Priest + Poet
27 February 1633
Our God and King, who called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
George Herbert was born in 1593, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke. His mother was a friend of the poet John Donne. George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the Public Orator of the University, responsible for giving speeches of welcome in Latin to famous visitors, and writing letters of thanks, also in Latin, to acknowledge gifts of books for the University Library. This brought him to the attention of King James I, who granted him an annual allowance, and seemed likely to make him an ambassador. However, in 1625 the king died, and George Herbert, who had originally gone to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but had his head turned by the prospect of a career at Court, determined anew to seek ordination. In 1626 he was ordained, and became vicar and then rector of the parish of Bemerton and neighboring Fugglestone, not far from Salisbury.
He served faithfully as a parish priest, diligently visiting his parishioners and bringing them the sacraments when they were ill, and food and clothing when they were in want. He read Morning and Evening Prayer daily in the church, encouraging the congregation to join him when possible, and ringing the church bell before each service so that those who could not come might hear it and pause in their work to join their prayers with his. He used to go once a week to Salisbury to hear Evening Prayer sung there in the cathedral. On one occasion he was late because he had met a man whose horse had fallen with a heavy load, and he stopped, took off his coat, and helped the man to unload the cart, get the horse back on its feet, and then reload the cart. His spontaneous generosity and good will won him the affection of his parishioners.
Today, however, he is remembered chiefly for his book of poems, The Temple, which he sent shortly before his death to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, to publish if he thought them suitable. They were published after Herbert’s death, and have influenced the style of other poets, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Several of them have been used as hymns, in particular “Teach me, my God and King,” and “Let all the world in every corner sing.” Another of his poems contains the lines:
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.
Two more of his poems follow:
How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
are Thy returns! Even as the flowers in spring,
to which, besides their own demean,
the late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
could have recovered greenness? It was gone
quite underground, as flowers depart
to see their mother-root, when they have blown;
where they together
all the hard weather,
dead to the world, keep house unknown.
These are Thy wonders, Lord of power,
killing and quickening, bringing down to hell
and up to heaven in an hour;
making a chiming of a passing-bell.
We say amiss
this or that is;
Thy word is all, if we could spell.
Oh, that I once past changing were,
fast in Thy paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither;
nor doth my flower
want a spring shower,
my sins and I joining together.
But while I grow in a straight line,
still upwards bent, as if heaven were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline.
What frost to that? What pole is not the zone
where all things burn,
when Thou dost turn,
and the least frown of Thine is shown?
And now in age I bud again;
after so many deaths I love and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
and relish versing. O my only Light,
it cannot be
that I am he
on whom Thy tempests fell all night.
These are Thy wonders, Lord of love,
to make us see we are but flowers that glide;
which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us where to bide.
Who would be more,
swelling through store,
forfeit their paradise by their pride.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
guilty of dust and sin. But quicked-ey’d Love, Observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in, Drew near to me, sweetly questioning,
if I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You should be he. I the unkinde, engrateful? ah my deare,
I can not look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I hav marr’d them: let my shame
go where it doth deserve. And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve. You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Glory to God on High And on earth Peace good will toward man.
He died on 1 March 1633, but is commemorated two days earlier, to avoid conflict with other commemorations.
by James Kiefer
Note: George Herbert’s poetry is available in several editions, among them volumes in the Penguin Classics (The Complete English Poems), Everyman’s Classics, and Everyman’s Library (The Complete English Works – also includes Izaak Walton’s biography). A very well-regarded biography, Music at Midnight, has also been recently published. Several of his poems are also available online. Clicking on one of these links will take you to Amazon.com where you may buy the book(s) if you wish.