic runs, our sins are more, such that we never grieve proportionately to our offenses. That one weeps more for one’s sins, nevertheless, is perceived as spiritual growth. It is much like the experience of sitting for one’s doctoral exams: the more one studies, the more one is acutely aware of how little one knows, but this sense of an increasing lack of knowledge over time quantitatively translates to more knowledge than any earlier moment.
“That one weeps more for one’s sins is perceived as spiritual growth and increased self-knowledge.”
These ever-increasing tears of contrition are the tears of “Grief,” in which Herbert modifies the pathetic fallacy: nature does not weep for him or his sins; instead, Herbert’s narrator wishes he could harness the natural world to augment or supplement his own tears. Because “Grief” pits tears and what Kuchar calls their “raw sincerity” against mannered speech as a test of genuine contrition, it is not to be lost on us that the narrator wishes to supplement his tears with other forms of “raw” water: springs, clouds, rain.26 The narrator’s crying is a primordial moment summoning the undistinguished watery chaos before creation; Herbert’s narrator wishes to “suck” into his veins “all the wat’ry things / That nature hath produc’d.”27 Herbert demands an absurd amount of water, reflecting a high degree of the narrator’s self-knowledge: he needs ocean-faucets for eyes.
Sorrow over Christ
A devotional compassio mode, meanwhile, is the epistemological counterweight to an ever-increasing sense of one’s own sorry state — to know one’s sins better is to come to better see the sufferings of Christ. As the covering of our sins is made possible only by the sufferings of Christ, any meditation on one’s own sins is always opportunity to weep for the weeping Christ. As John Drury describes, Christ’s suffering for Herbert is a double “epiphany”: that Christ suffered is inextricably bound up with why Christ suffered.28 Christ cries out in “The Sacrifice” to the disciples, “Weep not, dear friends, since I for both have wept / When all my tears were blood, the while you slept: / Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept: / Was ever grief like mine?”29 The poem’s dominant epiphany is that Christ has suffered. But “The Thanksgiving” is quick to pair Christ’s agony with its cause — which then translates to more tears for the narrator:
O King of grief! (a title strange, yet true,
To thee of all kings only due)
O King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,
Who in all grief preventest me?
Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store
That all thy body was one door.30
Beyond the arresting image of Christ depicted as a huge bloody, weeping eye, the increased agony of the weeper also registers strongly in the stanza. Here Herbert captures the contradiction of Christ’s passion: if our reckoning with our sins doesn’t lead to despair, it inevitably leads to relief as meditation on our sins is transformed into gratitude for Christ’s suffering. Simultaneously, however, our own discomfort increases, for compassio easily flows out of a contrition that recognizes Christ’s suffering as a result of our sinning.31
Sorrow over Others
The sufferings of Christ increase our tears shed for him, but Herbert returns to Christ’s tears as yet a final model for our own devotional sorrow. In his depiction of Christ’s passion, Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” introduces a Christ who weeps not only for himself and his own suffering, but also for us, and therefore he creates a final category of devout sorrow: compassion for a sinner or sufferer for whom one does not bear any culpability. “The Sacrifice” announces that Christ “has wept” for both himself and the disciples. Beyond the contrite narrator-sinner weeping, Christ figures as the most prominent weeper in Herbert’s poems. Because Christ does not sin, Herbert makes clear that devout sorrow extends beyond sorrowing for our own sin. Christ’s suffering on our behalf is closely tied to his sorrowing for our sins and our state — it is a compassionate, personal weeping, like Rachel weeping for her children who are no more.
Herbert’s Christ in “The Sacrifice” echoes the grieving Holy Spirit in his poem “Ephesians 4:30,” where Herbert’s narrator grounds his grief in the grief of the Holy Spirit. The compassionate grieving of God for him motivates him to grieve his sin, and thus God’s compassion for our sin and our state provokes the grieving of contrition and, in turn, the compassio: “Then weep mine eyes, the God of love doth grieve: / Weep foolish heart, / And weeping live.”32 Herbert moves from God’s grieving for him to his acknowledgement that such sorrow is beyond his nature: “since still to wail / Nature denies; / And flesh would fail” to weep enough for his sin. He finds his resolution, therefore, in the blood/tears of Christ in a contrition that lingers in the compassio mode: “Lord, pardon, for thy son makes good / My want of tears with store of blood.”
The compassion of Christ for sufferers and sinners, in turn, creates the model for Herbert’s weeping narrator in “Church-rents and schisms.” Herbert’s narrator cries for the global church in her decline, personalizing the crisis by personifying church as mother:
O Mother dear and kind
Where shall I get me eyes enough to weep,
As many eyes as stars? . . .
. . . would at least I might
With these two poor ones lick up all the dew,
Which falls by night, and pour it out for you!33
Herbert’s speaker mourns for a bickering church as Jeremiah weeps for the Israelites: “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). The tears in Herbert’s poetry display a strong ethos of sorrowing over sin and suffering — both one’s own and another’s. Because the diverse occasions to sorrow and the degrees of human sorrow are seemingly endless, so too Herbert’s call for tears without end.
But in the same way that Herbert’s metaphors turn to the natural world that God has made to augment insufficient tears, Herbert’s poems assert that God himself will provide a stock of more tears in the dew that comes like new mercies in the morning. Herbert’s poetry of devout sorrow offers a twofold consolation model. On the one hand, his sorrowing over sins repeatedly resolves itself by pivoting from a greater knowledge of one’s sins to meditations on Christ’s passion, with ever-increasing gratitude because Christ’s death cancels all manner and degree of sin. But in Herbert’s poetry of tears, Christ is not only our Savior; he is also a model to us. If Christ has wept for us, so we also are to weep for ourselves and for one another.
Among his contemporaries, Herbert weighs in on the theological meaning of tears by illustrating how tears evidence that contrition is a fruit of repentance prompted by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Herbert’s poetry, the tears shed in remembrance of Christ’s passion highlight his suffering for our sins such that our own tears need not be those of despair but of gratitude. As Christ weeps for us, Herbert also finds it fitting that Christians weep for others in their sin and suffering.
Pastor and poet, George Herbert participated in an early-modern English Reformation theological culture that understood devotional poetry as an appropriate, even expected, affective response to meditating on Scripture. Poetry provided for Herbert both a genre in which to anatomize his own motives and affections as well as a platform to amplify Christ’s death on his behalf and God’s (often inscrutable) work. By leaving a collection of his poetry at his death to Nicholas Ferrar for potential publication, Herbert recast his poems of private devotion as those of pedagogical devotion, provoking others to engage heart-deep with Scripture and Scripture’s God.
Credit: Betsy Howard