"Full of All Knowledg": George Herbert's "Country Parson" and Early Modern Social Discourse

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"Full of all knowledg": George Herbert's "Country Parson" and Early Modern Social Discourse. By Ronald W. Cooley. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2004. viii + 238 pp. $53.00 (cloth).

George Herbert's short life (1593-1633) was marked by academic honor and achievement, and in his last years by his priestly calling. Ordained deacon and priest in about 1626, after a period of illness and retirement, Herbert accepted the incumbency of Bemerton with Fulston (or Fuggleston), near Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 1630. Probably he had composed many of the poems for which he is famous before he settled at Bemerton, but he likely continued to revise and add to The Temple, which appeared shortly after his death. The Country Parson, however, which Herbert evidently wrote during his brief time at Bemerton, waited twenty years for publication. This remarkable work has received much less critical notice than it deserves.

In his very readable book, Ronald Cooley approaches The Country Parson by exploring "the competing claims of tradition and iiinovation" in the text, and by demonstrating at the same time "something of the density, the complexity, and the contradictory character of early modern social discourse." Although Herbert is innately conservative, he also appropriates and transforms "the language of custom and tradition" (pp. 5-6). Cooley's aim is to describe the inherent tensions in the social and political forces and in the literary (or quasi-literary) forms of the earlier seventeenth century, particularly as they are revealed through a careful reading of Herbert's little manual.

The Country Parson may be unique among literary types, for it seems to combine both the "character" books, recalling, for example, John Earle's Micro-Cosmographie of 1628, on the one hand, and the immensely popular vocational or instructional handbooks, on the other-books on husbandry, horsemanship, domestic management, and so on. Cooley recognizes the special character of Herbert's little book, and he suggests (not very convincingly) its relationship to The Temple: both books describe and uncover "conflicts," one of the spirit, the other of cultural "antagonisms."

Once Cooley has illustrated these general issues of genre and theme, purpose and theory, he turns to issues of "social discourse. …