The "Mourning Child": Divine and Mortal Absence in George Herbert's English and Classical Verse
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The period of tumultuous religious reformation during which George Herbert lived demanded of people a strict adherence to the paradigmatic structures that prescribed the ways in which public displays of religious conviction were to be manifested. The freedom, indeed the necessity, to doubt is taken for granted by the modern reader, but for Herbert it was a matter of spiritual life and death. As country parson, he diligently labored to guide his parishioners, administer the sacraments, and exemplify the “right path.” This persona—reinforced by necessarily performative, faith-demonstrating actions—is continually destabilized by the experience of doubt, which leads Herbert to address his own persistent despair at the absence of God through poetry. His masterful use of the structural and thematic patterns of the Psalms in many of the poems of The Temple draws on the rich tradition of lament in contrast to the prescriptive, ideological agendas of the Book of Common Prayer and the Common Lectionary which privilege faith. The poems demonstrate an extensive knowledge of the epistemological foundations and history of both official Church doctrine and of medieval mystical thought and become a tool for exploring the paradoxes of human existence. His philosophical and rhetorical engagement with the Christological and ecclesiastical theology specific to Dionysian mysticism demonstrates the intensity of Herbert’s preoccupation with Divine absence and his near obsessive search for the ideal apophatic presence, that silent, knowing-unknowing that defines oneness with God. Nowhere are Herbert’s existential dilemmas more evident than in Memoriae Matris Sacrum, a sequence of poems written immediately following the death of his beloved mother, which reveals an inner life of the poet that his more controlled poetic voice of The Temple often conceals. These elegiac poems, written in Latin and Greek, show the poet as a “mourning child” and lay bare his most intimate fears about the constancy of his own faith and the uncertain terms of Christian death and resurrection embodied in the sacred ritual of the Eucharist. The poetic closure often ascribed to Herbert’s poems in fact disguises the nature of spiritual and psychological dilemmas which remain for Herbert persistent and unresolved.