Nestled somewhere within the Age of Shakespeare and the Age of Milton is George Herbert. There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex, ever-qualified lyric contemplation rather than epic or dramatic mythmaking. This is the stuff of humility and integrity, not celebrity. But even if Herbert does not appear to be one of the larger-than-life cultural monuments of seventeenth-century England—a position that virtually requires the qualities of irrepressible ambition and boldness, if not self-regarding arrogance, that he attempted to flee—he is in some ways a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist of this or any other time.
There is, as Stanley Stewart has convincingly demonstrated, a substantial School of Herbert cutting across all ages. Stewart focuses on the seventeenth-century poets who professed allegiance to Herbert and whose works are markedly indebted to his techniques, subjects, and devotional temperament. He comes up with an impressive list, including some admittedly minor poets, such as Henry Colman, Ralph Knevet, Mildmay Fane, Christopher Harvey, and Thomas Washbourne, and some considerably more talented poets, such as Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and Thomas Traherne. Extended through modern times, the School of Herbert includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, and, perhaps Robert Frost—although these later poets are far less simply derivative and single-minded in their devotion to Herbert than were his seventeenth-century followers.
Herbert is also important, especially in the seventeenth century, not only as a poet but as a cultural icon, an image of religious and political stability held up for emulation during tumultuous times. Much of his early popularity—there were at least eleven editions of The Temple in the seventeenth century—no doubt owes something to the carefully crafted persona of “holy Mr. Herbert” put forth by the custodians of his literary works and reputation. In the preface to the first edition of The Temple, published in 1633, shortly after Herbert died, his close friend Nicholas Ferrar established the contours of Herbert’s exemplary life story, a story that not only validated but was also presumably told in the poems of the volume. In a few short pages Ferrar indelibly sketches Herbert as one who exchanged the advantages of noble birth and worldly preferment for the strains of serving at “Gods Altar,” one whose “obedience and conformitie to the Church and the discipline thereof was singularly remarkable,” and whose “faithfull discharge” of the holy duties to which he was called “make him justly a companion to the primitive Saints, and a pattern or more for the age he lived in.” This is not only high praise, but praise with political as well as religious implications: in 1633 the church was a place of contention as well as worship, and Ferrar helped establish Herbert as a model of harmonious, orderly, noncontroversial devotion for whom faith brought answers and commitment to the social establishment, not divisive questions and social fragmentation.
By 1652, the time of the next major biographical statement about Herbert, the tensions of the 1630s had erupted into a devastating civil war: the army of King Charles I had been decisively defeated, and the king himself executed; the bishops had been disenfranchised from their high place in both church and state government; and the maintenance of peace depended on a coalition of parties —old and new landowners, merchants, religious enthusiasts, army commanders, and soldiers—with conflicting interests. Little wonder, then, that Barnabas Oley, a Royalist divine, envisioned Herbert as a “primitive … holy and heavenly soul” who could instruct a later generation living in much-deserved chastisement and exile. Herbert seemed to be a fit subject for nostalgia, one who lived and died in peace. In Oley’s introduction to Herbert’s Remains (1652), containing among other works A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson, Herbert’s prose description of the ideal way a priest would serve his country parish (written during the last years of his life when he was a country parson at Bemerton), Oley pictures Herbert as one who embodies traits that the current age has left behind: a person of charity, a lover of traditional, time-honored worship, church music and ceremonies, and a master of “modest, grave and Christian reproof” Oley’s preface is apocalyptic throughout, and he frames Herbert’s image in such a way that it may lead midcentury England to holiness and repentance, “Recovery, and Profit.”
Izaak Walton, who wrote the first extensive biography of Herbert, follows the lead of Ferrar and Oley in shaping Herbert’s life. Walton’s Life of Mr. George Herbert, first published in 1670 and then revised in 1674 and 1675, does not have Ferrar’s austerity nor Oley’s urgency: by 1670 the king had been restored, the Anglican church was reestablished as the official religious institution of the country, and—despite inevitable exceptions—there seemed to be a growing respect for the advantages of toleration and accommodation rather than confrontation. Herbert was still needed, but not so much for reproof in perilous times as for gentle guidance in times of relative calm. For Walton, Herbert was not only a “primitive Saint”—that is, a throwback to the church of a simpler era—but a prefiguration of the ideal Restoration clergyman: wellborn but socially responsible, educated but devout, experienced in the ways of the world but fully committed to the ways of the church, and knowledgeable about both the pains and joys of spiritual life.
