Probably the most impressive construction in The Temple is the role of the Reformation poet. This book is an exploration of George Herbert's success in creating that role for himself in unpromising seventeenth-century circumstances. Herbert is writing at a key moment in literary history, at the confluence of the Renaissance rhetorical tradition and Reformation theology. This exceptionally creative conjunction gave rise to questions about the authority of sacred discourse, and the validity of poetry itself. Herbert struggled with these issues in The Temple, with enormous success in terms of his seventeenth-century readership.
The theologians of the fledgling Reformation in England had not been sympathetic to poetry. Tyndale used the word 'poet' as a term of abuse.1 There was universal concern that preoccupation with the 'husk' of words could divert attention from the 'kernel' of truth. Richard Rogers scorns those who 'preferre the Case before the Instrument, the Rinde before the Pith'.2 Savonarola, whose writings were influential in Reformation England, was convinced that the 'shell' which was poetic language would always distract from the truth, because it was essentially self-glorifying to the poet.3 Versified narrative such as The Mirror for Magistrates, where content was clearly primary, and verse paraphrases of the Bible were more acceptable. George Wither distinguished three types of poetry, the first including 'such Conceits as delight Schoolboyes and Pedanticall wits', which is clearly unsuitable for sacred poetry, the second 'necessary Truths . . . couched in significant Parables'. He has chosen to write in the third kind, 'which delivers commodious Truths, and things Really necessary, in as plain, and in____________________