The Temple, a series of poems written by 17th century Anglican priest George Herbert, can be read as Herbert’s thoughts as he walks through his church. For example, the prologue is called “The Church Porch.” Once inside “The Church,” you’ll find “The Church Floore” and “The Windows” among the more lofty titles like “The Sacrifice.” Some poems are about simple beauties, some about the spiritual struggles and growth of Herbert, and others follow the grand story of the crucifixion itself.
I found reading Herbert similar to reading Shakespeare. For the first couple of pages I waded painfully through the old English lyrics, reading lines multiple times in an effort to figure out what he was saying. Then, I got into the rhythm of the language, stopped noticing the new vocabulary, and became enraptured with his images.
For Herbert’s poems are full of beautiful imagery. From the analogies he draws from the structure of the building to the paradoxes and tragic ironies he finds in the crucifixion, his mastery with wordplay is evident. Some of the imagery is wrapped into the structure of the poems themselves. “Easter Wings,” for example, actually looks like a pair of wings.
But the best part of Herbert’s poetry, similar to most other Christian classics, is his insight into the Christian condition. His poems not only carry beauty, but also the power of a sermon. One of my favorite images is in “Prayer I,” where he describes prayer as “the soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage.”
By the end of the final poem, “Love III,” the reader has followed Herbert on a beautiful journey, through the church and through his own heart. It’s a wonderful read that I highly recommend.