05 March 2016

Anglican spirituality and poetry:
(4): George Herbert (1593-1633)

“George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton” (William Dyce, 1860)

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group, we are looking at poets who have had an interesting influence on Anglican piety, prayer, theology and self-understanding. In November, we looked at TS Eliot, in December we looked at John Betjeman, and in January we looked at the poet John Milton (1608-1674), who once considered ordination as an Anglican priest and later became a leading Puritan.

As we journey through Lent towards Easter, it seems appropriate this morning to look at George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. The poet Henry Vaughan described him as “a most glorious saint and seer,” while the Puritan Richard Baxter was moved to say: “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.”

George Herbert was a skilled priest, poet and teacher, and an accomplished musician, who in his poems brings together poetry, music and architecture. His spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence. His poetry is constantly evident 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.

Herbert stands alongside John Jewel, Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes for his profound influence on the Caroline Divines, including John Cosin and Jeremy Taylor, and he is ranked with John Donne as one of the great metaphysical poets.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Herbert’s diction that “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected.” The poet laureate WH Auden wrote of him: “His poetry is the counterpart of Jeremy Taylor’s prose: together they are the finest expressions of Anglican piety at its best.”

Herbert’s life

George Herbert was born on 3 April 1593 in Montgomery Castle, Wales, the seventh of 10 children in an eminent, intellectual artistic and wealthy Welsh landed family. When the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, it was dedicated to Herbert’s kinsmen, “the most noble and incomparable pair of brethren,” William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery.

George Herbert’s mother Magdalene (nee Newport) was a patron and friend of many poets, including John Donne, who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her. His older brother, Edward Herbert, later Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was an important poet and philosopher, often referred to as “the father of English deism.”

Herbert’s father, Richard Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, died in 1596, when George was three, leaving a widow and 10 children. The poet’s mother was determined to educate and raise her children as loyal Anglicans. The family moved first to Oxford in 1599 and then to London in 1601, and George Herbert was tutored at home before entering Westminster School in 1604 at the age of 10.

The Dean’s Yard at Westminster Abbey ... as Dean, Lancelot Andrewes, took a particular interest in the school and was one of George Herbert’s teachers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In his first year at Westminster School, he came under the tutelage of Lancelot Andrewes, then the Dean of Westminster Abbey. As early as 1604, he penned Musae Responsoriae, later published in 1620, a collection of lightly satirical verses directed at the Presbyterian controversialist Andrew Melville.

In 1606, Herbert’s widowed mother, Magdalene, married Sir John Danvers, who was then only 20 but proved to be a benign and generous stepfather.

Trinity Lane, Cambridge, in the snow, with the walls of Trinity College on the right ... George Herbert was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On 5 May 1609, Herbert was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music, and there he first considered becoming a priest. There too he began to write devotional poetry and his first two sonnets, sent to his mother in 1610, maintained that the love of God is a worthier subject for verse than the love of a woman. His first verses, published, in 1612, were two memorial poems in Latin on the death of the heir apparent, Prince Henry.

Trinity College Cambridge … George Herbert was elected a major fellow in 1618 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Herbert graduated first with the degree BA (Bachelor of Arts) in 1613. He became a minor Fellow of Trinity College in 1614 before proceeding MA (Master of Arts) 400 years ago in 1616, the year William Shakespeare died. He was elected a major fellow of Trinity in 1618, and was appointed Praelector or Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge.

In 1619, he was elected the Public Orator of Cambridge University. In this post, Herbert represented Cambridge at public occasions, writing and addressing formal official speeches in Latin to king and court and to visiting dignitaries and ambassadors. He described the post as “the finest place in the university,” and he continued to hold that post until 1628.

He spent some time away from Cambridge when he was MP for Montgomery in King James I’s last parliament in 1623-1624. A fellow MP at the time was Nicholas Ferrar, who was a contemporary of Herbert’s at Cambridge as an undergraduate at Clare Hall. However, a potentially promising parliamentary career was short and Herbert was ordained deacon in 1625 or 1626. By this time, John Donne was a close family friend.

In 1626, while still a deacon, Herbert was appointed Prebendary of Leighton or a canon in Lincoln Cathedral and became Rector of Leighton Bromswold, a small village in Huntingdonshire (now in Cambridgeshire) and 25 miles north-west of Cambridge. Two miles from Little Bromswold is Little Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar established his small Anglican religious community in 1626.

