George Herbert

George Herbert, one of the greatest lyric poets in English, was regarded by Isaac Walton as a saint - a reputation he keeps to this day, being remembered in the Church of England on 27th February every year. He was for a few memorable years the priest at Bemerton, just outside Salisbury; and Walton in his Lives (1670) tells of an incident which occurred on one of Herbert’s regular walks into the city to take part in a musical gathering. Note the musical imagery in the story - comparable to what you’ll find in many of Herbert’s poems.

In another walk to Salisbury, he saw a poor man, with a poorer horse, that was fall’n under his Load; they were both in distress, and needed present help; which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his Canonical Coat, and help’d the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it; and he blessed the poor man, and was so like the good Samaritan that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, That if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast. Thus he left the poor man, and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed; but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him, He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment; his answer was, that the thought of what he had done, would prove Musick to him at Midnight; and the omission of it, would have upbraided and made discord in his Conscience whensoever he should pass by that place; for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure I am bound so far as it is in my power to practice what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life, without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion: And now let’s tune our Instruments.

As an example of the musical beauty of Herbert’s verse, and his tenderness for what ‘this fleeting world’ has to offer, take his poem ‘Virtue’:

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Robert Cockcroft

Another article

See also Robert's later article on:
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd February 2002