Puritan Utopia in Herbert's Poetry: A Response to P.G. Stanwood's Affliction and Flight in Herbert's Poetry
Paul Moon
Auckland Institute of Technology, NZ

Moon, Paul. "Puritan Utopia in Herbert's Poetry: A Response to P.G. Stanwood's Affliction and Flight in Herbert's Poetry." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 15.1-5 <URL:

  1. P.G. Stanwood's "Affliction and Flight in Herbert's Poetry" touches on one of the main reasons for the presence of the issue of conflict in Herbert's poetry: the influence of Herbert's particular theological leaning. There is a necessity to offer some kind of resolution to the conflict/order dichotomy he encounters in his life.

  2. At a time when John Donne was moving precariously between High-Church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, Herbert betrays strong traces of the utopian ideal that was such a popular theme among the proliferating Puritan sects during the first half of the seventeenth century.

  3. Indeed, the presence of conflict in Herbert's poetry is necessary in order to demonstrate the process by which it will be resolved when the Kingdom of God is established on earth. The Puritan perception of utopia was strongly influenced by ideals which had flowed through from the Renaissance -- ideals of symmetry, proportion, order, the triumph of reason, and the harmony of nature. The purity of these concepts offered a stark contrast to the corruption, abuses of power, and arrogance of the Stuart kings in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

  4. Conflict is, therefore, a real experience for Herbert. Whilst being an Anglican Priest, his self-imposed exile from the hierarchy of the Church, (which was increasingly characterized by tyranny and a growing 'worldliness') demonstrates the extent to which Herbert was unable to reconcile the dilemma of being an instrument of an institution which, theologically, was becoming increasingly distant from his own views. This dilemma quickens his yearning for a utopia in which all such difficulties evaporate. However, even this vision is tempered by the contradictions he cannot explain in his own faith:

    Ah my dear angry Lord,
    Since thou dost love, yet strike;
    Cast down, yet help afford;
    Sure I will do the like.
    I will complain, yet praise;
    I will bewail, approve:
    And all my sour-sweet days
    I will lament and love. (Bitter-sweet)

  5. Above all, Herbert's utopian influence is always couched in moderation. Prayer, rather than political posturing, is Herbert's preferred way of coping with the dilemmas he faces: "God's breath in man returning to his birth", (Prayer [1] line 2). The utopia is to be of God's, not man's, making, and when there seems to be no response from God to this end, Herbert's frustration is evident:

    When my devotions could not pierce
    Thy silent ears,
    When was my heart broken, as was my verse:
    My breast was full of fears
    And disorder: (Denial, lines 1-5)

    While the anticipated utopia remains unfulfilled, so does Herbert's struggle to reconcile the conflict and order in his life continue.

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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)