It is difficult to appreciate nowadays how seriously the notion of sin was taken in Herbert's time by all strands of the Christian faith, stemming from the biblical story of original sin in the Garden of Eden. In every walk of life, people knew that to sin was to offend against God's holy law, and required continual vigilance, confession and penitence.
This poem is in the form of a sonnet. In Herbert's day the English sonnet had become very popular among the educated classes, but they were almost exclusively about worldly love and addressed to women. He and John Donne were leaders among the few who applied the form to religious verse. In 'The Temple' there are 15 poems in this 14-line form (3 quatrains and a couplet), of which the best known today is 'Prayer'.
At the age of 16, Herbert sent a letter from Cambridge to his mother in which he questions why existing poems were almost exclusively secular - "so few are writ, that look towards God and Heaven", he writes, and resolves in future to devote his talents to penning religious verse. In this poem, written later in life, he parodies some of the more familiar love sonnets of his day.
It is not a difficult poem to understand. Herbert starts by exclaiming how well mankind is protected from sin ('begirt round'). He shows how parents and teachers strive to guide children, and goes on to demonstrate how religious observance provides adults with an abundance of ways ('millions of surprises') to guard against temptation, as well as an awareness of the consequences of sinning - indignity on earth and divine retribution in the afterlife.
But in the final couplet* he concludes that, despite all this careful upbringing, wealth of religious guidance and nagging of conscience ('these fences'), we are at heart sinful beings who will always be caught out by our inner desires ('bosome-sinne'). This is typical of Herbert - at the end of the poem he neatly and simply undermines all that has gone before.
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