‘George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton’ (William Dyce, 1860)
Quiet often in my daily prayer I use the calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England. It is much richer than the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland, with many more reminders from throughout the Anglican Communion and the wider Churchof the Communion of Saints and the rich heritage handed down by those who have gone before us in the faith.
Today, the calendar in Common Worship commemorated the Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest, George Herbert (1593-1633). I was reminded too of George Herbert and his poem ‘Lent’ as I searched for some appropriate material for Lent, which begins a week from today on Ash Wednesday [6 March 2019].
The Lichfield-born philosopher and writer Samuel Johnson was a pious and prayerful Anglican, but he thought that prayer was too high and holy for poetry. Although Johnson knew of Herbert and Donne, he lived a century before poets like Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nor could anyone fail to appreciate the intimate connections between faith, prayer and poetry in the life-work of TS Eliot.
The poet Henry Vaughan described George Herbert as ‘a most glorious saint and seer.’ 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 priest, poet, teacher, and also an accomplished musician. In his poetry, he 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.
Although he is not included in Alister McGrath’s collection, The SPCK Handbook of Anglican Theologians (London: SPCK, 1998), Herbert, along with John Jewel, Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, had a 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.
Among other 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.’
Many of George Herbert’s poems have been adapted as hymns, including ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 5th ed, 2000, No 358), ‘Let All the World in Every Corner Sing’ (360), ‘Teach me, my God and King’ (601) and ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’ (610), and his poetry has been set to music by several composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Randall Thompson and William Walton.
The Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey … as Dean, Lancelot Andrewes was one of George Herbert’s teachers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
George Herbert was born on 3 April 1593 in Montgomery Castle in 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 John Donne, who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her, and of other poets. 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.
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 against the Presbyterian controversialist Andrew Melville.
In 1606, Herbert’s widowed mother, Magdalene, married Sir John Danvers, who was then only 20 but proved himself to be a benign and generous stepfather.
From Westminster School, Herbert went on to become one of three members of his family to win scholarships to Cambridge. On 5 May 1609, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music, and there he first considered becoming a priest. As his surviving letters reveal, Herbert’s time in Cambridge was marked by ill health and worries about money.
At Trinity, he began both 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 woman. His first verses to be published, in 1612, were two memorial poems in Latin on the death of Prince Henry, the heir apparent.
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) in 1616, the year of William Shakespeare’s death. He was elected a major fellow of Trinity in 1618, and was he 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. Although the texts of three of Herbert’s public orations still exist, such as that written for the presentation of honorary degrees to two European ambassadors at Cambridge in 1622, we cannot be sure whether the English translations are Herbert’s own.
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, his potentially promising parliamentary career was short.
James I had shown favour to Herbert, and he appeared to be facing a successful career at the royal court. However, circumstances worked against him. The king died in 1625, and two of Herbert’s influential patrons, the Duke of Richmond and the Marquess of Hamilton, died around the same time.
However, after the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert’s interest in ordained ministry was renewed. He had been ordained deacon in 1624, and in 1626, while he was still a deacon, he was appointed Prebendary of Leighton or a canon in Lincoln Cathedral and became Rector of Leighton Bromswold, a small village in Huntingdonshire.
Herbert was not even present at his institution as a prebend, and it appears he never resided in Leighton Bromswold, appointing two vicars to take charge of the parish. However, with the help of Nicholas Ferrar, he raised funds to refurbish the church, which had not been in use for 20 years. Ever since then, Saint Mary’s Church has two pulpits dating from 1626, attributed to Herbert’s emphasis that a parson should both pray and preach.
Herbert’s mother died in 1627, and John Donne, a close family friend, preached at her funeral in Chelsea. Herbert resigned as university orator in Cambridge in 1627, and later moved to Wiltshire. On 5 March 1629, he married Jane Danvers, a cousin of his step-father.
By then, Herbert had abandoned any lingering academic and political ambitions, and in 1630 he was ordained priest in the Church of England. In 1630, he was presented to the living of Fugglestone with Bemerton, and he was installed as rector on 26 April. On 19 September, he was ordained priest in Salisbury Cathedral, and he spent the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, a Wiltshire rural parish near Salisbury and about 75 miles south-west of London.
In Bemerton, Herbert 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 his friend 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.
He is commemorated on 27 February throughout the Anglican Communion, perhaps because Saint David was already commemorated on 1 March and Saint Chad of Lichfield on 2 March. There is a window honouring Herbert in Westminster Abbey and a statue of him in niche 188 on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral.
Izaak Walton … biographer of John Donne, Richard Hooker and George Herbert
Izaak Walton’s The Life of Mr George Herbert was published in 1670, 37 years after Herbert’s death. As a result of Walton’s friendship with and great admiration for Herbert, the biography is far from objective, but it was influential in shaping the image of Herbert as a model of Christian piety and a model priest.
Herbert’s reputation as a firm rejecter of the vanities of the world – ‘like a saint, unspotted of the world’ – is supported by Herbert’s 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 priest 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.
As a result, Herbert is often placed firmly and irrevocably on one side of the many great and enduring religious, moral and aesthetic debates – between Catholicism and Puritantism, court and country, feigning and integrity, ornament and plainness, difficulty and simplicity, and so on – which characterise the social and literary cultures of the Renaissance period.
Critical interest in Herbert’s poetry struggles in a debate about whether his voice is that of the philosopher or the country pastor. When Herbert is thought of as a parson, his poems may seem simple; when he is considered as a metaphysical, his poems may seem academic and complex.
George Herbert at prayer … a window in Salisbury Cathedral
Herbert was close to Nicholas Ferrar and the Community of Little Gidding, which showed that prayer, community life, and a life of discipleship and service ought to be inter-woven.
