The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once likened certain poets and poetry to fresh produce in a market stall — delightful, beautiful stuff that you enjoy looking at before moving on to the next display. Some poets and poetry, on the other hand, are like plants that grow inside you. “It’s not so much a case of inspecting the produce as of feeling a life coming into you and through you” (Stepping Stones, 50).
For many readers, George Herbert has been that second, transformative kind of poet: one who alters your perspective on the world and whose work remains inside you for a long time. The anguished William Cowper found solace in Herbert’s poems. C.S. Lewis included The Temple among the ten books that most influenced him. The philosopher Simone Weil said that during a recitation of Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” Christ himself came down and took possession of her. Other Herbert admirers include Richard Baxter, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot.
Though Herbert wrote almost exclusively religious poems, his appeal extends well beyond the faithful. T.S. Eliot argued that Herbert’s poetry is valuable for those with no religious belief. And several years ago, when asked to choose a poem he wanted to discuss on a podcast, the British actor and self-professed lapsed Catholic Andrew Scott chose a Herbert poem.
Orator, Pastor, Poet
Who was George Herbert, and what did he write? He was born in 1593 into a wealthy aristocratic family. Throughout the early part of his life, he achieved significant academic and professional success, distinguishing himself as a scholar, becoming a fellow at the University of Cambridge, and finally being elected to the prestigious post of Orator of the University in 1620. Then, in the years following, his life took some unexpected turns. The court career it seemed he might enjoy didn’t materialize. Following some years of uncertain vocational direction, living with wealthy relatives and friends, he became an Anglican vicar in the village of Bemerton, near Salisbury. After serving there in relative obscurity for three years, he died of sickness in 1633, shortly before his fortieth birthday.
In his own day, Herbert was respected for his polished Latin orations. His only prose work, The Country Parson, a short manual for rural pastors, was published posthumously, became widely influential for hundreds of years, and is well worth reading today. But neither the orations, nor The Country Parson, nor his collection of proverbs (more than one thousand of them), nor his Latin poems account for his major impact on contemporary readers. That influence rests on a slender volume of about 160 English poems (depending on how you count them), unpublished at the time of his death. On his deathbed, he sent the poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar with instructions to either burn them or print them (as Ferrar saw fit). Ferrar read them, was deeply moved, and published the volume almost immediately, titling it The Temple. It was an instant success.
Why The Temple Endures
The Temple has three sections. The first, “The Church-porch,” consists of 77 stanzas of rather didactic, moralizing verse. It’s sometimes ingenious, amusing, and helpfully memorable, and it forms an approach to what follows in the center section, but it isn’t the main attraction. Neither is the final section, “The Church Militant,” a longish poem that deals with the history of the church and a vision of future judgment upon it. It’s the center section, “The Church,” that accounts for Herbert’s massive and enduring influence. It’s these poems that endear him to readers (Christian and non-Christian alike) and account for his reputation as arguably the greatest religious poet ever. Here are five reasons why.
1. Herbert speaks directly to God.
Augustine was Herbert’s favorite theologian (he owned Augustine’s works, bequeathing them to his curate at his death). Herbert’s biographer John Drury suggests that the autobiographical nature of Augustine’s Confessions helped to inspire Herbert’s own autobiographical poetry. Also like the Confessions, many of Herbert’s poems are directly addressed to God. This gives an attractive earnestness and urgency to the poems. They’re fresh, lively, and endlessly interesting. And they’re never trifling or silly, because they’re prayers. Richard Baxter said that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God. . . . Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books”The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). Many readers have agreed.
2. Herbert is deeply honest.
Contrary to mistaken notions of Herbert as a pious poet who wrote safe, sentimental verse, his poems are deeply honest and even raw. “The Collar” shows his Jonah-like rebellion. “Denial” begins, “When my devotions could not pierce / Thy silent ears; / Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: / My breast was full of fears / And disorder.”
