Over at The Guardian, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has been writing a series on the poetry of George Herbert. And while her interpretation of specific poems is itself insightful, it’s her introduction to the series that caught my attention. For Threlfall-Holmes, Herbert’s poetry isn’t just interesting; it actually changed her life. That’s not hyperbole either, for it’s to Hebert that Threlfall-Holmes attributes her conversion to Christianity.
“I blame George Herbert for me becoming a Christian,” her article begins. “I first encountered Herbert’s poems at the very beginning of the lower sixth, when they were a set text for my A-level English class. . . . By the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.”
Threlfall-Holmes goes on to explain why Herbert’s poetry had such an impact on her. “My teenage self was rather proud of being a ‘cultured despiser of religion’” she explains. “I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable.” But the sophistication of Herbert’s poetry made her pause. “Here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read,” she writes, “grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”
Now, this realization didn’t prompt an immediate conversion. “But I can date the story of my conversion back to that classroom,” Threlfall-Holmes explains, “where I first grasped something of the beauty, the mystery, the attraction and the struggle of faith.”
Threlfall-Holmes’ story reminds me of a similar experience I myself had with another of England’s metaphysical poets: John Donne. I was a university student at the time, taking an upper-level course on Donne. But while Threlfall-Holmes encountered Herbert as an atheist, I encountered Donne as a Christian. In his writingespecially in the Holy SonnetsI found a kindred spirit, a comforter who knew the same vacillation between despair and joy which I had myself found in the Christian faith. This was a man who knew both the cross and resurrection.
But while I saw Donne’s applicability to my own situation, and took frequent comfort in his words, I confess I wondered what my other classmates must think of him. To be sure, one need not be a Christian to appreciate Donne. He wrote plenty of non-religious poetry after all. And even in his religious poetry, the non-religious can take pleasure in Donne’s creative genius. But did my classmates care about the subject of such poetry? I doubted it.
My concern only grew as we moved from Donne’s poetry to his prose. Now, I thought, interest in Donne would wane. I recall in particular one class for which our assigned reading was Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. In this work, written when he was seriously ill, Donne reflects on death and dying well. It is to this work that we owe phrases like “No man is an island” and “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The book was interesting, to be sure, but I wondered what my classmates would make of it. This was not poetry, even if it was poetic. Would they even consider it literature? I confess that as I went to class that day, I did not expect much. I had convinced myself that discussion of the book would be, at best, limited.
I was shocked to discover the opposite. My classmates were engagedextremely engagedby this centuries-old reflection on sickness and death. And this wasn’t merely academic reflection on the book; students were sharing their own griefs and fears about death. This was personal confrontation with Donne’s subject, deeply felt. As discussion continued, a question was even posed to an avowed atheist in the class: “How, without faith do you reconcile yourself to the idea of death?” How, in other words, do you live without hope for something more?
The student drew herself up, ready to make a defense. But then, she seemed to deflate. She noted that in her own life, at a time of great trial, it was in the writing of another dead Christian that she had found comfort. “And I don’t know why,” she concluded. In this answer there were hints of brokennessa recognition that Donne seemed to know something beyond her own experience.
No doubt, some of my class’ engagement with Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is attributable to our professor. She was (and remains) a gifted Donne scholar, and her enthusiasm for her subject inspired ours. But it was not her enthusiasm alone which spurred discussion that day. Instead, my classmates found in Donne a deeply intellectual and moving encounter with deathpotent words which pressed them to examine their own beliefs.
I was reminded that day of the value of studying literature. It is not merely that we gain pleasure or delight from reading, though we gain that too. Rather, we read to engage in conversationto allow voices from the past to share their wisdom with us. The ideas with which these writers have wrestled, and their insights in these subjects, still matter. They have power, God working through them, to change lives even today.
John Donne and George Herbert’s deaths may have occurred nearly 400 years ago, but through their writing God continues to use them. And this, indeed, was Herbert’s own prayer: that God would use him (and his poetry) to change the lives of others. In “Obedience,” Herbert offers himself to God, asking that God’s will would work through him in all thingsincluding his poetry: “Let me not think an action mine own way / But as thy love shall sway / Resigning up the rudder to thy skill,” he writes.
This desire to be owned and directed by God extends, of course, to the poem in question. Though it is but a “poore paper,” in Herbert’s own assessment, he nevertheless hopes that God might work through it to transform its readers. “How happie were my part,” he writes, “If some kinde man would thrust his heart / Into these lines.” Herbert wants them to make the words their own, and to likewise offer their lives and wills to Godrecognizing that he has already purchased them by his “death and bloud.” In this way, Herbert writes, this simple poem might see both Herbert’s own name and his readers’ names entered together into “heavn’s courts of rolls.”
Threlfall-Holmes’ article in the Guardian suggests that Herbert’s poetry continues to do just that: introduce others to faith. And such writing serves not only as an introduction; it further offers life-long encouragement and comfort to the faithful. The lesson we learn from Herbert and Donne and countless others then is that the voices of the dead are not silent. No, they are powerful and effective even now.
May God continue so to use dead poets.
Thanks to Gene Veith’s blog Cranach for bringing Threlfall-Holmes’ article to my attention.