George Herbert: His Religion and Art

By Joseph H. Summers | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
The Poem as Hieroglyph

TOO often Herbert is remembered as the man who possessed the fantastic idea that a poem should resemble its subject in typographical appearance, and who therefore invented the practice of writing poems in shapes such as wings and altars. Herbert, of course, no more invented the pattern poem than he invented 'emblematic poetry' or the religious lyric: his originality lies in his achievement with traditional materials. The Altar and Easter-wings, his two most famous pattern poems, are not exotic or frivolous oddities; they are the most obvious examples of Herbert's religious and poetic concern with what we may call the hieroglyph.

A hieroglyph is 'a figure, device, or sign having some hidden meaning; a secret or enigmatical symbol; an emblem.'1 In the Renaissance 'hieroglyph,' 'symbol,' 'device,' and 'figure' were often used interchangeably. Because of special meanings which have become associated with the other words, 'hieroglyph' seems more useful than the others today, and even in the seventeenth century it was often considered the most inclusive term.2 'Hieroglyphic,' the older form of the noun, was derived from the Greek for 'sacred carving,' and the root usually retained something of its original religious connotation. Ralph Cudworth used it in its generally accepted meaning when he said in a sermon, 'The Death of Christ . . . Hieroglyphically instructed us that we ought to take up our Cross likewise, and follow our crucified Lord and Saviour.'3 The hieroglyph presented its often manifold meanings in terms of symbolic relationships rather than through realistic representation. Francis Quarles's anatomy of the hieroglyphic significance of the rib is an extreme example of the general hieroglyphic state of mind:

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George Herbert: His Religion and Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Preface 7
  • I 9
  • Chapter I Time and the Temple 11
  • Chapter II The Life 29
  • Chapter III Religion 49
  • II 71
  • Chapter IV The Conception of Form 73
  • Chapter V The Proper Language 95
  • III 121
  • Chapter VI The Poem as Hieroglyph 123
  • Chapter VIII Music 156
  • Appendix A- 'Mr Herbert's Temple & Church Militant Explained and Improved' 191
  • Appendix B- Bacon and Herbert 195
  • Abbreviations Used in Notes 198
  • Notes to Chapter I 199
  • Index 239
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