Pious designs: theological aesthetics in the writings of George Herbert and the Ferrars of Little Gidding
Walton, Regina Laba
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This study examines both the theological aesthetics of George Herbert (1593-1633), English priest and poet, and those of his friends, the Ferrar family of Little Gidding, who founded a quasi-monastic religious community near Cambridge from 1624-1646. In their writings, Herbert and the Ferrars negotiated two traditional but usually competing aesthetic stances: the "beauty of holiness"; on the one hand, and austere plainness, on the other. They skillfully navigated between conflicting theological positions during the years leading up to the English Civil War. Chapter 1 reviews the historical connection between Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar (1592/3-1637) in light of recent revisionist biographies. It describes and contextualizes the anomalous and controversial devotional life at Little Gidding within the complex religio-political landscape of the 1620s and 1630s; it also argues for a shared theological aesthetic between Herbert and the Ferrars as evident in their collaboration on various projects. (Herbert also designated the Ferrars his literary executors.) Chapter 2 revisits the question of Herbert's paradoxical "plain style," a topic that has engaged scholars for decades, by exploring his poetic use of clothing images in conjunction with the Renaissance commonplace of the "garment of style." Chapter 3 examines in detail liturgical practice at Little Gidding, both the family's public and private worship life, as well as their extensive renovation of two churches. Here I argue that the community did not fit easily within any single category in the "worship wars" of the early seventeenth century, but instead drew upon influences across the liturgical spectrum, from Laudianism to puritanism. Chapters 4 and 5 explore how Herbert (in his poetry) and the Ferrars (in their religious dialogues called the Story Books) use narrative of various kinds, but especially parable and exempla, for catechetical ends, and emphasize the centrality of "true stories" to Christian belief. The conclusion argues that these texts present a theological aesthetic that is deeply connected to a lived, practiced ethics. This project fills in a major gap in Herbert studies while recovering important primary sources for the understanding of religion, literature and culture in early modern England.