The Typology of Sacrifice in George Herbert's The Temple

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 07 | pg. 4/4 |

Again, like in "The Sacrifice," Herbert uses numerology in "Easter" to highlight the speaker's perfect communion with God, in the three intertwining types of sacrifice. Sibyl Lutz Severance notes that "Easter" is the tenth poem in "The Church," ten symbolizing the number of Christ, a return to unity, and perfection (236, 241). "Easter," of course, celebrates Christ's resurrection, which is the completion of His perfect sacrifice, and His eventual return to the mysterious unity of the Trinity. Herbert uses a 10:4 syllable pattern in the first three stanzas (236): each of these stanzas contains four ten-syllable lines, and two four-syllable lines, while the final three stanzas contain four lines each. As ten is the number of Christ, so also is four the number of man (232). Six, the first perfect number, is crucial here; each stanza contains six lines, for a total of six stanzas in the poem. The sum of four (man) and six (perfection) is ten (Christ/perfection). By himself, man (four) cannot adequately praise or imitate God. By adding Christ (six), man's sacrificial praise and imitation of Christ are made perfect (ten)51: "O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,/And make up our defects with his sweet art" (ll. 17-18). As Christ's death and resurrection (propitiatory) make possible man's symbolic death and resurrection, his imperfect imitation of Christ (dedicatory), so also Christ's death and resurrection make possible man's song of praise (eucharistic). Each set of three stanzas highlights the Trinity and three intertwining types of sacrifice, which must be analyzed together to illuminate the speaker's relationship with Christ.

As we have seen in "The Altar," "The Sacrifice," and "Easter," the typology of three kinds of sacrifice, and their spiritual connection with the Eucharist, illuminates the speaker's unique relationship with Christ. These three poems elucidate the nature of Christ's redeeming sacrifice for sin and the speaker's eucharistic sacrifice of thanksgiving for that propitiatory sacrifice, which makes both possible and acceptable his symbolic imitation, in which he dedicates his life to Christ. Our reading of the typology of sacrifice in these three poems, therefore, will help readers understand, precisely, the speaker's desire to imitate Christ in "The Thanksgiving" and "The Reprisal." Such a desire is neither a Catholic fallacy52 nor a "misguided form of devotion" (Schoenfeldt, "That Spectacle," 575-77), but instead a desire to enter into spiritual communion with Christ. Only by symbolically imitating Christ can the speaker do so. It is in "The Thanksgiving" and "The Reprisal" that he learns how.

The opening lines of "The Thanksgiving," in which Herbert's speaker tries to make sense of Christ's sacrifice, and searches for an appropriate response, connect well with the refrain of "The Sacrifice." The speaker calls Christ, "Oh King of grief!. . . ./Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee" (ll. 1, 3), just as Christ asks His audience, "Was ever grief like mine?" Paradoxically, however, Christ states, in "The Sacrifice," that "Caesar is their only King, not I" (l. 121).53 Christ does not become "King," redeeming humanity from sin, until His death. In "The Thanksgiving" the speaker acknowledges not only Christ's redeeming sacrifice, but also Christ as his "King." The speaker also finishes the line that Christ could not, on the cross, and the lament of every sinner who feels separated from Christ: "My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?" (l. 9). The speaker is expected to do so because he must identify with Christ's grief, His separation from God the Father, if the speaker can appropriately imitate Him. This identification is his sacrifice of dedication.