Herbert was not present at his installation or institution, and may never have lived in Leighton Bromswold, appointing two vicars to take charge of the parish. However, with the help of Nicholas Ferrar, he raised funds to refurbish Saint Mary’s Church, which had not been in use for 20 years. Ever since, Saint Mary’s has two pulpits dating from 1626, reflecting Herbert’s emphasis that a parson should both pray and preach.

Herbert’s mother died in 1627, and John Donne preached at her funeral in Chelsea. Herbert resigned as university orator in 1627, and later he moved to Wiltshire. On 5 March 1629, he married Jane Danvers, a cousin of his step-father.

He became Rector of Fugglestone with Bemerton on 26 April 1630, and nine months later, on 19 September, he was ordained priest in Salisbury Cathedral. He spent the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone Saint Peter with Bemerton Saint Andrew, a Wiltshire rural parish near Salisbury and about 75 miles south-west of London.

In Bemerton, he preached and wrote poetry and helped to rebuild the church, drawing on his own funds. He was known too for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for needy parishioners.

In those three years, he came to be known as “Holy Mr Herbert” around the countryside. His practical manual offering practical pastoral advice to country clergy, A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) (1652), exhibits the intelligent devotion he showed to his parishioners. 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.”

On his deathbed, he sent the manuscript of The Temple to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, who had founded the semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding – a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by TS Eliot. In his letter, Herbert said of his writings: “They are a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master.” He asked Ferrar to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but otherwise he should burn them.

Suffering from poor health, Herbert died of tuberculosis on 1 March 1633 at the age of 40, less than three years after being ordained priest. An inscription found in the Rectory at Bemerton after his death reads:

To My Successor:

If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy cost;
Be good to the Poor
As God gives thee store,
And then my Labour’s not lost.

Another version reads:

If thou dost find
An house built to thy mind,
Without thy cost;
Serve thou the more
God and the poor;
My labour is not lost.

His first biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his deathbed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.”

The Temple was edited by Nicholas Ferrar and was published in Cambridge later that year as The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations. It met with such popular acclaim that it had been reprinted 20 times by 1680, and went through eight editions by 1690.

Izaak Walton’s The Life of Mr George Herbert (1670) traces his spiritual development and his career, dividing his life into two opposing halves: the first half full of worldly success – his brilliant mind, fine education, exalted social circle, and court ambitions – and the second half showing him turn away from the world to serve God, love the poor, and lead a life of “almost incredible” virtue.

Herbert’s reputation as a firm rejecter of the vanities of the world – “like a saint, unspotted of the world” – is supported by his own self-identification as a “country parson.” The term “country” at the time was often used in direct opposition to the court as well as to the city, so that the idea of a country “parson” or pastor implies someone in retreat, exile, or isolation from court and city life.

Herbert implicitly contrasts the ideal parson with the intellectual, with the poet, and with the courtier, preferring the parson’s emotional “patience, temperance ... and orderliness” to the poet’s clamours of the soul.

Critical interest in Herbert’s poetry struggles in a debate about whether his voice is that of the philosopher or the country pastor. When he is thought of as a parson, his poems may seem simple; when he is considered as a metaphysical philosopher, his poems may seem academic and complex. Herbert is as much an ecclesiastical poet as a religious poet, yet all sorts of readers have responded to his quiet intensity, and for many readers in recent decades, he has displaced John Donne as the supreme metaphysical poet.

Lent by George Herbert

‘That ev’ry man may revel at his door’ (George Herbert, ‘Lent’) … the Classical Gate in the Jesus Lane wall of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Staying in Sidney Sussex College over many years has brought the privilege of being within strolling distance of most if not all of the major churches, chapels and colleges in Cambridge.

The Classical Gate in Sidney Sussex College was originally erected in Hall Court to replace the first main gate. During Wyattville’s alterations in 1832, the gate was moved to the north-east corner of the gardens, where it remains an eye-catching feature. But the gate must be closed permanently, for I have never seen it open into Jesus Lane, which forms the northern boundary of the grounds of Sidney Sussex.