In Walton’s hands Herbert comes alive, and it would be nice to believe everything he tells. But it would be safer to approach Walton’s biography as one of the great works of seventeenth-century prose fiction. All subsequent examinations of Herbert inevitably rely on Walton: he is the source of much valuable information available nowhere else. But his story is picturesque, compelling, and more than occasionally unreliable. Some of the most memorable anecdotes he relates may not be untrue, but they are unverified and upon close examination seem to be stitched together from Herbert’s own writings. Walton has a habit of treating Herbert’s writings as literal and factually accurate autobiographical statements, and much of the Life seems to be a fanciful embellishment of such poems as “Affliction” (I), “The Collar,” and “The Crosse” and the prose character-sketch The Country Parson. Like that of so many other biographers, Walton’s logic seems to be that if certain events did not happen in his subject’s life, they should have, and he therefore feels free to frame the life as he sees fit as long as he is faithful to his subject—especially if he is prompted by one of the subject’s own works. (At one point Walton parenthetically describes an anecdote about Herbert rebuilding a church at his own cost—an event that is in fact documented by other sources besides Walton—as “a real Truth,” as if to acknowledge that there are different levels of truth in his Life.) In addition, everything in Walton’s story seems to be shaped according to a unifying theme: Herbert’s disappointed “Court hopes” and his ensuing turn to the church. While this is unquestionably a key topic, as a frame for an entire life it is too restrictive. Herbert’s life and work are much more varied, complex, and in some respects inscrutable than Walton or the other early biographers imagined.
George Herbert was born on 3 April 1593 at Black Hall in Montgomery, Wales. His family on his father’s side was one of the oldest and most powerful in Montgomeryshire, having settled there in the early thirteenth century and improving and consolidating its status by shrewd marriage settlements and continuous governmental service. The surviving stories about the patriarchs focus, not surprisingly, on their bravery and valor as they fought to civilize the countryside, administer justice, and keep peace in an area that had a well-deserved reputation for wildness. Herbert no doubt grew up with these tales but could not have had much contact with the men themselves: his grandfather, evidently a remarkable courtier, warrior, and politician, died the month after Herbert was born; and his father, also an active local sheriff and member of Parliament, died when Herbert was three and a half years old.
Herbert may have spent his early years in a home without a strong father figure, but this is not to say that the household lacked a commanding presence. His mother, Magdalen, from the Newport family of Shropshire, was by all accounts an extraordinary woman, fully capable of managing the complex financial affairs of the family, moving the household when necessary, and supervising the academic and spiritual education of her ten children. There is evidence of Herbert’s deep attachment to, and even identification with, his mother throughout his works: his earliest surviving poems, which attempt to outline his direction as a poet, were written and sent to her as a gift; he mourned her death (and celebrated her life) with a collection of Latin and Greek poems, Memoriae Matris Sacrum (1627); and The Temple is filled with images of childlike submissiveness and maternal love, devotion, and authority. John Donne’s funeral sermon on Magdalen focuses quite a bit on her melancholy, and one wonders whether this too–not necessarily religious despair, but a kind of spiritual vulnerability and sadness–is a crucial part of her legacy to her son.
Magdalen did not keep the family long in Wales. Shortly after the birth of her last child, Thomas, in 1597, she moved the family first to Shropshire, then to Oxford — primarily to oversee the education of the oldest son, Edward–and then finally to a house at Charing Cross, London. This last move also facilitated the education of the other children. George was tutored at home and then entered Westminster School, probably in 1604, a distinguished grammar school that not only grounded him in the study of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and music, but also introduced him to Lancelot Andrewes, one of the great churchmen and preachers of the time. From Westminster, Herbert went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1609 and began one of the most important institutional affiliations of his life, one that lasted nearly twenty years.