Eucharistic, dedicatory, and propitiatory kinds of sacrifice are beautifully interconnected here. The title of the poem alludes to this first type, in which the speaker offers a sacrifice of praise and "thanksgiving" for Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, since he acknowledges Christ as "King." The speaker then asks Christ, "But how then shall I imitate thee, and/Copy thy fair, though bloody hand?" (ll. 15-16). In contrast to many critics' statement that the speaker is being presumptuous,54 the speaker's question is valid. He asks to know the method by which he may imitate Christ's sacrifice, not for simple permission to imitate Him, so that he may sacrificially dedicate his life to Christ, which he does not learn to do until "The Reprisal." The speaker's initial desires include "weep[ing] blood" (l. 5), "reveng[ing]" himself "on thy love" (l. 17),55 "be[ing] scourged" and "flouted" (l. 7), giving all his wealth unto the poor (ll. 19-20), celibacy (l. 23), and reading the Bible (l. 45). However, he does not know what to do with "thy passion" (ll. 29, 49). It is in this final query of Bible reading that we learn what the speaker is seeking: "thy love,/Thy art of love" (ll. 46-47).56 Herein is a paradox, for when the speaker consciously tries to find a way to imitate, and therefore repay, God, he fails. However, when the speaker states, "[F]or thy passion--I will do for that--/Alas, my God, I know not what" (ll. 49-50), he begins a process of acknowledging Christ's propitiatory sacrifice as His "art of love" (l. 47). The speaker, however, is still expected to imitate that "art of love" (l. 47), not simply acknowledge it. His avowal is not a dismissal of imitation,57 but a realization that he must find another method than what he has offered in the poem.

In "The Reprisal," the speaker learns how he can properly imitate Christ's redeeming sacrifice.58 He first acknowledges, however, that he "find[s]/There is no dealing with thy mighty passion" (ll. 1-2). The speaker realizes he must first focus on Christ's sacrifice, not himself, before Christ will reveal to him his acceptable imitation of that loving sacrifice.59 The speaker then states, "By confession will I come/Into the conquest" (ll. 13-14).60 "By confession" (l. 13), he accepts Christ's sacrifice for sin and is ushered into a spiritual rebirth. Implied is the nature of the speaker's acceptable imitation: "For by thy death I die for thee" (l. 8). When the speaker confesses his sin and believes in Christ for his redemption, at the moment of his "new birth" he symbolically imitates Christ's death, burial, and resurrection.61 The speaker, in his Christian life, must sacrifice the old self unto death, and be raised into "newness of life . . . in the likeness of [Christ's] resurrection" (Romans 6:4-5, KJV). The speaker's valid imitation is not a literal death on a cross but confession, an acceptance of Christ's perfect sacrifice for his redemption.62 Christ's propitiatory sacrifice as the antitype makes the speaker's dedicatory sacrifice of self both possible and acceptable.

These three types of sacrifice working together as one also appear in the other Passion Week poems. For example, in "The Agony," the elements of the Eucharist appear: "Who knows not Love, let him assay/And taste that juice. . ./Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,/Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine" (ll. 13-14, 17-18). As earlier explained, the Eucharist is the perfect unity of these three kinds of sacrifice: eucharistic (praise), dedicatory (imitation), and propitiatory (sin).63 In "The Sinner," the speaker acknowledges that he is a sinner, which is the beginning of his redemption. Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, in "Good Friday," makes possible the speaker's dedicatory sacrifice of self. He requests that "[t]hy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes/All come to lodge there," the speaker's heart (ll. 26-27). This concept of believers carrying Christ's death in their hearts is explained by Paul, who states that "we always bear about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body" (2 Cor. 4:10, KJV). The living Christ, residing in the heart, allows the speaker to symbolically share in Christ's sufferings, his sacrifice of dedication. "Redemption" is the speaker's narration of Christ's redeeming sacrifice, but with his use of "I," Christ's sacrifice has become a personal redemption for the speaker, rather than a sacrifice for humanity’s sins, as seen in "The Sacrifice."

