George Herbert (1593-1633)

George Herbert can truthfully be described in four ways: as an aristocrat, a profound explorer of the spiritual life, a priest, and an artist - specifically a poet (but one much influenced by his love of music). He is also commemorated in the Anglican calendar towards the end of February as a man of saintly life. He died 370 years ago this year, on March 1st 1633. This brought to an end his brief but memorable ministry at Bemerton outside Salisbury, where he had been ordained priest in April 1630 following his marriage the previous year and a distinguished spell at Cambridge as the University’s Public Orator. His Christian vocation had first been expressed in a vow to write only Christian poetry, made to his mother in 1610 when he was seventeen, and became more public in 1624 when he was ordained deacon.

The four aspects mentioned above will gradually become apparent to you if you read the poems - readily available - one after the other, pausing to take them in as, it is said, Herbert used to do with the prayers and collects read to his congregation at Bemerton. If you can find an edition of Isaac Walton’s Lives, to which in 1670 he added a life of Herbert, and one of the Oxford editions of Herbert containing his prose guide to the Christian ministry, A Priest to the Temple, you will have an even fuller sense of where the poems fitted into Herbert’s life - and of the kind of life he wishes for us as his readers (even allowing for the fact that Walton carefully constructs and angles his account to emphasise Herbert’s saintliness). Herbert illuminates both sides of the relationship between the parson - to which stuffy old word he restores both its true authority and its warm humanity - and the lay church member.

The poems in his Temple show us the trials of the Christian vocation as experienced by a believer in Herbert’s particular position, in a way that makes them meaningful to us in our own. As Walton points out, ‘The Pearl’ records Herbert’s intimate inside knowledge of the power game, being a member of a great family from the Welsh borders influential at court. He understands the excitement:

When glory swells the heart, and mouldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye.

And as his own prose guide to ministry makes apparent, he had an aristocrat’s inbred sense of authority and order. His connections and inherited wealth (limited though that was) enabled him to rebuild the Bemerton parsonage and its attached chapel before he moved in, which, together with his known links to the great neighbouring household of Wilton, must have given him one kind of initial advantage. He plainly was somebody. But how daunted his humbler parishioners must have been! Walton confirms this with his story of a poor old woman coming to ask for help who ‘was surpriz’d with a fear and shortness of breath’. Showing the proper courtesy of the young, whatever their rank, towards old people, Herbert addresses her twice as ‘mother’, takes her hand, makes her sit down, and follows up his concern with action (in which his wife participates). The poems show how his fastidious love of visual and audible harmony and precision fused in his mind with the profounder forces of fear and longing. You’ll see this for example in ‘The Church Floor’ where a chequered and stepped marble pavement, representing the soul and alternating the paler ‘patience’ with the darker ‘humility’, is suddenly obscured as:

Death, puffing at the door
Blows all the dust about the floor.

Other poems like ‘Affliction 1’ and ‘The Collar’ exhibit the anger and resentment bred by heightened expectations. Herbert demanded a lot from life before he really met God, and even more afterwards. This made him an easy prey to disappointment and revulsion of feeling - ‘I struck the board, and cried, No more. I will abroad’ (i.e. I’ll cut loose!).

But The Priest to the Temple, with its homelier subtitle The Country Parson, shows how Herbert sought to scale down and mould all this inherited authority to the position of a minister, responsible to his master, Jesus, and to plain country people who were neither as learned as he was, nor easily fooled. In the poems he shows us how he saw, and - with increasing truthfulness and intimacy - knew himself in relation to God. In The Parson he shows how the priest must be perceived and known by his people, as someone who at once promotes their physical welfare, and impels them to take God as seriously as he does himself. Love for others demands the strictest self-discipline; but both in his art and his life Herbert has a sense of timing, rhythm, and structure. We have to feel as he did that God’s demands for a complete re-ordering of our lives are impossible to meet, and to know the support and patience of God (and even his sense of humour, his periodic treats) as we grow up to the measure of those demands. Herbert knew, and - for as long as he could before his death just short of his fortieth birthday - practised his part in both sides of this process. His living of the godly life is by turns rigorous and relaxing, demanding and attractive, whether we imagine him at his twice-weekly ‘music meetings’ in Salisbury, ‘catechising’ his congregation on Sunday afternoons in church, or entertaining them in his house on Sunday evenings.

Robert Cockcroft

Another article

See also Robert's earlier article:
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 9th February 2003