At Cambridge, Herbert moved smoothly through the typical stages of academic success: he gained a B.A. then an M.A.; obtained a Minor fellowship then a Major fellowship, which involved increasing responsibilities as a tutor and lecturer; and was made university orator in 1620, a position of great prestige within the university that was often a stepping-stone to a successful career at court. The orator was the spokesperson for the university on a variety of occasions, making speeches and writing letters, and the little evidence that survives of Herbert’s activities as orator indicates that he served in this capacity with both ceremonious wit and independent boldness. He was well able to offer the required fatuous compliments to the king: in a letter thanking King James I for the gift of his Latin works to Cambridge, he compared these volumes themselves to a library far grander than that of the Vatican or the Bodleian Library at Oxford. But he was also willing to dare to offer some unwanted advice when it was needed: in an oration on 8 October 1623 capping the university’s celebration of the safe return of Prince Charles (later Charles I) and George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, from Spain, Herbert made a forceful plea for the value of keeping the peace, even though it was clear that the failure to marry off the prince to the Spanish Infanta made war with Spain more desirable and likely. It is unclear whether Herbert helped or hurt his chances for secular advancement by being both witty and principled.
During the Cambridge years Herbert wrote much of his poetry. He began, auspiciously enough, with a vow, made in a letter accompanying two sonnets sent to his mother as a New Year’s gift in 1610, “that my poor Abilities in Poetry, shall be all, and ever consecrated to Gods glory.” The sonnets are written at a high pitch of enthusiasm–there are nine astonished rhetorical questions in the first poem alone–as Herbert yearns to be a fiery martyr, burning with love of God, not women. Herbert was not alone in wanting to redirect poetry from Venus to God: Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Southwell, and Donne, among others, urged the same thing, and even King James helped encourage this kind of revolution by writing and publishing his own religious poems. But these two sonnets have the force of personal discovery behind them, and they are a preview of a cluster of later poems in The Temple that examine his willingness and ability to write religious verse. As in so many of his best poems, exuberance betrays a deep sense of disorder and nervousness.
These sonnets are disturbing declarations, filled with aching desire–“My God, where is that ancient heat”–but based on contemptuous dismissals of erotic love, love poetry, and women. As a present to his mother these verses are particularly curious. Magdalen Herbert was strikingly beautiful, if one can gauge this by her portrait and by contemporary accounts, and inescapably vital, with ten children and a dashing new husband half her age (she had married John Danvers in 1609). One wonders how Herbert expected her to respond to the anatomy of a woman that concludes his second sonnet:
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when, Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.
Perhaps Magdalen would not have read the poem from the position of one of the women being so anatomized and would have simply appreciated the closing celebration of the Lord’s beauty. Donne evidently trusted her as a reader not easily offended and capable of discerning the sincere motive of a poem. In sending her “The Autumnall,” a poem presumably about her that contains some remarkably audacious and severe praise, Donne seems to have relied on certain qualities of her as a reader on which Herbert also counted. (Magdalen herself may have been a model for this kind of forthright and uncompromising directness: even as he writes her epitaph in Memoriae Matris Sacrum number 13, Herbert describes her as “seuera parens” [strict parent].) In any event, Herbert’s earliest poems announce his dedication to sacred poetry in a startling fashion.
It is difficult to date most of Herbert’s poems with certainty, but it is clear that not all his early poetic efforts were the kind of impassioned sacred lyrics promised by the sonnets he sent to his mother. His various occasional pieces–poems on the death of Prince Henry (oldest son of James I) in 1612 and Queen Anne (wife of James I) in 1619, to the queen of Bohemia in exile, to his friends Francis Bacon and Donne–show that Herbert, like his contemporaries, viewed and used poetry as a medium of social discourse, not just self-analysis and devotion. And even the bulk of Herbert’s early religious poetry is public and didactic rather than introspective and meditative. His modern reputation rests almost exclusively on the devotional lyrics collected in “The Church,” the middle section of The Temple, and while some of these lyrics may have been written as early as 1617, there is good reason to believe that most of them date from much later, from the mid 1620s to the last years of his life at Bemerton. But “The Church” is carefully positioned between two long poems, “The Church-porch” and “The Church Militant,” both of which are early pieces much different from the later lyrics.
Amy M. Charles, Herbert’s most thorough and meticulous biographer, suggests that “The Church-porch” was perhaps written as early as 1614 and that at least on one level it is a poem of advice addressed to his brother Henry, one year younger than George but already a man of the world and living in France. The two brothers shared a love of proverbs, and indeed what saves the poem from turning into a plodding collection of “thou shalt nots” is Herbert’s ability to release the dramatic as well as the moral potential of some of these proverbs. In the context of The Temple, “The Church-porch” is intended as a kind of secular catechism instructing a young man in basic moral principles and manners to prepare him for life in society and, more important, entrance into the church, a place where he will encounter moral and spiritual problems of a different sort.
Herbert’s premise, as he announces in two of his most frequently quoted lines, is that “A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice.” But the poem would not be delightful at all if it only contained seventy-seven stanzas of prudential bullying: Beware of lust, Lie not, Flie idlenesse, Be thriftie, Laugh not too much and so on. What enlivens the poem is Herbert’s ability to complement the moral tags with striking images and brief dramatizations (techniques that characterized the best, or at least the most appealing and effective, sermons of the time as well). “Drinke not the third glasse” is an abstract, easily disregarded bit of advice until it is capped by a vivid personal illustration: “It is most just to throw that on the ground, / Which would throw me there, if I keep the round.” And Herbert’s passionate apostrophe “O England! full of sinne, but most of sloth” is transformed from a forgettable traditional complaint to a memorable chastisement by a homely but stunning figure of speech:
Thy Gentrie bleats, as if thy native cloth
Transfus’d a sheepishnesse into thy storie:
Not that they are all so; but that the most
Are gone to grasse, and in the pasture lost.
“The Church-porch” has something in common with manuals of conduct that aim to prepare a young man not so much for moral behavior as for social advancement. Many of the traits that Herbert warns against are defects in the eyes of God but also disadvantages in the company of other men, particularly one’s competitors and superiors. At this time in his life Herbert undoubtedly had high ambitions for himself, and it does not paint him as a mere placeseeker to suggest that he was shrewdly aware that a morally self-controlled and cautious person might gain both earthly and heavenly rewards. Still, one should not overemphasize the secular context of “The Church-porch.” For all its descriptions of life in the social arena and comments on how to act in company, it concludes with advice about charity, prayer, and proper worship. The structure of the poem thus entices the imagined reader from where he lives to where he should live, from superficial concern for the pleasure of this world, a joy that “fades,” to a much deeper awareness of holy joy that “remains.” At this time Herbert may not have been ready to write the poems that describe the rhythm of pain and joy that define a spiritual life, but he was well able to lead himself and his reader close to “The Church.”
He was also ready to envision the corporate life of the church. In the broad plan of The Temple, the reader “sprinkled” by the “precepts” of “The Church-porch” and then transported by the twists and turns of faith in “The Church” still needs to see the fate of the institutional church, dramatized in “The Church Militant.” This concluding section of The Temple is considered to be an early poem for several reasons: it is written in a combative, assertive tone like that which dominates much of Herbert’s early Latin verse, and many of its satiric targets and topical allusions link it to other of his writings of the early 1620s that are vehemently controversial and impatient with a church establishment that is faulty and decaying but unable to heal itself. “The Church Militant,” like his oldest brother Edward Herbert’s satire The State Progress of Ill (1608) and Donne’s Second Anniversary: Of the Progress of the Soule (1612), turns time into space and charts the historical development of the Christian church as a trip around the world, with Sin following close behind every move made by Religion. Like each individual believer, the church as a whole is bound to a rhythm of rising and falling, simple purity followed inevitably by excessive embellishment, wholeness turned into fragmentation.
After an invocation to God’s beneficent creation of the church as an instrument of divine love, not earthly power–an outspoken political comment, especially during an age when the church was being counted on more and more as a subordinate but nevertheless vital ally of the king and administrator of his power–the poem is broken up into five main sections, each concluding with the lines “How deare to me, O God, thy counsels are! / Who may with thee compare?” Even though this psalm-based refrain captures the speaker’s heartfelt submissive praise of God, these lines are ironic because they set up a model that the world at large is unable to follow. Despite the success that Christianity has in transforming pagan religion and culture into something beautiful and worthy of worship, sin is always capable of sneaking in to turn faith to “infidelitie,” peace to controversy, and light to darkness.
Sin is imagined in broad terms as superstition, pride, and disorderly pleasure, but its most current and insidious form is Roman Catholicism. Herbert seems to align himself with the apocalyptic Protestant militants of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England as he energetically and somewhat venomously satirizes the pope as Antichrist, Rome as “Western Babylon,” the Jesuits as the Devil’s army, priests as crafty wizards, and Roman Catholicism in general as a religion of shameless glory rather than grace. And England is by no means a secure fortress: reformed though it is, the British church is all but ready to succumb to the darkness that has afflicted all previous churches.
Herbert’s prophetic vision of the beleaguered true church poised and ready to depart England for America was quoted repeatedly by his seventeenth-century readers:
Religion stands on tip-toe in our land,
Readie to passe to the American strand.
