George Herbert (1593-1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, the younger son of a wealthy family that owned much land. As a younger son he had minimal expectation of inheriting any of it so long as his elder brother Richard lived and had sons of his own, which he did. Thus, George Herbert had to make his own way in the world, albeit supported by his family and its political connections. As a young man he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and subsequently taught rhetoric there and became the Public Orator, giving speeches on behalf of the University at graduations and visits from Very Important People. He served in the English Parliament and hoped for a career in government, but gave up on the idea after the death of James I & VI in 1625. Herbert then began a career in the Church of England, something for which he was eminently suited given his piety and education. Ordained deacon in 1626, married in 1628, and ordained again as a priest in 1629, he became rector of Fugglestone St Peter with St Andrew’s, Bremerton, both then just outside Salisbury. He served for only three years and a bit, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 39. After his death his friend and colleague Nicholas Ferrar (of Little Gidding fame) received his papers, and he arranged for their publication. Among them were two works that are still in print and read today: The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633), and A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson (1652). The latter is a prose work offering advice to rural clergy, and following the Restoration in 1660 is was (and is) used as a manual for Anglican clergy. The book of poems is even more widely read, being part of the canon of English poetry.
While many post-Restoration High Church Anglicans, as well as 19th and 20th century Anglo-Catholics, read Herbert as a forerunner of their variety of Christianity, more recent historical work seeks to restore the poet as an ordinary Protestant divine. He was not adverse to the then High Church Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, but neither was he a follower. Likewise, he was no Puritan, accepting the Book of Common Prayer and the reformed Church of England as it was. However, his theology does appear to be very much closer to that of the reformers and Puritans than some later readers would care to admit. Unlike some Anglo-Catholics, he saw the English Reformation as a good thing, and saw no need to restore some of the pre-Reformation ritual and theology. He had strong opinions about the importance of preaching, of the responsibility of a cleric for the care and admonition, of everyone in his parish, and of the necessity of salvation.
It is with this in mind that we look at the poem for today. Despite it’s name, it is not about the events of Good Friday, but rather it is about the Atonement and how the poet – the first person narrator of the poem – responds to Christ’s death. Have a read:
O my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy blood?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?
Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one star show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?
Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or cannot leaves, but fruit be sign
Of the true vine?
Then let each hour
Of my whole life one grief devour:
That thy distress through all may run,
And be my sun.
Or rather let
My several sins their sorrows get;
That as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sin may so.
Since blood is fittest, Lord to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:
That when sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes
All come to lodge there, sin may say,
‘No room for me’, and fly away.
Sin being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.
First, a few technical observations. The poem is a double poem – indeed, the second section stood on its own in the earlier draft known to scholars as “W”. All the stanzas are in the rhyme pattern of AABB – we just have to work at understanding that “good” and “blood really did rhyme in the early17th century. The first five stanzas are made more interesting in that the first and last verses have only four syllables, and the middle two have eight, i.e. 4884. The poem ends with the second section in 8888 – interest created by the shift.
John Drury in Music at Midnight:The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London UK: Penguin Books, 2014, p. 271) finds it “particularly disappointing” as the title would suggest something better and more epic that what he finds. However, the title may well have been added after the verses were written – so perhaps it is best to take it as it is.
In the first line Christ is addressed as the poet’s chief good, and Herbert wonders “how to measure out they blood?” – in other words, how to comprehend its magnitude, the sacrifice of his lord and master. As Jesus’s blood was shed for the sins of the world, his suffering and grief are many. The poet contemplates various measures – 1) the number of foes Christ had, 2) the stars of the sky, 3) the leaves that fall in Autumn, 4) the fruit that ripens, or 5) the hours of his life. He plays with the idea that, Christ as the true vine (John 15.1), bears fruit, and that fruit is found in the lives of his followers (“You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7.16). Thus, Christ’s distress runs through the poet, although all the hours of his life could account for but one grief borne by Jesus. In the final 4884 stanza, he bids Christ give the poet the sorrow required for each of his sins.
In the second part of the poem Herbert plays with Paul’s description of the Corinthians:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all, and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are human hearts. 2 Corinthians 3.2-3
If the human heart is a letter, then perhaps the ink is blood – the blood of Christ, even though Paul describes it as being written with the Spirit of the living God. Herbert slides around this by stating that, “Since blood is fittest, Lord to write/ Thy sorrows in” that Christ could write upon the poet’s heart with blood, too, filling it with “Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes” so that sin would have no room. Then grace – God’s favour – would fill it.
We are a long way’s away from the simplicity of Antiphon (1) and the two “Easter-wings” poems, and Drury finds the equating of the heart with a writing box just a little too precious. However, the Cambridge Orator would have been expected to develop precisely such precious imagery for his speeches, and in his poetry he played with such similes and word-pictures just as often as he invoked plain, earthy images; perhaps it is just not to our modern tastes.
What I find interesting is that Herbert’s meditation on the blood of Jesus is a poetic counterpart to the Baroque Catholic paintings and statues of a bloody, suffering Jesus. It is for many people uncomfortable imagery, and they do not like to equate the suffering of Jesus with any sense that God was punishing Jesus on our behalf. The atonement is viewed not as a penal substitution, but as a ransom from the devil (or perhaps God?), or a battle between Jesus and the forces of evil behind human oppression, or as a new Exodus, or as a witness to God’s identification with the poor and all who suffer oppression. However that might be, that is not how Herbert saw things. He felt the weight of his personal sin, and considered himself worthy of eternal damnation, and is saved only by God’s gift demonstrated love in offering his son in his place. In viewing things this way, Herbert exhibited the theology expected of a Protestant in his day.
This is the challenge to reading Herbert. He is not an Anglo-Catholic, and he is not an 20th Century Evangelical either. He is a priest in the Church of England that underwent a transformation in its restoration in 1660 after the Commonwealth, and continued to be changed by Evangelicalism in the 18th century, Anglo-Catholicism in the 19th century, and Ecumenism and the Liturgical Renewal movement in the 20th. When we read his poems we hear a voice from the past.
However, let us listen. Let us acknowledge the distance between us, but also our common language. Let us be informed, reassured, and challenged, all at once. Above all, let us be motivated to know Jesus better.