The Anglican pastor and poet George Herbert died of tuberculosis on March 1, 1633, just one month shy of his fortieth birthday. Like his famous contemporary and friend John Donne and his nineteenth-century American echo Emily Dickinson, Herbert did not publish his poems during his lifetime. From his deathbed he entrusted them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, granting him permission to either destroy or preserve them. The poems, he said, contained “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul.” Later that year they were published in Cambridge as The Temple, and they have never been out of print since then.
Izaak Walton’s hagiographical account of Herbert’s life, published in 1670, helped to shape the iconic image of him as “the poet of a placid and comfortable easy piety” (T. S. Eliot)—not to say the quintessential Anglican perched midway between the rigors of Geneva and the extravagance of Rome. This image of Herbert and his place in the history of English spirituality prevailed in a 1907 collection of his poems which the editor introduced in this way:
Here, as the cattle wind homeward in the evening light, the benign, white-haired parson stands at his gate to greet the cowherd, and the village chimes call the laborers to evensong. For these contented spirits, happily removed from the stress and din of contending creeds and clashing dogmas, the message of the Gospel tells of divine approval for work well done…and among these typical spirits, beacons of a quiet hope, no figure stands out more brightly or more memorably than that of George Herbert.
As Eliot notes, this is a false picture both of Herbert and his poetry, and also of the church in which he served in the troubled days of early Stuart England.
George Herbert stands at the confluence of Renaissance poetry and Reformation theology. There is much in his work that celebrates the goodness of God, the wonder of creation, and the comfort given to believing Christians in the liturgy and life of the church. But he also stood amazed at the all-powerful majesty of God. He could speak of the wrath of God. Today we sing Herbert’s words in the beautiful hymn, “Let all the world and every corner sing, my God and King!” Yet Herbert could also write “God hath made the stars the foil to set off virtues/griefs to set off sinning/yet in this wretched world we toil/as if grief were not foul, nor virtue winning.” After all, Herbert did write five poems titled “Affliction.”
One cannot simply call Herbert a Calvinist tout court. But as Rowan Williams has observed, in one respect he does push the spiritual theology of Calvinism to its full Augustinian extent: “Faith is the glorifying of God as God, not the glorifying of God as provider of attractive spiritual experience; salvation rests not on how we feel or what we understand but only on the radical willingness to go on standing in the presence of God’s judgment and mercy.” Amidst all the anxieties of the troubled conscience, one posture alone remains possible: “Only my soul hangs on thy promises—with face and hands clinging unto thy breast—clinging and crying, crying without cease/thou art my rock, thou art my rest.” (This is from his remarkable poem “Perseverance,” which remained unpublished until the nineteenth century.) Such a prayer has no truck with the easy-going piety of “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”; it is an antidote to every form of rustic Pelagianism, whether in Herbert’s rural England or in postmodern urban America.
George Herbert’s life was framed by the season of Lent. He was born in Elizabethan Wales during Lent 1593. His marriage to the clever, good-looking Jane Danvers (a bona roba, she was called) took place during the Lent of 1629. Four years later he died on a Friday during the week before Lent began, amidst the weeping of Jane and the three nieces who lived with them in the parsonage at Bemerton. Only one of his poems is titled “Lent,” and it is more pedantic than most of his work. In it he extols “sweet abstinence” and reminds his flock: “The Scriptures bid us fast; the church says now.” But his poetry is replete with the Lenten themes of sin, repentance, humility, submission, discipline, denial, along with confession, gratitude, and his frequent recourse to sighs and groans: “I sent a sigh to seek thee out/deep drawn in pain.”
What caused Herbert’s pain? His poems were not dated, and it is difficult to know how they fit into his biography. The trajectory of his life is clear enough: a polished, well-educated young man of great ability who is made a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in his early twenties and soon thereafter becomes Orator of the University. As such, he drew the favorable attention of King James and seemed a shoo-in for a plumb appointment at the court. But the king died in 1625, the political winds shifted, Herbert’s own health deteriorated, and his hopes for preferment vanished. Amidst such loss and out of the limelight, after a few years Herbert finds himself the pastor of a small church in rural Wiltshire. Authentic prayer is born in pain. Herbert speaks from experience when he observes “a throbbing conscience spurred by remorse hath a strange force/it quits the earth, and mounting more and more/dares to assault, and besiege thy door.” Herbert found himself, he said, “tortured in the space betwixt this world and that of grace.”
The Puritan Richard Baxter, a great admirer of Herbert, once described him as “a man who speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God.” Baxter sensed what many other readers have discovered in Herbert—the sheer authenticity of the man. In his famous “Prayer (I),” he gives us an entire sonnet without the use of a single verb. It is an astounding array of incompatible metaphors—not similes, for that would allow too much distancing and side-stepping—just twenty-seven powerful metaphors. Prayer is many things, he says: the church’s banquet, heart in pilgrimage, reversed thunder, exalted manna, heaven in ordinary, the bird of paradise, the land of spices, something understood. And, yes, prayer is also “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss”—but among Herbert’s mighty metaphors for prayer is this one: “engine against th’ Almighty.” The God to whom we pray is the God with whom we have to do, the God with whom, like Jacob beside Jabbok, we sometimes have to wrestle all the night through.
Because he was so honest about his own struggles and self-doubt, Herbert, perhaps more than any other poet his age, appeals with special force to those of little faith or of no faith at all. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes wrote a recent piece for The Guardian presenting Herbert as “the man who converted me from atheism.” Simone Weil had a similar experience in 1938. Displaced, afflicted, and dissatisfied by the emptiness of science and philosophy minus God, she spent Holy Week at the Benedictine monastery in Solesmes. Sitting alone in the dark chapel, she read aloud Herbert’s “Love (III).” In that moment, she said, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
This poem Weil read has been called “one of the most beautiful lyrics in the English language” (Chana Bloch). Its opening words about “dust and sin” recall Ash Wednesday; its closing words anticipate communion on Easter Sunday, which itself is an anticipation of the messianic banquet to come. In between is the narrative of redemption coming to crescendo in the allusion to Jesus’s atoning death on the cross (“who bore the blame?”)—what the Book of Common Prayer calls his “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice.” Appropriately, this poem about Love—welcoming, quick-eyed, embracing love—comes at the very end of The Temple, after all the other poems. There is no cheap grace in George Herbert, but there is genuine overcoming grace on the other side of surrender and loss.
by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.” “You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.