When height of malice, and prodigious lusts,
Impudent sinning, witchcrafts, and distrusts
(The marks of future bane) shall fill our cup
Unto the brimme, and make our measure up;
When Sein shall swallow Tiber, and the Thames
By letting in them both pollutes her streams:
When Italie of us shall have her will,
And all her calender of sinnes fulfill;
Whereby one may foretell, what sinnes next yeare
Shall both in France and England domineer:
Then shall Religion to America flee:
They have their times of Gospel, ev’n as we.
For many these lines accurately predicted a new age of Protestant martyrdom and exile and the demise of the Protestant church in England at the hands of King Charles I; his French wife, Henrietta Maria, a Roman Catholic with a large entourage; and Archbishop William Laud, a High Churchman and anti-Calvinist (though not a Roman Catholic) with little taste or tolerance for Reformation theology or notions of church government. But for all Herbert’s historical accuracy and prescience, his eyes were on the end of history, which promised a happy consummation of his “progress.” Redemption, a final escape from the repetitive cycle of “vertuous actions” and “crimes,” comes not in time but beyond time, on a day of judgment when the church and the sun overcome sin and darkness.
The two long early poems that frame “The Church” are thus substantially different from the lyrics that are Herbert’s greatest achievement. But they serve an important function in the overall structure of The Temple, helping Herbert to present a multidimensional, comprehensive examination of moral, spiritual, and institutional history, and situating the persona (and reader) alternately in the world, in the church, and then finally in the midst of a macrocosmic struggle between religion and sin that begins in time but ends out of it. And in a curious way these two long poems do share something with the poems of “The Church.” Like Herbert’s most characteristic lyrics, they are “self-consuming,” to use Stanley E. Fish’s phrase: that is to say, the premises from which they begin are suspended by their conclusions. In “The Church-porch” adjustment to life in the social world of “plots” and “pleasures” is rendered if not inconsequential then at least of secondary importance by the concluding turn to life within the church, where “vain or busie thoughts have … no part.” In “The Church Militant” outraged satire of the foolish spectacle of sin dogging the church is superseded by an abrupt but all-important vision of a day of judgment that takes us well beyond sin and satire.
During this time at Cambridge, Herbert also composed a substantial amount of Latin poetry. This, of course, should be no surprise: grammar school and university education was largely a matter of immersion in classical texts and repeated exercise in copying, translating, and imitating Latin authors. The Renaissance turn to distinctively national literature and the Reformation turn to vernacular Bible translations and church services by no means displaced Latin as the international language for diplomats and scholars and as the common vehicle for many types of serious disputation, religious devotion, and intellectual and poetic wit and playfulness. Writing Latin poetry was a natural development of Herbert’s day-to-day activities at Cambridge and–because of the particular traditions of Latin and Neo-Latin literature that he knew intimately and the learned audience to which Latin works would be directed–allowed him to use different poetic voices than the ones he cultivated in his English lyrics.
Musae Responsoriae (1662) is a series of energetically witty and satiric “Epigrams in Defense of the Discipline of Our Church” meant to counter the attacks of Scottish Presbyterian Andrew Melville, whose poem Anti-Tami-Cami-Categoria pictured the British church as insufficiently reformed and still too beholden to Roman Catholic ceremonies, rituals, and accompaniments to worship. The publication of Melville’s poem in 1620 perhaps provided Herbert with an opportunity to assert himself as the newly appointed orator of Cambridge–the universities were, after all, under siege by Melville, who criticized both Oxford and Cambridge for not supporting Puritan reform–and an occasion to clarify his own notion of the ideal British church. As in “The Church Militant,” Herbert was deeply critical of what he felt were the many excesses of Roman Catholicism, but he was not sympathetic to Melville’s “vain fears of the Vatican She-wolf” and the puritanical drive to purge the church of music, traditional prayers, vestments, and bishops.
For Herbert, Roman Catholics and Puritans are brothers, twin dangers like Scylla and Charybdis between which the British church must navigate: the via media is best, a theme that he returns to in one of the poems in The Temple, “The British Church.” Musae Responsoriae is filled with comic caricatures of abrasive Puritan preachers and disorderly worshipers; respectful addresses to King James, Prince Charles, and Lancelot Andrewes as custodians of the peace threatened by the Puritans; and satiric analysis of Melville’s ridiculous desire to create a church of nakedness and noise to replace one of visual beauty and music. It is a witty volume aimed to tease and please, but it is also an integral part of Herbert’s lifelong attempt to define his church–no mean feat, since neither Scylla nor Charybdis can or should be banished–and his place within it, as defender and worshiper.
