Trinity College Cambridge … George Herbert, the author of the poem ‘Christmas,’ was a student here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
My choice of a Christmas poem this morning is Christmas, by George Herbert (1593-1633), which comes from his collection, The Temple, which was edited and published by Nicholas Ferrar after Herbert’s death.
George Herbert is remembered for carefully and pastorally nurturing of his parish and his parishioners, and for his poetry, much of which has been adapted as hymns. His spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence, which his poetry provides constant evidence of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ.
George Herbert was born in Wales but is generally regarded as an English poet. His mother was a patron and friend of John Donne and other poets, while his older brother, Edward Herbert (later Lord Herbert of Cherbury), was an important poet and philosopher. From Westminster School, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA and MA and was elected a fellow. In 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric in Cambridge and in 1620 he was elected to Cambridge University orator, a position until 1628.
As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert intended becoming a priest, but he came the attention of King James I, and served at the royal court and for two years in Parliament as the MP for Montgomery in Wales.
Herbert gave up his secular ambitions in 1630, at the age of 37, and was ordained in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the Rector of Fugglestone Saint Peter with Bemerton Saint Andrew, a rural parish in Wiltshire, near Salisbury.
George Herbert was known for his unfailing pastoral care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan described him as “a most glorious saint and seer.”
Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems that were characterised by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets.
In a letter to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, Herbert described his writings as “a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master.”
In 1633, shortly before his death, Herbert finished The Temple, a collection of poems that imitates the architectural style of churches through the meaning of words and their visual layout.
Some of his poems survive as hymns, including as “King of Glory, King of Peace” (Irish Church Hymnal, No 358), “Let all the world in every corner sing” (Irish Church Hymnall, No 360), and “Teach me, my God and King” (Irish Church Hymnal, No 601).
Herbert died of tuberculosis only three years after his ordination. On his deathbed, he gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding – the community that later inspired TS Eliot – telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but otherwise to burn them.
George Herbert … his poems were collected and published in ‘The Temple’ after his death, and many continue to be used as hymns
Herbert’s poems were published subsequently in The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations, edited by Nicholas Ferrar. These poems are religious, some continue to be used as hymns, and many have intricate rhyme schemes, with variations of lines within stanzas described as “a cascade of form floats through the temple.”
Herbert also wrote A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson), offering practical pastoral advice to priests. He tells them, for example, that “things of ordinary use,” such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to “serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”
Richard Baxter later said: “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”
Although George Herbert died on 1 March 1633, he is remembered in Church calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on 27 February. Herbert influenced the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, and he in turn influenced William Wordsworth. Herbert’s poetry has been set to music by several composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Randall Thompson and William Walton.
In 1954, Vaughan Williams composed a cantata, Hodie, also called “On This Day,” using texts from the Gospels, Milton, Hardy, and “Christmas” by George Herbert, among others. Williams uses the second part of this poem, “The Shepherds sing . . .” for the fourth movement of the cantata.
George Herbert ... the poem Christmas is included in his collection, ‘The Temple’
All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inne I could finde,
There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging then a rack or grave.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.
Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my musick shine.
Tomorrow: ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ by John Milton
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin