Cristina Malcolmson. Heart-Work: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic. xi + 297 pp. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. ISBN 0 8047 2988 3.
Canadian Mennonite University
Dyck, Paul. "Review of Cristina Malcolmson, Heart-Work." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 12.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-3/dyckrev.htm>.
Cristina Malcolmson, in Heart-Work: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic, argues that Herbert occupied and articulated an important transitional moment in the development of the modern subject. This moment is one of overlap between a traditional society based on an heirarchical common good and a capitalist society that rewards individual ambition with advancement. In so arguing, she supports Weber's theory that Protestant religion fostered a new economic system, but explores the complexities of the transitional moment, one in which the emerging value of industriousness had to be justified within the ethics of community. Malcolmson argues that this task was accomplished by the Protestant doctrine of vocation, a doctrine in which earthly work enacts inner devotion to God and to others rather than individualism and private gain.
Malcolmson looks to the Sidney-Herbert family circle as the first and most immediate context of Herbert's poetic career. She substantially revises the accounts given by biographers from Izaac Walton to Amy Charles in addressing anew the central problem of Herbert's turn away from a courtly career to a one as a humble country parson. Malcolmson depicts as central a formerly neglected relationship: that of George Herbert and his brothers to William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke. George and his brothers received advancements from the court while Pembroke was in favour there; conversely, when Buckingham gained the upper hand over his rival, the Herbert family fell out of favour. She traces the trajectory of George's career according to his entrance into the family circle as well as by the rising and falling fortunes of that circle and the Earl himself, speculating that the Crown may have been unwilling in the late 1620s to grant Pembroke's allies positions of influence; hence, George's eventual position out-of-the-way at Bemerton may have been the only sort of option open to him, rather than solely a chosen retreat from courtly circles.
Within this historical context, Malcolmson explores the importance of Herbert's understanding of vocation, a vocation not limited to the poetic or even ministerial fields, but an all-encompassing one, developed first as an approach to aristocratic family privileges and obligations, one that cohesively joins inward and outward commitments. In chapter one, she takes up The Country Parson, reading it not as a conduct book or manual, but within the character genre; it fleshes out the character of holiness. Malcolmson argues that Herbert uses this book to transform his aristocratic identity into "a mode of self-presentation appropriate to his role as a rural minister," redefining political failure as spiritually-rewarding renunciation of worldly advancement (13). Using The Country Parson as a model, she then examines the development of The Temple, from its beginnings, she argues, as means of access to courtly power, to its final form, as a text seeking to be purified of the self which seeks advancement.
Lack of early versions of Herbert's poetry in extant commonplace books has often been taken by critics as evidence that Herbert did not circulate his poetry significantly prior to print publication. Chapter two, however, argues from contextual and internal evidence that Herbert, in fact, developed his early poetic voice as a means of entry into the coterie of the Sidney-Herbert clan, and that many characteristic Herbertian poetic features--his wit, his allusions to other poets, his critique of erotic love poetry--should be understood in part as social gestures. Malcolmson argues that Herbert's early work on The Temple was in part a means of worldly advancement.
Chapter three begins charting a transformation in The Temple from a double identity constituted by inward holiness and outward gentility to one in which inward holiness coordinates with its outward expression. Malcolmson reads the early poems of the Williams manuscript as seeking "purity of the heart in the midst of the acquisition of wealth" (69). Chapters four and five examine Herbert's revisions, arguing that he made them after 1627, when his chances of preferment had faded. The revisions and new poems obscure the biographical nature of the earlier version and, through poems of transparency, effect the transformation to the mode in which social role reflects devotion. Herbert replaces the earlier poems' allowance for worldly advancement with a contemplative contentment with one's station in life and a rejection of individual gain. The courtier's skillful manipulation of appearance is replaced by the parson's contrition and "holy life."
Chapter six considers the tension within the Protestant ethic between spiritually positive industriousness in one's job and spiritually harmful desire for personal advancement. In The Temple and The Country Parson, Herbert uses the pastoral mode to address this tension, figuring achievement as natural growth, the fruits of which are properly used for communal rather than individual good. Chapter seven examines how the Herbert family justified their own commercial endeavours, including land enclosure and the development of the Virginia colony, through the metaphor of gardening.
In concluding, Malcolmson argues that Herbert's final insistence on vocation as a sincere expression of inner devotion gives his work a distinctive place in the history of subject-formation. She argues, however, this seemingly modern sincerity itself has led to mis-readings of Herbert, readings which do not realize the importance of social function to the doctrine of vocation in The Temple. "Sincerity" for Herbert and his time was not the authentic expression of personal experience, free from the taint of social interference, but rather social performance free from the deceit motivated by self-interest.
- Heart-Work reads well; it is generally well-researched and written. It clearly identifies its critical task and presents fascinating historical information. Somewhat troubling, though not central to her argument, is Malcolmson's easy use of the terms "Anglican" and "Puritan." Such use neglects recent arguments by Daniel Doerksen, Achsah Guibbory, and others that the Jacobean church simply did not divide up neatly into such categories. Malcolmson conflates the differing foreign policy allegiances of the "Protestant" and "Spanish" factions (which she discusses in the context of the Buckingham--Pembroke conflict) with a much more complex national religious scene. The strength of this study, though, lies not in its attention to doctrinal nuance, but in its description of the rhetorical means by which people negotiated the contradictory values of a rapidly-changing culture. Malcolmson thus makes an important contribution to the project of fleshing out the complexities of Herbert's engagement with the world.
- Doerksen, Daniel W. Conforming to the Word: Herbert, Donne, and the English Church Before Laud. London: Associated UP, 1997.
- Guibbory, Achsah. Ceremony and Community From Herbert to Milton : Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).