Essay "Music as an Image in Herbert's Temple"

by J. R. Arner

     Music constitutes a recurring image in George Herbert because it is a part of his sacred and secular world and communicates to everyone. It expresses sincere emotions and longings. The image of music accomodates feelings of earthly sorrow and divine elation.
     During his life music had a Renaissance, in England called the Elizabethan Age, and not just among royalty.
Madrigal singing became very fashionable at the end of the century, so much so that, as Morley relates, if a man was unable to sing a madrigal part by sight it was accounted a sign of poor education. - The Pelican History of Music, Vol. 2, p.194.
Although they were more than common, Herbert's audience played and sang to entertain themselves. They used 4-part music books for home gatherings. They made up a melody to an appropriate poem to charm their loved one or impress a friend. Therefore music was a natural image in his poetry and spoke to his readers.
     Herbert participated in the musical life of his time. He played the lute and sang his own poems. According to Isaak Walton, Herbert regularly walked to Salisbury Cathedral to play music in consort with his friends. Herbert may even have devised the 2-part poem based on popular songs of his time.
     Music in general, like Church-musick and Aaron (third line of each stanza), activates a spiritual resonance. Church music transports and aids the soul to heaven. It is the image and vision of God, and it confirms the harmony between God and man (Easter-wings).
     Music, with light, is an attribute of God (Man). It is God's presence, even when it is ignored (Forerunners), or the messenger of God impeded by human distress (Storm). When the body is dead to everything else, God's trumpet will reactivated it (Dooms-day).
     As music is God's attribute, groans are the human part of the musical conversation (Gratefulnesse and Grief). His affliction hammers out songs to be sung as complaints and prayers. Later in The Temple he learns his grief is tempered by the image of Christ and tuned by God.
     At other times the poet offers songs as his gift. His failure to write poems are "window-songs" unsung. His words are songs of praise combining with God's attribute of light.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
                And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till evín his beams sing, and my musick shine. - "Christmas"
     The most significant contrast in musical imagery in The Temple is between the lute and the bell.
     The lute played love songs, complaints, worldly sorrows and other expressions of the heart. It approximates the human condition, singing in sorrow and prayer.
Oh take thy lute, and tune it to a strain,
                         Which may with thee
                         All day complain.
There can no discord but in ceasing be.
                Marbles can weep; and surely strings
                More bowels have, then such hard things.  - "Ephes. 4.30"
It represents the soul in other ways.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
                     Untuníd, unstrung:   - "Deniall"
With its plucked, tempered strings, its sound suits the poetic image for affliction, grief, groans and sorrow.
But grones are quick, and full of wings,
        And all their motions upward be;
And ever as they mount, like larks they sing;
The note is sad, yet musick for a King.  - "Sion"
Give up your feet and running to mine eyes,
And keep your measures for some lovers lute,
Whose grief allows him musick and a ryme:
For mine excludes both measure, tune, and time.
                                       Alas, my God!  - "Grief"
The lute illustrates the method by which God improves people:
Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
       Stretch or contract me, thy poore debter:
       This is but tuning of my breast,
	             To make the musick better.  - "Temper (I)"
Herbert calls for God to balance sorrow and happiness as he would tighten or loosen a string.
My God, so temper joy and wo,
       That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.  - "Affliction (V)"
The lute depicts the religious person tied to this world, stretched toward God, strained to pray for relief and learning that the instrument is tempered by God.
     The bell, in contrast, represents the union of God with His creature. It shows a unity of effort, a harmony of purpose toward one objective. In "Aaron" Herbert calls them "Harmonious bells." The best example of meaning and use is in "Search."
For as thy absence doth excell
                   All distance known:
So doth thy nearenesse bear the bell,
                   Making two one.
The image of the bell concludes the development of the poem. Two different beings, God and man paralleled by the bell and the clapper or gong. Uniting the two, forms an entity different from either. The coming together of God and man makes a longed-for, satisfying relationship; the meeting of bell and gong create the expectant, etherial sound; making the two, one. (This is the mystical union.) The greater the distance and the harder the journey the louder the sound. The two united in harmony.
     Music is a gift, a grace. Through the lute we return the gift, even in affliction. Our promise and goal is the bell, the image of the perfect relationship with God.

    Music (in general) Church-musick, Dooms-day, Pearl, Storm, Aaron [third line of each stanza].
  1. Song Christmas, Dulnesse [songs], Easter-wings, Forerunners [sing], Gratefulnesse, Grief, Man, Mortification, Quip, Sion, Thanksgiving, Vertue, Whitsunday
  2. Lute, String or Viol Employment (I), Easter. Short references: Deniall, Ephes 4:30, Grief, Temper (I).
  3. Bells Aaron, Flower, Search

    Music: Orlande de Lassus (c.1532-94, Flemish), "Music Is The Highest Gift Of God." 

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