In 1633, a collection of poems by a dead writer made a splash on the London book market. On the outside, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations looked just like any other book of poetry. But when readers opened the text, they realized at once that it was anything but ordinary.
The volume was a book of devotional poems by English poet and clergyman George Herbert, who had died in March 1633 at age 39, likely of tuberculosis. Religious poetry was nothing new to Herbert’s readers. It had been around since long before William Shakespeare or secular poetry written in English. The earliest sacred or devotional poetry in English is as old as the language itself: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” an Old English poem praising God, was reportedly the creation of an illiterate shepherd who started composing and singing verse after an apparition appeared to him in a dream. Dated to the seventh century, the text is also the oldest surviving English poem.
But The Temple was something unexpected and innovative: shaped poetry, in which words were arranged to form images on the page. One such poem, titled “Easter Wings,” consists of two wing-shaped stanzas on facing pages. The poem’s speaker seeks strength from God and, fittingly, wishes to “imp my wing on thine” in the hope that “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” (Imping is a technique used in falconry to repair a bird’s broken feathers by grafting on new ones in place of the damaged plumage.)
Herbert’s pictures aren’t just decorative. They reinforce the meanings of his poems. In the centuries since The Temple’s publication, writers as varied as Lewis Carroll and E.E. Cummings have used this same technique—now known more commonly as concrete poetry—to add visual elements to their poems and show that there is more than one way to use words to make meaning. In Herbert’s case, shaped poetry allowed him to subtly send a message: that art had endured in the face of iconoclasm, or the intentional destruction of images.
Herbert was born into an artistic family in Wales in 1593. His mother was a friend of the metaphysical English poet John Donne, and his brother Edward was also a poet. He began writing poetry as early as his college days, after he was accepted to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16. His compositions ranged from sacred to secular subjects, and though they were never published during his lifetime, several circulated among friends and colleagues in handwritten manuscripts. Some were even written in Latin.
The poet’s posthumously published poems appear to have been popular with readers, too. By the end of the 17th century, The Temple had gone through no fewer than 11 editions.
Herbert’s visually eloquent poetry represented a considerable technical challenge for book printers. Today, arranging words into shapes is a matter of spacing and indenting text in a digital file with a keystroke or the click of a mouse. During Herbert’s lifetime, however, every letter had to be typeset manually. Each character and blank space on the page had its own tiny metal stamp that the printer slotted into a wooden frame. Once an entire page had been typeset in the frame, the printer inked it and used the inked type to stamp the impression onto the blank page—a process known as handpress printing. In Herbert’s book, printers had to not only arrange the type into words but also set the words in the desired shape or pattern.
One might be excused for wondering why Herbert—or, for that matter, his printer—went to the trouble at all. Readers usually expect words to paint images in their minds rather than literally on the page. But there was something larger at stake in Herbert’s inventive idea than simply combining words and pictures.
A century before The Temple was published, England, like much of continental Europe, underwent a dramatic religious shift. In the late 1520s, Tudor monarch Henry VIII famously sought to divorce, then annul, his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant him a divorce, Henry simply changed the rules. He broke ties with the Catholic Church and, in 1534, established a new Church of England of which he, conveniently, would be the supreme head.
The English Reformation, as the 16th-century religious movement came to be called, had consequences that spiraled beyond Henry’s marriage. Reforms begun by Henry and later built on by his two younger children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, transformed England into a fully Protestant kingdom by the early 1560s.
One of the biggest changes associated with the Reformation was the Church of England’s rejection of religious imagery. Unlike Catholics, Protestants believed paintings, statues, illustrations in prayer books and even churches themselves were a dangerous distraction from God’s word, which ought to take center stage in Christians’ spiritual lives. They feared people would end up worshipping images instead of God—a practice known as idolatry, or the veneration of false idols. Accordingly, the Tudor monarchs passed measures banning the use of religious images—and even sanctioned art’s destruction.
“Such feigned images as you know in any of your [churches] to be so abused with pilgrimages or offerings of anything made thereunto, you shall for avoiding that most detestable offense of idolatry forthwith take down and [destroy], and shall suffer from henceforth no candles, tapers or images of wax to be set afore any image or picture, but only the light that commonly goeth across the church,” instructed the Second Henrician Injunctions, a series of mandates drafted by Henry’s chief adviser, the reform-minded Thomas Cromwell, in 1538.
