On the face of it, the title of this allegorical poem is misleading - its subejct is actually the spiritual journey of mankind from ignorance to redemption. But George Herbert provides the link by presenting us with a picture of man as a microcosm of the created world.
This is a fine example of allegory. Just as the Romans and Greeks used allegory to create gods of human experiences such as fertility and war, from medieval times writers had used personifications of feelings and emotions to aid understanding. Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’ and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ are two of the best known examples from George Herbert's era. He himself adopts allegory several times in ‘The Temple’, most notably perhaps another of his poems, ‘Humilitie’.
In this poem, Herbert chooses to represent mankind as a ‘stately house’ - in other words, a creation to be admired, exemplifying the perfection of the handiwork of God (always identified by him as Love). His aim is to convey how, over time, this wonderful creation was distorted, weakened and ultimately destroyed by man’s own wilfulness. In short, it is a story of human frailty.
Herbert begins by making reference to the personage of Dame Fortune, who was thought by the ancients to determine their fate. A great many classical myths are built around the seeming inability of men to control their own destiny, reflecting the general acceptance of this idea at the time. Using cobwebs as a metaphor, he shows that such dusty notions were ‘swept away’ in more enlightened times.
However. this enlightenment brings complications. Pleasure makes an appearance and, enjoying their new-found freedom of choice, men start to stray from the straight and narrow, thinking they know better. In this allegory, they make unwise and damaging changes to the structure of their lives until, in the end, it becomes necessary to formulate ethical rules to govern their conduct - no doubt Herbert had traditional Jewish Old Testament laws in mind here, not least the Ten Commandments.
Invariably the rules are broken and mankind falls to sinning. Herbert paints the picture of a seemingly useful but ultimately malign tree putting out roots and shoots that quietly but inexorably weave their way into the fabric of society, eating away at its fundamental structure ('sommers' are girders or beams). The impact is considerable, and immorality becomes endemic. It is only through God's grace that the damage is constrained by the forgiveness of sins.
But as the Bible tells us, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) - all men are mortal and must answer to God at their demise. In terms of the allegory, the ‘stately house’, the being that was perfection, is no more, struck down by its own failings and inadequacies. The salvation, of course, lies in the glory of the resurrection. Once again Herbert is reflecting the Bible. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Changed, according to Herbert, by the grace of God to ‘a braver Palace than before’. Through death, perfection is restored.
In terms of its structure, this is a neat poem using the very familiar verse form of iambic pentameters, with five to each stanza. However, of the 160-odd poems in ‘The Temple’, there is only one other with the same metrical scheme (ABAAB), showing yet again Herbert’s remarkable ability to combine simplicity with versatility. And perhaps only he could sum up the whole of mankind’s journey from Creation to Resurrection in just 20 lines of verse.
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