Herbert's numerological use of three, four, six, ten, and thirty-three, in "Sepulchre," is similar to "Easter," in that these numbers symbolically point to Christ's redeeming sacrifice and His divinity. As man (four) without Christ (ten) is imperfect and, like Christ, dead in the grave, so by adding (six) Christ (perfection), does man become like Christ (ten), foreshadowing both his and Christ's resurrection, a perfect combination of the dedicatory and propitiatory kinds of sacrifice.64 "Easter Wings (1)" contains all three kinds of sacrifice. It continues the image, in "Easter," of the speaker symbolically rising with Christ, for he states, "With thee/"O let me rise" (ll. 6-7). Immediately, readers are reminded of Christ's resurrection, which alone makes the speaker's symbolic resurrection, his sacrifice of self and imitation of Christ, both possible and adequate. The speaker also rises "as [a] lark, harmoniously" (l. 8) in order to "sing this day thy victories" (l. 9). Christ's sacrificial redemption and resurrection also make possible the speaker's eucharistic sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in song. "Easter Wings (2)" is the speaker's personal resurrection: "With thee/Let me combine/And feel this day thy victory" (ll. 6-8). His self-sacrifice is not possible unless he accepts the redeeming sacrifice inherent in Christ's resurrection. He therefore desires to symbolically join with Christ by "imp[ing]" his "wing on thine" (l. 9). Only in the righteousness of the risen Christ can the imperfect speaker be made spiritually perfect.65 This is a dedicatory sacrifice by the speaker; in his imitation he becomes like Christ in His death and resurrection. In "The Thanksgiving" and "The Reprisal," the speaker learns that by confessing his sin and believing in Christ, through faith, for the redemption of that sin (i.e. his salvation), he may symbolically imitate Christ's redeeming sacrifice. The speaker's imitation does not take the form of a literal, bloody death; instead, such imitation is symbolically being baptized unto Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, as expounded in "Easter." The meaning of the Eucharist contains within it the three kinds of sacrifice explicated in "The Altar," "The Sacrifice," "The Thanksgiving," and "Easter": Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, and the speaker's two-fold response. The speaker must offer, first, his eucharistic sacrifice of praise, and then, his dedicatory sacrifice of himself in which he symbolically imitates Christ. The speaker's desire to imitate Christ in "The Thanksgiving" is a perfectly valid desire, but it can be understood only in the light of the Biblical typology of sacrifice, expounded in the Passion week poems. These poems must be analyzed as a set, for each kind of sacrifice, and sometimes two kinds or more simultaneously, appears in each of these twelve poems. All three kinds of sacrifice work together, poetically and theologically, to illuminate the speaker's desire for perfect communion with Christ. The Eucharist, the weaving of these three kinds of sacrifice in one, is the consummate poetic emblem of this communion with Him.


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1.)  "Altar" through "Easter Wings (2)"

2.)  See Matthew 26:26-29, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

3.)  See "The Altar," ll. 1-10

4.)  See also Ilona Bell, "'Setting Foot into Divinity,'" 63-83; Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 171, 293-94; William V. Nestrick, "'Mine' and 'Thine' in The Temple," 116-18; Michael Schoenfeldt, Prayer and Power, 157-61; and Richard Strier, Love Known, 49-54.

5.)  Genesis 22:1-19

6.)  Exodus 12:1-30, 42-51

7.)  Numbers 21:5-9

8.)  Hebrews 7:27, 9:26-28, 10:5-12

9.)  See Ira Clark, Christ Revealed: The History of the Neotypological Lyric in the English Renaissance, 1-28.

10.)  Psalm 107:22, 116:17; Amos 4:5, Philippians 4:17-18, Hebrews 13:15-16

11.)  See Ira Clark, Christ Revealed, 80-106; Donald Dickson, The Fountain of Living Waters, 80-123; Albert Labriola, "The Rock and the Hard Place," 61-69; Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, chapters 4 and 9; C. A. Patrides, "The Experience of Otherness," 181-82; Rosamond Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert, 24-41.

12.)  See Julia Carolyn Guernsey, Pulse of Praise, 15-17; John R. Mulder, "The Temple as Picture," 3; Joseph Summers, George Herbert, 140-43. Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics (283-316), notes the use of praise in these poems, but never acknowledges them as a type of sacrifice. Diana Benet, Secretary of Praise (87-90, 124-27), notes Herbert's use of praise, but calls it his poetic vocation, and never applies the concept to these poems.

13.)  Wall 213.

14.)  Malcolmson, George Herbert, 64, 66-68.

15.)  Benet 112.

16.)  See Elizabeth Clarke and Barbara Lewalski for Herbert's Calvinism; see Richard Strier for Herbert's Lutheranism.

17.)  Ilona Bell "'Setting Foot into Divinity," 63-66; Elizabeth Clarke, Theory and Theology in George Herbert's Poetry, 10-13; Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 293-94; Cristina Malcolmson, George Herbert, 64; Heart-Work, 1-7; and Richard Strier, Love Known, 49-54.

18.)  Heather Asals, Equivocal Predications, 4-5; Diana Benet, Secretary of Praise, 107-15; Stanley Stewart, George Herbert, 89-97; Rosamond Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert, 23-99.

19.)  See Mario Di Cesare, "Sacred Rhythms and Sacred Contradictions," 6-8; Donald Dickson, The Fountain of Living Waters, 8-9, 95; Patrick Grant, The Transformation of Sin, 75-99; Christopher Hodgkins, Authority, Church, and Society in George Herbert, 2-5, 32; Richard Todd, The Opacity of Signs, 1-20; Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reformation Spirituality, 23-41; John Wall, Transformations of the Word, 1-3.

20.)  See John Mulder, "The Temple as Picture," 3.

21.)  See William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 229-33; Stanley Fish, The Living Temple and Self-Consuming Artifacts; Julia Carolyn Guernsey, Pulse of Praise; Barbara Leah Harman, Costly Monuments; Susannah B. Mintz, "Unstrung Conversations"; William Pahlka, Saint Augustine's Meter and George Herbert's Will; Michael Schoenfeldt, Prayer and Power; Helen Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert; and James Boyd White, 'This Book of Starres.'

22.)  See Malcolmson, George Herbert, xii.

23.)  Hebrews 7:27; 9:7-10, 25-26; 10:11-14

24.)  Matthew 26:61, 27:40; John 2:19-21

25.)  See also 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19

26.)  Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 25-27; 2 Cor. 6:16, Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:4-8

27.)  "The Dedication": "Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;/Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,/And must return" (ll. 1-3).

28.)  Luke 19:40: "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (KJV).

29.)  Malcolmson argues that "the speaker's desire in line 15 of 'The Altar' verges on an unreasonable sacrifice, since he moves beyond acknowledging the power of grace to the desire to imitate Christ" (George Herbert 64).

30.)  Michael Schoenfeldt, in Prayer and Power, argues that the poem "is about the dangers of covert usurpation of divine authority implicit in devotional action" (161). In "'That Spectacle of Too Much Weight,'" he argues that in "The Sacrifice," "the event which the speaker of 'The Altar' prays to appropriate is unfathomable and unreachable by humanity" (574).

31.)  William V. Nestrick, "'Mine and Thine' in The Temple," notes "that sanctification is the means whereby the self is remade like God" (116), but fails to apply this idea to "The Sacrifice" and "The Thanksgiving," where he argues that "the idea of converting thy Passion into my passion becomes impossible" (118).

32.)  Romans 6:23

33.)  Matthew 26:61, 27:40; John 2:19

34.)  Romans 5:12-19

35.)  Exodus 16:13-15

36.)  Exodus 12:1-30, 42-51

37.)  Exodus 17:5-6

38.)  "They strike my head, the rock" (l. 170)

39.)  Romans 3:20

40.)  Mark 10:21

41.)  "My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?" (l. 9)

42.)  "When they did call,/With Manna, Angels' food, I fed them all" (ll. 238-39).

43.)  "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26, KJV).

44.)  Exodus 12:1-30, 42-51

45.)  The New International Version (1984) is more explicit: "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (italics mine). Herbert, however, would not have been familiar with the NIV.

46.)  Donald Dickson (The Fountain of Living Waters 93n24), Barbara Lewalski (Protestant Poetics 171), Cristina Malcolmson (George Herbert 64), Michael Schoenfeldt (Prayer and Power 157-58), and Richard Strier (Love Known 49n47), responding to Bell's reading of "The Sacrifice," agree that the poem ironically refutes the Catholic fallacy that the speaker can imitate Christ.

47.)  Romans 6:2-11, Colossians 2:12

48.)  1 Corinthians 15:14-17

49.)  Isaiah 48:10, Zechariah 13:9, Malachi 3:2-3

50.)  Gene Edward Veith, Jr., referring to Calvin's Institutes, acknowledges "the speaker's interaction and involvement with the atonement of Christ" (71), but argues that "Herbert conceived his poetry as a means of participation with Christ" (72-73). He ignores the theological implications of his earlier statement.

51.)  The doctrine of justification states that man, by faith, is made perfect in Christ. By faith he stands before God clothed with the righteousness of Christ. See Romans 3:23-26, 5:9-19; 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:9.

52.)  Ilona Bell, "'Setting Foot into Divinity," 71-78; Cristina Malcolmson, George Herbert, 64.

