George Herbert, Calvinism, and Reading "Mattens"

By Doerksen, Daniel W. | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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George Herbert, Calvinism, and Reading "Mattens"


Doerksen, Daniel W., Christianity and Literature


In November 1973 Dame Helen Gardner, distinguished editor of Donne and Herbert, wrote me, saying "I think a study of Herbert as a 'Calvinist' would be a very valuable thing to do" (letter to author). Since then literary critics including Barbara Lewalski, Richard Strier, Gene Veith, Christopher Hodgkins, Elizabeth Clarke, Ron Cooley, Cristina Malcolmson, and I have been claiming that George Herbert is significantly Calvinist. Far from reflecting credulity about Lewalski's Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century English Lyric (1979), as Stanley Stewart suggests ("A Priest to the Geneva Temple" 167), such interpretations in fact follow up fruitful suggestions made as early as Joseph Summers' ground-breaking book in 1954. While Rosemond Tuve, Louis Martz (The Poetry of Meditation), and R. V. Young have effectively related elements in Herbert to continental medieval and Roman Catholic backgrounds, the other writers named have paid attention to recent historical insights into the English church, the main leadership of which in most of Herbert's time was Calvinist (Collinson, Fincham, Lake, Tyacke). But objections by Martz ("Donne, Herbert, and the Worm of Controversy," "The Generous Ambiguity of Herbert's Temple"), Stewart ("Priest"), and Young (Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry) to the Protestant interpretations deserve an answer.

As Stewart notes ("Priest" 168), there is a tendency for critics to pay most attention to those poems or writings in Herbert they find most appealing, or about which they feel equipped to write. That approach should be supplemented and corrected by considering the case made for other views. It is no accident that Herbert has attracted good critics with many different approaches, because, as I argue elsewhere (Doerksen, "Generous' Ambiguity Revisited"), this poet was deliberately reaching out to people of different viewpoints within and outside his church. Herbert scholarship is, and should be, a joint enterprise.

Critics who use the term "Calvinism" should explain what they mean by it. William J. Bouwsma in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online says Calvinism is "the theology advanced by John Calvin ... and its development by his followers.... [Also,] doctrines and practices derived from the works of Calvin and his followers...." Historian Anthony Milton, in an important book on the Church of England from 1600-1640, defines English Calvinism as "a general sympathy with the continental Reformed tradition in all its purely doctrinal aspects, and a sense of identification with the West European Calvinist Churches and their fortunes" (8). This definition silently acknowledges that other writers, such as Bucer and Bullinger, and of course English ones, were influential in the movement. Milton also recognizes that Calvinism, like other aspects of the Early Modern Church of England, comprised a range of views, and changed as it developed. Milton's definition of Calvinism easily includes Herbert, who had an enduring "interest in the success of international Protestantism" (Malcolmson 21)--an interest not shared by the Laudians. (1) More specifically, English Calvinism had a doctrinal core of Protestant theology, emphasizing God's grace.

Although Calvinism was not tied exclusively to the writings of Calvin, in England those writings were widely circulated and had enormous significance. According to Pettegree, a tally of the revised Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, 1475-1640 indicates that English editions of Calvin's works "easily outstripped all other continental writers, and dwarfed the production of native English theologians" (281). Pettegree reports that Leedham-Green's substantial survey of books recorded in Cambridge wills, carefully analyzed, confirms "the preeminent position of Calvin as the dominant theological influence in Elizabethan England" (280). Also, he cites Francis Higman's bibliographical studies showing that England was "far and away the biggest market for Calvin's work in translation.

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