For Herbert, prayer is concerned not only with things heavenly, but also with the earthly. In his poem ‘Prayer,’ he writes:
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
In this poem, Herbert is saying that in prayer it is possible to be transported, even if momentarily, to another realm. The phrases ‘Angel’s age,’ ‘the milky way,’ and a ‘tune … beyond the stars’ suggest that prayer touches the infinite. The poem concludes with ‘something understood’ – a profound but elusive encounter with the mysterious otherness of God.
Herbert’s Jacula Prudentium (sometimes seen as Jacula Prudentum), is a collection of pithy proverbs published in 1651, included many sayings still repeated today, such as: ‘His bark is worse than his bite.’ His Outlandish Proverbs was published in 1640.
Herbert’s pithy proverbs include:
His bark is worse than his bite.
God’s mill grinds slow, but sure.
No sooner is a temple built to God, but the Devil builds a chapel hard by.
The offender never pardons.
It is a poor sport that is not worth the candle.
Help thyself, and God will help thee.
Words are women, deeds are men.
The mouse that hath but one hole is quickly taken.
A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees farther of the two.
George Herbert … Prayer, the Church’s banquet
As an accomplished player of the lute, Herbert was a fan of the works of John Dowland (1563-1626). According to the historian of the Diocese of Ferns, WH Grattan-Flood, Dowland was born in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Dowland’s ‘The Most Sacred Queen Elizabeth, Her Galliard’ (1610) – from Varietie of Lute Lessons, prepared by his son Robert Dowland – perfectly matches the meter and rhyming scheme of Herbert’s ‘Easter’ and may have been intended as the music to which it would be sung.
Before his death in 1633, Herbert finished a collection of poems, The Temple, which imitates the architectural style of churches through both the meaning of the words and their visual layout. The themes of God and love are treated by Herbert as much as psychological forces as metaphysical phenomena.
An example of Herbert’s religious poetry is The Altar. A ‘pattern poem’ in which the words of the poem itself form a shape suggesting an altar.
‘My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart / With scattered smart …’ George Herbert’s consoling words in ‘Affliction’ recall a night of nightmares and prayers that turned to a beautiful day at High Leigh in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
George Herbert wrote five ‘Affliction’ poems. This is the fourth ‘Affliction’ poem and sometimes headed ‘Temptation.’ This is a poem of spiritual conflict and healing.
In the privacy of our own hearts and minds, on the most intimate level, we all deal with affliction, pain, criticism, loneliness, regret and fear.
This poem reminds me of a restless and sleepless night some years ago while I was at a USPG conference in High Leigh, near Hoddesdon, in Hertfordshire. I had been travelling since early morning, and had a busy working morning in Cambridge, before going on the conference that afternoon. Late at night, I realised I had forgotten to take my medication, prescribed for my sarcoidosis, with breakfast that morning. Anyone who has been prescribed steroids knows the dangers of taking them too late and night, and the fears and dreams that can come to the fore in our dreams.
I woke constantly, and was disturbed continually. But I was comforted throughout that night by the truth of the words of Compline we had prayed collectively that night before I went to bed:
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray
That you, with steadfast love, would keep
Your watch around us while we sleep.
From evil dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Tread underfoot our deadly foe,
That we no sinful thought may know.
O Father, that we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, your only Son;
And Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Our souls are raised to life from death – (Common Worship, p. 82)
I awoke to a very pleasant morning and a fresh new day in the Hertfordshire countryside.
In this poem, Herbert gives voice to interior pain, to thoughts that are out of control, to helplessness in the face of anxiety. But in his honesty, we can see a way forward to hope.
However, he does not mention any external event at the root of his affliction. His entire focus is on the experience of suffering on the spiritual, mental and emotional level.
He reminds us that we are not in total control of our thoughts, and not all thoughts are good, true or helpful. He asks God to ‘dissolve the knot’ of his fears and emotions, because he cannot do it for himself. Into the unruly conflict of his own mind, he invites God’s presence, because God’s light will ‘scatter’ all the ‘rebellions of the night.’
Herbert concludes that life’s difficult journey, ‘day by day,’ has God alone as its goal. If our thoughts can wound us, then God alone can heal us. God can subdue and calm our painful and rebellious thoughts, and he is the source of all Light.
Broken in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.
My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.
All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.
Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.
Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief:
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.
‘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)
Lent by George Herbert
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 Wyatville’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.
Almost opposite the closed Classical Gate in Jesus Lane is Wesley House, which is also home to the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. And a little further on is Jesus College and, opposite it, on the same side as the Classical Gate, are All Saints’ Church and Westcott House.
George Herbert with Bishop Westcott and Henry Martyn in the ‘Saintly Cambridge Anglicans’ window in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge
All Saints’ Church is a wonder of the Gothic Revival in English church architecture and of the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement on interior design. For many years, this was Cambridge’s highest Anglo-Catholic church. But the population of the parish moved out to the big new housing estates, and in 1973 All Saints’ was declared redundant, and was scheduled for demolition.
However, the church was saved at the eleventh hour and was put in the care of the Churches’ Conservation Trust in 1981. Since Easter 2007 the church has been open to the public seven days a week, and the church is used regularly by Westcott House and other theological colleges.
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) of Durham, who gave his name to Westcott House; and the pioneering 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, the Wiltshire parish church where he was buried, and has the words: ‘Here George Herbert ministered and beneath the Altar of Bemerton Church was buried AD 1632.’
Of course, George Herbert never ministered in All Saints’ Church, and he died in 1633, not in 1632.
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.
This posting includes material used in an earlier posting on site ‘Dead Anglican Theologians Society’
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