I discovered the poetry of George Herbert in a university British literature class, and it was a delightful discovery. George Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican clergyman who wrote metaphysical poetry – poems that address the mind and stimulate the imagination. Herbert’s poems, often written in first person, focus on his devotion to and relationship with God and are very personal and reflective in nature. It is as if Herbert is baring his soul, revealing his spiritual thoughts and emotions, even struggles, about God and his relationship with Him. I found many of the poems I read to be moving, uplifting, and thought-provoking. (You can view several of George Herbert’s poems here.) Herbert explores the deep subjects of love, death, sin, grief, and worship artistically yet simply. Herbert’s poems could prove to be challenging to the non-religious reader, but to a Christian, they speak to the heart and draw the mind toward God and His attributes. Reading Herbert’s poems is almost like reading some of the Psalms; they generate thoughts of humble repentance and submission, praise, and worship toward God.
George Herbert challenged the separation of the secular and religious worlds by presenting spiritual subjects and Biblical doctrine poetically. Up to this time, religious works were always written in prose, as in essay or sermon form. But George Herbert couldn’t repress his artistic side, and in “Jordan 1” he questions why it’s only acceptable for fictional subjects to be written in verse form: “Who says that fictions only and false hair / Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?” (In fact, 50 years later John Bunyan would face the same dilemma when he would be criticized for using allegory to depict religious truths in his Pilgrim’s Progress.) In “Jordan 2”, Herbert describes his struggle to find a balance between expressing his ideas beautifully and creatively without making them sound trite or cheap. He writes,
When first my lines of heavenly joys made mention,
Such was their luster, they did so excel,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.
In this poem, it appears he is fighting the temptation to embellish the truths of God that he wishes to express. His goal is to write creatively, but he doesn’t want his artistry to inhibit or distract from the messages he wants to convey. Notice he says, “as if it were to sell” – he’s not trying to impress anyone or intending to market his work. This sounds as if he is writing from his heart, but not for the purpose of gaining wealth or fame.
Herbert was a religious man who was also a talented poet, and it seems he took both roles seriously – why not merge the two? Herbert believed that his talent for poetry was a gift from God, and he wanted his work to give honor to God without bringing praise to himself. In “Providence,” he states that it is man’s duty to praise God and to tell of His deeds. He says that God’s other creatures would willingly speak or write of God’s greatness, if they could, but Man is the only one to whom God gave the ability to do so.
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to Man thou has made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him secretary of thy praise.
He goes on to explain that when anyone fails to praise God, it is a great sin because he is “robbing a thousand” who would willingly praise Him if they knew Him.
Although Herbert’s poetry deals with profound theological and philosophical topics, he addresses them with simple confidence rather than doubt, as a man who is fully convinced and comfortable with his beliefs. His poetry reflects a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty and man’s depravity, a relationship in which God is always the initiator and man is the recipient. This view of God is not troublesome to Herbert; he holds a high view of God and rightly understands man’s sinful condition and his weakness and dependence on God for everything. Some recurring themes in Herbert’s poems are: repentance and pleas for mercy; God’s work of love and grace in the heart of a sinner by which He grants them faith and salvation; willing worship of and service to God; and the ongoing struggle to mortify self and submit to God’s will. In a number of poems, Herbert speaks of the temporary nature of life, and the eternal state that the believer has to look forward to. In his poem entitled “Life” he writes the following lines:
Farewell, dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye lived, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures.
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my scent be good, I care not, if
It be as short as yours.
In another poem, he addresses “Time” and reminds it that it is a tool God uses to grow, improve, and correct his children, and eventually bring them to Him:
Christ’s coming hath made man thy debtor,
Since by the cutting he grows better.
… For where thou [Time] only wert before
An executioner at best,
Thou art a gardener now, and more,
An usher to convey our souls
Beyond the utmost stars and poles.
The idea that life is like a journey is a common Puritan metaphor; Anne Bradstreet used it in her poem “As Weary Pilgrim” as did Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress. Likewise Herbert, in “The Pilgrimage” comments, “After so foul a journey, death is fair, and but a chair.” In his poem “Death”, he remarks that since the death of Christ, death has “grown fair and full of grace,/much in request, much sought for as a good.” When he writes of death, it is not with a sense of fear, but rather something that is welcomed by the Christian as a place of rest for his weary soul.
George Herbert’s poems display creative attention to style as he implements diverse and unique structures in his verse. The metrical and rhyming patterns differ from one poem to the next, so his poems never get boring or predictable. Some of my favorites are those he constructed in such a way as to give them a visual shape. For example, “The Altar” is written to resemble the shape of an altar, and “Easter Wings” consists of metrical lines that decrease and increase in length, giving a sense of upward and downward motion. Several others were written in original styles of Herbert’s own creation, demonstrating not only his artistic ability, but perhaps a sense of fun. Some are written in quatrains (“Virtue” and “The Holdfast”), others have stanzas of five or six lines, while some follow the traditional English sonnet structure (“Redemption”). “Discipline” is constructed of uneven quatrains which create an interesting rhythm. (I can still hear my son’s voice saying these lines when he learned it for a poetry class I taught years ago!)
Herbert’s poetry uses a great deal of imagery and metaphor. He speaks of life as a journey; of man as a window, a flower in a garden, or a building; of a heart as an altar. One that I really like is the sonnet entitled “Prayer 1,” which is a list of metaphorical phrases that describe what prayer is and what it means. “Redemption” is also metaphorical, being an allegory that depicts Christ’s death for his people. I suggest that as you read Herbert’s poems, look for his use of symbols and metaphors. They are very effective in making an idea stick in your mind.
George Herbert’s single volume of religious poetry, The Temple, was published posthumously. On his deathbed, Herbert left his manuscript in the possession of a fellow clergyman, requesting that he have his poems published if he believed they would “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but if not, to burn them. I think this shows what his motive and purpose was for writing his poetry. He wasn’t aspiring to become famous, or hoping to get rich by publishing his works. He wrote with sincerity the things that were on his heart and suspected that perhaps there were others who may be comforted or strengthened in their faith by reading them.
I highly recommend the poetry of George Herbert to the Christian reader for its beauty and its content. Outside of the Psalms and hymns, it is unusual to read theological themes expressed poetically. His poems are fairly easy to understand (for poetry, that is!), they are interesting, memorable and beautifully crafted, and they express both deep spiritual emotion and true Biblical concepts.
By the way, I also discovered Herbert penned one of the hymns in our church hymnal; here’s the first verse of it:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything ,
To do it as for thee.