Since 2002 or so I’ve had a copy of the The Complete English Works of George Herbert, the English poet and clergyman who lived during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James VI & I, and Charles I. While I have dipped into it every so often, I’ve never read it all. This Lent I will try to do just that. There are some 184 pages of poems, so divide that by the 40 days of Lent, I need to go through 4 or 5 pages a day. I invite you to join me in this blog as I do so. I won’t comment on every poem, but I will stop and reflect on at least one each day.
The edition I am using is the Everyman’s Library volume, edited by Ann Pasternak Slater (New York/London/Toronto: Knopf/Borzoi, 1995), which also includes The Country Parson, selected letters, his will, and Isaak Walton’s short biography. I also have a copy of Arnold Stein’s George Herbert’s Lyrics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), which while old, is a comprehensive analysis of his English poems. Herbert also wrote in Latin, and supposedly he was excellent in that language as well, but I suspect the number of people reading those poems is at best in the hundreds, and the number of studies are even fewer.
Although born in Wales he was part of the English aristocracy, albeit the poorer end of it. He was educated at the prestigious Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was the Public Orator at Cambridge from 1620-1627, which meant that he gave speeches in Latin at ceremonial events such as graduation ceremonies, convocations, and the visits of royals. He attempted a political career, serving in Parliament and receiving the notice of the King, but when James VI & I died he shifted to an ecclesiastical career. Having already been made a deacon in 1624, he was ordained in 1629, and served at the small rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter, with the chapel of St. Andrew’s at Bemerton, just outside of Salisbury. He only served three years when he died of tuberculosis in 1633. He left the manuscripts of his poetry to his friend Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, who put them in order and arranged for their publication as The Temple later that year.
Tomorrow I will consider his opening poem, the 462 line The Church-Porch. For the moment consider the following:
Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;
Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,
And must return. Accept of them and me,
And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.
Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:
Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.
Herbert, in his first lines, addresses God, not with the flowery invocation found in the classical epics (and emulated by Milton in Paradise Lost) but in the simple language of the psalms. The rhyme is simple enough – ABABCC. Herbert is aware of the quality of what he wrote, but surrenders them to God, and claims that anything that is in them comes from God – “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee”, as 1 Chronicles 29.14 puts it. He bids God accept his poems and himself, encouraging those who dare to sing praises to continue to strive. Then follows two simple requests to God. First, that God would lead those who might benefit from the poems to them, but, second, that those who would stand condemned by God’s truth revealed in them, or who would misconstrue their meaning to Herbert’s detriment, would not. Herbert had a high understanding of the truth of God, whether revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the text of scripture, or mediated by a sermon or poem.
For Herbert devotional poetry was a serious business, not trivial. With that in mind, let us continue.