Show and Tell: George Herbert, Richard Sibbes, and Communings with God

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The poet George Herbert (1593-1633) and Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), a writer of sermons and religious treatises, were both authors whose works were "best sellers" in the 1630s. (1) Herbert wholeheartedly accepted the Church of England liturgy and polity, while Sibbes was undoubtedly a puritan. Until recently the real ecclesiastical differences between them have been exaggerated; in fact, an influential textbook by the nineteenth-century historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner singled out these two as representing opposing poles within the Church of England of their time (82-85). (2) However, modern historians have been substantially revising long-standing views of that church, and particularly the former picture of the Jacobean mainstream (formative for these writers) as Laudian. It can now be claimed that the center of the Church of England before Laud's dominance was Calvinist and contained both moderate episcopalians (like Herbert) and moderate puritans (like Sibbes). (3)

Why were these writers so popular? A likely reason is that both wrote effectively about the spiritual life of Christian believers, (4) and sought to provide spiritual counsel, at a time when Laudian church administrators were preoccupied with the externals of ritual. (5) Herbert on his deathbed called his collection of poems "a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul," and he hoped that it would be of help to "any dejected poor Soul" (Walton 314). The titles of two of Sibbes' most popular works, The Bruised Reed, and Smoking Flax and The Soules Conflict with Itself, indicate that their subjects and purposes are like those of Herbert's book. Elsewhere I have shown that some of the writings of Herbert and Sibbes are closely related, even in such details as diction and phraseology (Conforming 116-34).

In this essay I want to explore further the affinity recently discovered in some of the works of Herbert and Sibbes, but also to call attention to a key difference: when they are writing of the personal relationship between the believer and God, (6) Sibbes describes that relationship whereas Herbert exemplifies it in terms of the speaker's own experience. Both writers similarly affirm that God always takes the initiative yet that human love is significant, even valued and savored by God, in spite of its actual inadequacy. For both Herbert and Sibbes the life with God is marked by spiritual conflicts, which they seek to present realistically, and is also a somewhat hidden one. Because the relation is personal, both writers use human comparisons to describe it. Herbert, like his exemplary Country Parson, is "a diligent observer, and tracker of Gods wayes" (244), and so is Sibbes. (7) However, while Sibbes writes of these matters in the third person, or in a generalizing first-person plural, Herbert vividly uses the first-person singular. (8) The difference is not merely that Herbert, unlike Sibbes, is a poet. As Kate Narveson has persuasively argued, a telling distinction between conformist and puritan members of the Calvinist consensus is that, while both advocated the use of the "holy soliloquy," only the conformists actually published work in this genre. (Narveson refers only to prose works, but the Herbert poems dealt with in this essay are of a similar nature.) (9) Puritans like Sibbes wrote about such communings with God but did not offer specific examples, perhaps because of puritan hesitations about public, formally set prayers. Thus the relationship with God about which Sibbes and other writers give counsel is strikingly exemplified in Herbert. Just how close Herbert comes to the puritan attitude in this respect is suggested in that, while he prepared the poems in The Temple for publication, he never actually published them. Instead, he sent them from his deathbed to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, leaving to the latter the decision whether to publish or destroy them (Walton 314).

A conspicuous feature in the writings of both Herbert and Sibbes is intimacy with God, but though there is real mutuality these Calvinists insist that God is always first. …