According to his early biographer Izaak Walton, Herbert described the poems that form The Temple as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have past betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master” George Herbert: The Complete English Works, 380). He writes out of weakness, spiritual struggle, physical illness, and disappointment. This vulnerability allows readers to engage deeply with him.
3. Herbert is accessible and clear.
The poems are not simplistic or shallow. But Herbert often uses everyday images (a window, a flower, a storm, a pulley, a wreath) and simple words. One Herbert scholar refers to his “aesthetic of plainness” and another to the “extraordinary clarity” of his poems. This clarity allows ordinary readers to read and ponder fruitfully, discovering new depths rather than feeling frustratedly confused.
4. Herbert is a master craftsman.
Herbert is endlessly inventive, producing shape poems (which have the physical shape of their subject, as in “The Altar” and “Easter Wings”), a poem that hides a Bible verse within it (“Colossians 3:3”), as well as prayers, allegories, sonnets, and hymns. Within the many poems of “The Church,” the same stanza form is hardly repeated. This freshness of form is combined with a startling aptness and beauty of word and phrase. To offer just a few examples of Herbert’s evocative and memorable language:
- “All day long my heart was in my knee.”
- “The hand, which as it riseth, raiseth thee”
- “Praise thee brimful”
- “My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing”
- “Such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise”
- “Thy full-eyed love”
- “Thou shalt look us out of pain.”
These words and phrases inspire, intrigue, and ignite on the tongue and in the heart.
5. Herbert believes in a big God.
Herbert was captivated by the greatness of God. Helen Wilcox writes, “The subject of every single poem in The Temple is, in one way or another, God” (The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). More than that, it’s clear that Herbert saw the poems themselves as gifts for and from God. In his dedicatory poem, he writes, “Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee; / Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came, / And must return.”
Herbert’s God was sovereign. Gene Edward Veith has shown that Herbert was a Calvinist whose theology and poetry were radically God-centered. He celebrated God’s power and presence as deeply good news. Here’s one stanza from the poem “Providence”:
We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendent, and divine;
Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,
While all things have their will, yet none but thine.
“God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news.”
Notice that God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news. Importantly, Herbert’s embrace of the doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling don’t undermine the universal nature of his appeal. Rather, as Veith argues, Herbert’s poems, rooted in the Reformation tradition, convey “from the inside” the positive vision of a sovereign God and thus connect with readers of all sorts.
Engaging with The Temple
How can new readers of Herbert engage with The Temple? Here are three suggestions.
First, find the poems you enjoy, whether for their content, form, language, or any other reason. Linger with them. T.S. Eliot said, “With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end. We must enjoy the poetry before we attempt to penetrate the poet’s mind; we must enjoy it before we understand it, if the attempt to understand it is to be worth the trouble” (George Herbert, 28–29). Read enough Herbert to find some poems you love.
Second, read those poems within their immediate context and the larger context of The Temple. The order of Herbert’s poems matters. It’s significant, for instance, that “Grief” and “The Crosse,” both of which deal with Herbert’s sufferings and struggles, come just before “The Flower,” which speaks of God’s goodness in bringing him through “many deaths” to “once more smell the dew and rain.” The Temple includes clusters of related poems — for instance, one sequence includes poems on various parts of a church building (“Church-lock and key,” “The Church-floore,” “The Windows”). Reading individual poems within their context shows new resonances and sheds fresh light.
“Herbert loved the Bible, and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture.”
In addition, read the poems within the context of Herbert’s larger corpus (there are significant connections between The Temple and The Country Parson), within the context of his life (John Drury’s biography Music at Midnight is especially helpful here), and within the context of the Holy Scriptures. Herbert loved the Bible (“O Book! Infinite sweetness!”), and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture. Reading the poems within these broader contexts is fruitful.
Third, allow Herbert to deepen your understanding of God and yourself. His earnestness, insight, passion, honesty, and godliness will challenge and inspire you. The freshness and beauty of his language will lodge within your mind and heart. His poems will change the way you think and feel. Allow them, in the words of Seamus Heaney, to grow inside you.
Credit: Stephen Witmer