On the same side as the Classical Gate is All Saints’ Church. The ‘Saintly Cambridge Anglicans’ window, installed in the church in 1923 by Kempe & Co, has three panels of stained-glass designed by John Lisle honouring three Cambridge saints: the priest poet George Herbert (1593-1633); Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901); and the missionary Henry Martyn (1781-1812). Herbert and Westcott were fellows of Trinity College Cambridge, while Martyn was a Fellow of Saint John’s College, which explains why the coat-of-arms of each college is also depicted in the window.

Below the panel depicting George Herbert is an image of Saint Andrew’s Church, Bemerton, and the words: “Here George Herbert ministered and beneath the Altar of Bemerton Church was buried A.D. 1632.” Of course, Herbert never ministered in All Saints’ Church, and he died in 1633, not in 1632. But as I pass by the Classical Gate in at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I am reminded of George Herbert’s words in his poem ‘Lent’: ‘That ev’ry man may revel at his door …’


Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s forti’eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity;
Yet we are bid, ‘Be holy ev’n as he,’
In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Easter, by George Herbert

Herbert’s poem ‘Easter,’ first published in The Temple shortly after his death, is a highly complex connotative poem that is often difficult to grasp.

This poem, in two parts, is an example of how Herbert’s poems sometimes take a double-poem organisation with two separate stanza forms – a structure he uses too in a companion poem, ‘Good Friday.’

‘Easter’ was originally written by Herbert as two separate poems, but the call in the first verse, ‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen,’ and the musical images of verses two and three, find their fullest expression in the song of praise in the final three verses.

In this poem, Herbert addresses his heart as he prepares for Easter. Reflecting on the Resurrection, he is moved in the first part of the poem to compose a song (lines 1-18), and he then shares this song in the second part of the poem (lines 19-30). There is good reason to believe that Herbert intended the second, less formal part of this poem to be sung to the accompaniment of a lute.


Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Easter Wings by George Herbert

‘Easter Wings’ by George Herbert is a pattern poem in which the work is not only meant to be read, but its shape is meant to be appreciated by the reader. In this case, when the poem was first published in 1633, it was printed on two pages of a book, sideways, so that the lines suggest two birds flying upwards, with their wings spread out.

Herbert is using a form of poetry called carmen figuration, manipulating the overall shape of the poem to mimic its subject. In this way, he shapes both stanzas to look like wings when the poem is turned sideways, representing the ultimate flight of humanity when Christ claim his followers.

This style of writing poems with shapes that mirror their theme was adopted from the ancient Greeks and was popular when Herbert was writing in the early 17th century, with many poets adopting similar styles and forms of writing.

The shape of the poem represents a dying or falling, then rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problems caused by human sin, while the bottom half reflects the hope made possible by Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. The wings may evoke also the angels present at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning (John 20: 12).

But Herbert also adopts other styles in this poem about the fall of humanity and the Resurrection of Christ. He uses capitalisation at the beginning of each line and punctuation at the end of most lines in ‘Easter Wings,’ so that each line stands on its own with a capital letter at the beginning. This method of form, together with hard punctuation, gives each line more stress. In this way, Herbert gains the reader’s attention and invites us to consider the importance of each single line.

Easter Wings

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Concluding Prayer:

George Herbert died on 1 March 1633, but is commemorated in the Church of England in the Calendar in Common Worship on 27 February [last Saturday, 27 February 2016].

The Collect in Common Worship prays:

King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Reading and Select Bibliography:

Justin Lewis-Anthony, ‘If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him’: Radically re-thinking priestly ministry (London: Mowbray, 2009).
Elizabeth Clarke, Theory and Theology in George Herbert’s Poetry: ‘Divinitie, and Poesie, Met’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London: Allen Lane, 2013).
Jo Shapcott (ed), George Gerbert, Poems selected by Jo Shapcott (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), with an introduction by WH Auden.
Philip Sheldrake, Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and his writings (Canterbury Press, 2009).
Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert and Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
John Tobin (ed), George Herbert, the Complete English Poems (London: Penguin, 1991, 2004).
Helen Wilcox (ed), The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Rowan Williams, Christian Imagination in Poetry and Polity, some Anglican voices from Temple to Herbert (Oxford: SLG Press, 2005).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 5 March 2016

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