Under Henry and his son Edward, who reigned from 1547 to 1553, a radical faction of state-endorsed Protestants called iconoclasts—derived from the Greek word for “image destroyer”—targeted religious images en masse. They pulled down statues, cut pictures out of prayer books and demolished monasteries. All of these, they feared, could potentially become idols.
The new regime argued that religious images were, at worst, dangerous to spiritual well-being or, at best, a crutch for the illiterate.
“Images serve for none other purpose but as to be books of unlearned men that cannot know letters,” the 1538 injunctions noted.
Herbert’s poetry arrived on the scene almost exactly a century after England’s break from Rome in 1534. By that point, the massive campaign of state-authorized destruction had abated, in part because the current king, Charles I, harbored Catholic sympathies. But religious images were still controversial. It’s curious, then, that Herbert’s shaped poetry embraced such imagery, even as Protestants rejected it. His book was, after all, called The Temple.
“Together, the poems make an architectural structure, a metaphorical temple building which the reader enters,” wrote Helen Wilcox, an emeritus literary scholar at Bangor University in Wales, in the 1993 Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvell.
Why did Herbert push the envelope by building images into his poetry?
Richard Ovenden, the head of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, says the Protestantism of Herbert’s time was different from that of the early Tudor period. English Protestants were turning over a new leaf.
“[Herbert] is writing in a wave of … Protestantism in the Church of England that we now call Anglicanism, which had elements of Catholic spirituality,” Ovenden tells Smithsonian magazine.
Anglicanism was a new flavor of Protestantism that emerged in the early to mid-17th century, Ovenden says. At this point, the Church of England was beginning to readopt elements of worship that the Tudors’ iconoclastic regime had abolished, including altars, sacraments and music.
Perhaps these changing practices contributed to Herbert’s shaped poetry. Nearly four centuries later, it is extremely difficult to infer Herbert’s thoughts or religious opinions when he composed The Temple. He never kept a journal. Unlike later writers, most 16th- and 17th-century writers didn’t leave behind journals explaining what was going through their minds as they wrote. (Notable exceptions include diarist Samuel Pepys and noblewoman Anne Clifford.)
Still, Herbert’s picture poems leave hints. In one poem, “The Windows,” the speaker compares his ideal spiritual state to a stained glass window that infuses God’s word with “Doctrine and life, colors and light.” Mere speech, meanwhile, “Doth vanish like a flaring thing, / And in the ear, not conscience, ring.” To Herbert, stained glass windows were not dangerous idols but rather symbols of the color and light of God in people’s souls—and they were even better than words.
The effects of the English Reformation could still be felt in Herbert’s time in the form of Puritan factions. A splinter group that rejected holdovers from Catholicism in the Church of England’s practices, the Puritans championed iconoclasm and pushed for more drastic religious reforms. As Puritan clergyman Henry Ainsworth wrote in 1611, worshipping images meant “mixing men’s ‘own inventions’ with the ordinances of God” and amounted to service of the devil.
The changing tide of the English church’s practices and attitudes aside, Herbert’s remarkable shaped poetry was part of a much longer tradition. In Europe, poets had shaped their words into pictures—and religious pictures in particular—since ancient times. The Temple also had early medieval ancestors called figural or figured poems.
These compositions look like modern word searches. They feature colored images drawn over grids of letters. Figured poems are doubly impressive because, unlike word searches, the background grid doesn’t just consist of random letters, but text in Latin. So, each figured poem actually contains two poems: one in the background grid and a second inside the pictures drawn over the grid. One such poem by the ninth-century Frankish writer Rabanus Maurus features a worshiper kneeling beneath a cross. The words inside the drawing of the worshiper, “Rabanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere o pie judicio,” translate to “Christ, o pious and merciful in your judgment, keep me, Rabanus, I pray, safe.”
That Herbert’s beautiful poems are part of a lengthy history speaks to the power of human imagination. Ultimately, the English Reformation’s tyrannical stranglehold on images was no match for the fact that people’s minds are always painting pictures. In place of the images the iconoclasts destroyed, new and inventive art grew. These poems also survive as evidence that, while literature draws pictures in the mind, some writers also quite literally used words to draw pictures on the page.