Glance At The Spiritual Conflict In George Herberts Poetry English Literature Essay

Herbert does not have Donne’s intense emotion or his clever and sharp mind. Modern critics acknowledge the influence of Donne on George Herbert, but in him we can see easier and more familiar patterns of mind and also religious responses. In actual fact the poetic excellence we find in Herbert’s poetry is due to the conflict resided in his mind and soul. This conflict is between his spiritual achievements and worldly desires which he could never remove from his mind altogether. In most of his poems he has made a frank confession of his spiritual struggle against the worldly desires which he experienced during the priesthood. Accordingly, the major concern of this essay is to delve into the theme of spiritual conflict displayed in some of Herbert’s poetry.

As mentioned before George Herbert’s poetry is widely considered to be some of the finest metaphysical poetry. One of the main themes in his religious poems is the struggle between the ordinary life and a life of complete surrender to God. This struggle is to some extent noticeable in Herbert’s personal life. He was a priest but was often tempted to enter a fully developed public life. To tell the truth, he was doubtful about devoting his life to a religious lifestyle and it was after much hesitation that Herbert finally made his mind to abandon his worldly ambitions and become a priest. But apparently even after starting his religious career as an Anglican priest he had difficulty dedicating himself whole-heartedly and completely to the service of God. His hesitant mind was always vacillating between the worlds of social and ordinary life of non-spiritual people and the religious life of himself. Herbert’s civil life was opposite to his priestly life. The civil life was full of freedom and comfort, whereas the priestly life was filled with responsibility and restraints. Thus, this sharp contrast between his two different lifestyles was mainly responsible for his spiritual conflict or inconstant mind.

Some certain poems in George Herbert’s collection of religious poetry named The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations are very successful in revealing Herbert’s sense of conflict between his worldly desires and his Christian devotion. Herbert himself described his poetry as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” In other words, reading this collection enables the readers to scrutinize Herbert’s earthly longings and frustration of his spiritual world. As a priest Hebert never tries to challenge his faith throughout this collection. His poetry is like a continual struggling with himself to maintain his full submission to God almighty and to get free from deceptive temptations of the world. Since God is his eternal beloved, he makes an all-out effort to remain faithful to him in his poetry. Interestingly none of the poems in the collection is addressed to a woman other than his mother. The main reason is that Herbert was determined to prove that in his eyes no love has the power to contend the love of God, but worldly ambition allures him. So the need to overcome this kind of desires and resisting the temptation of paying attention to the material world is one of the dominant themes of The Temple.

Furthermore, according to many literary scholars expert on 17th century literature George Herbert’s The Temple has universal yet deeply personal beauty and significance. The book is recreation of his spiritual life as a process of discovering how to love God. In a great literary figure opinion such as Aldous Huxley, Herbert is a poet of “inner weather” due to the fact that his poetry reflects his own spiritual conflicts through his “peculiar intimacy and honesty”. There is a fundamental, paradoxical balance between spiritual conflict and consolation in many of Herbert’s poems which reveals truths about the deeper spiritual tension and resolution in mankind’s experience with sin, suffering, and God’s grace. In fact, this collection of religious poetry shows a man trying to define his relationship with God and resolve the spiritual tension which annoyed him in different ways and through different metaphors. The reader also gains several aspects of God through George Herbert’s eyes and beliefs.

Some critics believe that the poem is named “Affliction” because, although his early experiences were joyful and believing in God came easily, his life has subsequently been overshadowed by suffering. From this point of view, it could actually be called a complaint in which Herbert sets out his troubles and tries to understand why God should have allowed these things to happen. At first he seemed to have his life together, and serving God was a part of that harmony. Then troubles started and he lost the hold he used to have over his own life. Devoting himself to serving God no longer seemed to make sense and causes conflict in his mind. Even at the end of the poem, he is still confused and doubtful regarding his faith and as we can see in the final stanza it seems that Herbert is tempted to turn away, but decides to cling to God despite his suffering and confusion.

“Affliction I” contains less heights and depths than some of Herbert’s poems, but it has a different approach to Herbert’s internal conflict and ultimate change to obtain true peace and comfort. Like “The Collar,” the speaker in “Affliction” finds discontentment in his clerical duties, yet he expresses a calmer complaint. Through the series of trials and sufferings, he finds that God takes away every earthly thing he loves in a “strategy of reduction” even enjoyment of health and food. Eventually resentment and weariness end and the speaker says he “will change the service, and go seek / Some other master out” (lines 63-64). Yet here the divine power of God enters and provides a subtle and definite victory: the speaker seems to awaken and realize his lukewarm, complaining inadequacy. In conclusion he says “Ah, my dear God! though I am clean forgot, / Let me not love thee, if I love thee not” (65-66). In the end we see his return to whole-hearted commitment to the love and service of God.

In conclusion we may say that since Herbert’s poems display a spiritual conflict resolved in profound peace or triumph growing out of hardship, critics suggest that Herbert’s weaknesses which is actually his paradoxical shortcomings of earthly ambition and frustration with his inadequacy turned into the source of his greatest power in his collection of poetry The Temple. It is believed that only through his own experience and God’s grace was Herbert able to create such poetry of spiritual and psychological conflict which is resolved in divine power and ultimate victory. Via reading his poetry we can find Herbert’s heart and soul his poems is the best way to listen to his conversation with God. Their depth and honesty help create a desire in us to express our spiritual conflicts and resolutions. Through literary techniques, his own spiritual trials and experiences, and God’s enabling, Herbert makes a tableau of conflict and triumph in his poetry of The Temple. What his poetry demonstrates is that for Herbert God is revealed in every part of daily life whether high or humble even the “drudgery” of one “who sweeps a room” devoutly becomes “divine”.

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