Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Caroline Divines > A Priest to the Temple
  George Herbert William Laud  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VI. Caroline Divines.

§ 16. A Priest to the Temple.

A Priest to the Temple, most familiarly known as “George Herbert’s Country Parson,” seems to have been finished in 1632, but did not appear in print for twenty years, when Barnabas Oley edited it with a “friendly prosopopoea” to John Echard, answering his “grounds and occasions of the contempt of the clergy.” Certainly, no one could contemn George Herbert’s priest, for he is as good a man as Chaucer’s clerk of Oxenford. The sketch of him may take its place, it has been pointed out, among other character-sketches of the time, such as bishop Earle’s. But it is conspicuous among them all for the minuteness of its observation, the exactness of its language and the fervent piety that animates the picture. Of its usefulness for its own time, Izaak Walton has said the last word, that it is “a book so full of plain, prudent and useful rules that that country parson that can spare 12d. and yet wants it, is scarce excusable.” But, of the subtle beauty of its style, it is not easy to speak thus briefly. It abounds in happy phrases—such as that of “crumbling a text into small parts”—and touches of insight in words that exactly fit the thought. It is balanced in its parts, so that the effect of its sweet reasonableness is continuous and cumulative. It is not without verbal reminiscences of the writer’s poetry; yet the prose is good prose, not poetry spoilt. And, indeed, its literary excellence is more consistently excellent than that of the writer’s verse, because it has in it no straining for effect or quaintness, but proceeds naturally as though it flowed from ready lips and a full heart. If the poetry which Herbert sent, on his deathbed, by John Duncon to Nicholas Ferrar, was a picture, as he said, of his spiritual conflicts, the prose of A Priest to the Temple was an image of country tranquillity, bright and simple like the flowers of the field which he loved, and fragrant like the incense which he tells the parson to use on high festivals. The Country Parson marks an epoch in English literature. It shows character drawing at its perfection, and the character that is chosen is that of a profession which, transformed by the reformation, had stamped on itself a peculiar mark, of breadth and dutifulness and out-of-door piety, which, happily and for generations, embodied a spirit that was English as well as Christian in the lives of the English clergy. The publication of the book may well have had not a little effect in bringing about the restoration of the church with that of the king; for it showed men how liberal, how tolerant and candid, how kindly and rational, could that church be which the triumph of the sects had temporarily superseded. Not many books, indeed, have made so deep or abiding an impression. It has endowed the memory of its author with a peculiar claim to the affection of Englishmen. And it sums up the influence which men like Ferrar and Duncon and Traherne, like Hammond and Sanderson, were quietly exercising, amid days of disturbance, in the byways of English life.   25

  George Herbert William Laud  
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