George Herbert (1593-1633)

George Herbert was rector of Bemerton between 1630-1633. He was also a poet and his colloquies and religious themes really appeal to me. His poetry reflects a balanced Anglicanism (neither Puritan nor Catholic), and for me the simplicity of diction and metaphor are an important part of what make them so interesting and effective.

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When Herbert’s father died the young family moved to London, and Herbert’s mother became friend and patron to the Metaphysical poet John Donne. ‘These close links with the older poet had an influential and positive effect on Herbert’s life and work’ (Graham, 2000). But unlike Donne, ‘Herbert wrote no love poetry, having decided, when he began writing poetry at Cambridge, to devote his poetic works to God’ (Mackean, 2005).

There is a clarity and directness in Herbert’s verses. His writing is sometimes musical and often his structural forms are uncomplicated and not unlike a ‘song’.  Perhaps some poems were indeed meant for musical accompaniment. An example of this could be ‘Easter Song’. In fact, we can still find some of Herbert’s work in British hymnals today. A few famous ones being ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’ and ‘Teach me, My God and King’.

Many of his poems are also colloquies (conversations) between himself and God or with his heart, and we can see good examples in his poems ‘Good Friday’ and ‘The Pearl’. In these works the tone is ‘private, subjective and modest’. In ‘Good Friday’ we hear Herbert modestly saying ‘o my chief good’ and ‘how shall I count what thee befell?’ These colloquies allow for a powerful exchange of emotions and dilemmas between the poet and the recipient.

A prominent and important theme in Herbert’s poetry is his struggle between an ordinary life versus a surrendering to God. A good example of this can be found in his poem ‘The Collar’ a clever metaphor playing on the idea of the collar being both a restraint (Herbert being a servant of God), and an item of clerical clothing. Herbert intends a pun on the word collar with the word ‘choler’ meaning anger. The poem is a complaint being voiced by someone rebelling against the constraint he feels binds him. The poem is rich with restraining imagery ‘collars, cages, cable and ropes’, and there are rhetorical questions asked throughout giving the reader a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Another interesting aspect of this poem is the randomness of the stanza form. This may suggest exaggeration of a conversational tone. We can almost imagine the poet really speaking in this poem. Likewise, the unusual stanza pattern may symbolise indiscipline of the rebellious spirit, or impulsiveness. Both ideas are interesting and work well with the style and theme of the poem. Also of interest is the contrast between the start of the poem, where the narrator depicts violence ‘I struck the board (altar), and cried, No more/I will abroad’ to show a spiritual crisis. This is in sharp contrast to the calm ending: ‘Me thought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied, My Lord’, where the poet hears God’s voice and instantly knows his place and admits God’s authority.

Herbert’s poetry is full of Christian imagery and is probably semi-autobiographical. It is also clear that his sureness of tone comes from a very sound biblical knowledge. This can be seen in his poems ‘Man’ and ‘Love III’. In ‘Man’ Herbert develops a theme drawing from the book of Genesis and Psalm 8. His good understanding of theology is effectively put to use in uncomplicated and clear language. In this poem we also see an interesting conceit. Here ‘man’ is a metaphor for the world. He also possibly intended a double meaning where man is seen as the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. ‘Herbert often drew his inspiration from everyday domestic experiences, employing a range of simple commonplace imagery’ (Mackean, 2005). Good examples of this can be found in his poems ‘The Church-Floor’ and ‘The Window’. Herbert drew upon the structures and artefacts which surrounded him as a priest as sources for his verses. Both poems are:

Based on the church building itself: the metaphysical and allegorical interrelationship between devotion and the place which has been made for it provides the sustained images (Graham, 2000, p.56).

In ‘The Church-Floor’ the first four stanzas are only three lines each ending with ‘Patience, Humility, Confidence and Charity’ a personification of human virtues built upon aspects of the church floor. The last octave of the poem ends with ‘Blest be the Architect (referring to God), whose art/Could build so strong in a weak heart’. Although this poem is simplistic in style the comparison between the virtues and Herbert’s use of concrete imagery, is both effective and interesting. The same can be said of his poem ‘The Windows’ where Herbert this time compares preachers to church windows. Implying that through the grace of God man can become a window through which the glory of God shines as a light through a window. Again, this poem is a simple but effective comparison of church architecture and human qualities. A further interesting observation on the poetry of Herbert reveals how he often used ‘pattern poems’ as an effective tool:

George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is written in a form of pattern poetry known as carmen figuration, otherwise known as shaped verse, in which the words and lines are arranged on the page so that they create a visual image or illustration of the poem’s subject. Herbert creates a visual image of wings, whether intended to be angels or of birds, offer a thematic view of the human state (Dykes, 2002).

Another good example of Herbert’s use of shaped verse can be found in his poem ‘The Altar’ in which the words of the poem itself form a shape of an altar. Interestingly, Herbert uses the theme of an altar in his poem as a metaphor for how one should himself as a sacrifice to the Lord.

I think it is fair to say that Herbert was a master of economy when it came to poetry. Although many of his themes are serious and weighty, Herbert approached his work with a directness and simplicity quite different to the other Metaphysical poets of his time. ‘John Donne often expressed his doubts in intellectual terms, answering them in the same way. Herbert on the other hand occasionally explored his doubts in intellectual terms, but he answered them with emotion’ (Mackean, 2005).

Through Herbert’s often ‘conversational, persuasive and proverbial’ tone, we can see a poet plagued by his own human weaknesses and doubts.  A reader would not have to be religious to relate to the common struggles Herbert experienced in his life. Indeed, whether one approaches Herbert’s work from a religious point of view or not, it would be hard to deny that his simple lyrical poems are packed intensely with emotion and often speak for themselves.

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Author: Descartes Baker

Graduate in English with Creative Writing. Loves Victorian literature, poetry, watching the clouds go by, travelling, numismatics, and reading long forgotten and obscure novels.

6 thoughts on “George Herbert (1593-1633)”

  1. Holy cow… You’re an amazing writer. I’m not familiar with him, but I sure do want to look some of his stuff up when I get a minute. AND I learned something new. I’d never heard of colloquies before. I love it when I learn something new from a blogger. Thanks!

  2. I have always liked Herbert since I first came across him at university. ‘Prayer’ is a tremendous poem, I think. I love the fact that he and Donne (whom I also admire greatly) should flourish at the same time and be so different.

    1. Yes, I admire both poets immensely too. Herbert has local interest for me, as he was rector of Bemerton in our beautiful Wiltshire. As a student, I would walk the same route he did, from his rectory to the cathedral, and read a little pocket book of his poems. I also wanted to be a clergyman like him too, but ended up an underpaid teacher somehow.

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