The Conception of Form
THERE is a certain irony in the fact that the most formal of seventeenth-century Anglican poems have been so much enjoyed by the anti-formalists in religion and art. The appeal of George Herbert's poetry to the opponents of ritual was a justifying triumph for Herbert's conception of form: in poetry as well as religion Herbert tried to work out a middle way between 'slovenliness' and 'superstition.' It was by means of form that the material could be used in the service of the spiritual, that the senses could be properly employed for the glorification of God.
The problem of the relationship between objects of the senses and Christian worship had been introduced with the beginning of the ritual in the ancient church. In Herbert's England the Puritans and the Catholics marked the limits of theory and practice.1 For the extreme Puritan, the ritual and 'adornments' in the church were only sensuous barriers (similar to the priest's office) between the naked individual soul and God: the serious business of salvation left no room for them. It was, moreover, presumptuous for sinful man to attempt to honour God through the creation of formal beauty within God's house; the proper method of honouring God, the essence of worship, was to confess one's unworthiness, to pray for forgiveness and God's grace, and to preach the gospel. Christian poetry had its practitioners and its appreciative audience outside the services, and certainly most Puritan preachers believed that the art of logic and rhetoric (so long as they were not separated) were useful handmaidens for the instruction and moving of their audiences. But the idea that ritual or 'ornaments' within the church could either aid the individual worshipper or honour God was alien to the largest segment of Puritan thought. The light of the Spirit should reach the individual directly, like