53.)  John 19:15 -- "We have no king but Caesar" (KJV).

54.)  Although Diana Benet seems to acknowledge the scriptural basis for imitation of Christ, in these lines, she argues that the speaker's "zeal is commendable but ignorant and misdirected" (112). See also Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reformation Spirituality, 72; and John Wall, Transformations of the Word, 213.

55.)  Richard Strier argues that "Herbert is presenting the desire to imitate Christ as the essence of misguided good intentions" (50). See also Sharon Seelig, The Shadow of Eternity, 11-12.

56.)  Ilona Bell argues that the speaker's turning to the Bible is the Protestant answer to Catholic meditation on Christ's Passion (77-78). However, she fails to note that the speaker still sees "Victory!" (l. 48) in this "solution"; it is faith alone through confession of sin, not the Bible, that allows the speaker to "imitate" his Savior.

57.)  Richard Strier argues that in these two lines, "imitation falls away as an evasive and rationalizing fiction" (52). Richard Todd argues that "for all divine gifts but one it is possible . . . to make imitative reparation. For the Passion, however, it is not" (150). See also Marion White Singleton, God's Courtier, 112-13; Cristina Malcolmson, Heart-Work, 90-91; and Michael Schoenfeldt, "'That Spectacle of Too Much Weight," 577.

58.)  Elizabeth Clarke argues that "since Christ's death is the cause of every good act the believer can do, there is nothing the believer can give to Christ" (193), which is theologically unsound. The believer is expected to dedicate his life to Christ, a great sacrifice on his or her part.

59.)  Ilona Bell argues that "the speaker here announces unequivocally that he cannot participate in Christ's Passion" (78). However, she fails to analyze the rest of the poem. Although William Pahlka seems to acknowledge imitation here, he confuses the speaker and Herbert, who "acts out an imitation of the Passion in the 'creative groaning' of his poems" (107). Palhka does not acknowledge the theology of imitation and sacrifice. John Wall argues, in these lines, that "there is only loving response, or response through loving" (213), a non-theological argument.

60.)  Elizabeth Clarke argues that, at the end of the poem, "Herbert seems to have forgotten that the battle is supposed to be over" (193). She mistakenly equates Herbert with the speaker. Stanley Fish argues, that, "having found the art of love," the speaker "finds that its perfection in Christ has left him with nothing to do" (Self-Consuming Artifacts 183). Fish's non-theological reading is inadequate.

61.)  Romans 6:2-11, Colossians 2:12

62.)  Richard Strier argues that "to come into Christ's conquest . . . is not a matter of consciously imitating Him but rather of being conformed to Him" (54). However, "being conformed to [Christ]" (54) is the speaker's symbolic imitation.

63.)  Gene Edward Veith, Jr. argues that, in these lines, "all the Christian need do, according to Reformation theology, is to receive God's love" (68). However, the Christian must do much more than this, according to Reformation theology; he must dedicate his life to Christ. Thanking God without serving Him appears superficial.

64.)  See Sibyl Lutz Severance, "Numerological Structures in The Temple, 229-49; and Louis Martin, "Numerological Wit in Herbert's 'Sepulchre,'" 56-64.

65.)  Doctrine of justification -- see footnote 51.

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The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt is a novel that explores the conditions of grief and escalating lengths characters will go to survive the traumas and mysteries of life. This story of guilt and loss—intermixed with love and longing&mdash... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife presents a fresh outlook on myths and fairy tales, by retelling them through sociosexually liberated women. The poems feature many themes such as murder, sexuality and childhood... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
The 17th and 18th centuries saw a wide proliferation of aesthetic discourse through which the picturesque emerged to capture the type of beauty derived from the exchange of in vivo vigor for the spirit of artistic medium. While the metaphysical... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 03
This paper explores the complexity of Whitman’s nationalism and, with reference to Leaves of Grass (1856), examines the apparent paradox between Whitman’s poetry of love and recognition and his imperialistic impulses. This paper draws... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
This article explores the expression of the Gothic romance genre in the 21st century, by examining Mike Flannagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Very little literature focuses on contemporary expressions of this genre. The Gothic reflects the... Read Article »

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