Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




J. Dale




Although this study may be helpful for a theological understanding of the poetry of George Herbert, its more immediate concerns are not with theology. This thesis is an attempt to look beyond theology to the nature of the religious experience itself, and to explore that experience through the symbols that express it. Each of the symbols I have chosen, water, fire, and blood, reveals the essential paradox of the religious life, for while each symbol contains an element of terror and should be feared, each symbol also contains an element of relief and should be willingly embraced. Herbert's understanding of these symbols is not peculiar either to his poetry or to his age. The connection between Herbert's use of these symbols and the biblical use of them is undeniable and the influence of The Book of Common Prayer is considerable.

Water is used by Herbert to indicate his own sense of defilement and it becomes a sign of God's wrath with the power to destroy corruption. At the very moment of destruction, however, water also symbolizes purification and the establishment of new life. Similarly, fire destroys and recreates, and blood, too, defiles and purifies. Moreover, contact with each of these three symbols reveals a glimpse of the character of the holy; the paradoxical qualities inherent in the symbols are a reflection of the paradoxical qualities of the divine nature itself. Finally, each of the symbols transforms Herbert's world by abolishing the divisions between the sacred and profane, the temporal and the eternal, even between life and death itself. Through water, fire, and blood, all things are made new.

McMaster University Library

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