Herbert’s two other collections of Latin poems written during the early 1620s are comprised primarily of sacred rather than satiric and controversial epigrams. Lucus (a “Sacred Grove”) is a somewhat loosely arranged miscellany that includes poems on Christ, the pope, the Bible, and several biblical episodes and figures, including Martha and Mary, and examines an assortment of topics such as love, pride, affliction, and death. Several of the poems, like those in Musae Responsoriae, use irony for satiric purposes.
The decrepit fate of Rome is ingeniously discovered in its very name, “Roma,” which can be construed as an anagram depicting its decline from the glorious days of Virgil (“Maro”) to the present day, when hate has banished love (“Amor”). But in most of the poems irony and paradox are used to convey the miraculous and mysterious power of Christ. Herbert’s emphasis is not on careful, rational argumentation but bold, dramatic astonishment, as in the brief but dazzling lines “On the stoning of Stephen”: “How marvelous! Who pounds rock gets fire. But Stephen from stones got heaven.” The longest poem in the collection, “The Triumph of Death,” indicts man’s ironic misuse of intelligence to create weapons and other instruments of death, but the greater irony, revealed in the following poem, “The Christian’s Triumph: Against Death,” is that benign images of Christ–the lamb, the Cross–overwhelm even the most threatening spears, bows, and battering rams.
The twenty-one poems of Passio Discerpta are much more unified than those in Lucus, each focusing on some aspect of Christ’s Crucifixion. Like Richard Crashaw’s sacred epigrams, written some ten years later, these poems are intensely, even grotesquely, visual, but, unlike Crashaw’s, Herbert’s prevailing emotion is calm wonderment rather than ecstatic excitement. The description of the Passion of Christ is remarkably dispassionate: the poetic witness is not cold or distant but is moved primarily by the redemptive purpose rather than the melodramatic circumstances of the Crucifixion. He is transfixed and indelibly marked by what he sees–“I, joyous, and my mouth wide open, / Am driven to the drenched cross”–and he is well aware that the death of Christ crushes the world and, as he imagines it, grinds the human heart to powder. But these poems, as baroque and intense as they may seem to be on the surface, are written from the secure perspective of one who feels at every moment that the inimitable sacrifice of Christ “lightens all losses.”
Though the Latin poems of Musae Responsoriae, Lucus, and Passio Discerpta are relatively early works in Herbert’s canon and represent a distinctive stage in the development of his style and ideas, they are by no means mere apprentice work, disconnected from his later efforts. Thematically, these collections have much in common with the poems of “The Church” and illustrate that these later lyrics are the result of lifelong meditation on certain themes, not spontaneous or occasional poeticizing. And, stylistically, the Latin poems, relying heavily on compression, paradox, wordplay, and climactic moments of understated surprise, are at least in some ways the foundation of what has been called Herbert’s “metaphysical wit.” Such poems as “The Agonie” and “Redemption” may be more finely crafted and powerful than any of the verses in Passio Discerpta, but they are deeply akin to them.
Poetry was not all that was on Herbert’s mind at Cambridge. He was worried about money: not for any extravagant purposes, but simply to live on. His university position paid him modestly, and the yearly portion assigned him in his father’s will was administered by his brother Edward and usually sent late and begrudgingly. He sought and probably got help from his stepfather, but, especially for someone who, as Ferrar describes him, valued his “independencie,” financial insecurity was a great source of frustration. And he worried about his health. In several of his letters he tells of being sick, restricted to a very careful (and expensive) diet, and too weak to fulfill his daily duties. “I alwaies fear’d sickness more then death,” he wrote to his mother, “because sickness has made me unable to perform those Offices for which I came into the world.”
Ill health troubled him for his entire adult life, and although many of the “afflictions” he describes in The Temple are spiritual, his intimate knowledge of the precarious state of the human body makes such poems as “Church-monuments” and “The Flower” particularly moving. Though he sometimes felt the ravages of “Consuming agues” that left him “thinne and leane” (“Affliction” [I]), he turned himself into an emblem confirming that physical sickness need not be an impediment to spiritual health, as seen in “The Size”:
A Christians state and case
Is not a corpulent, but a thinne and spare,
Yet active strength: whose long and bonie face
Content and care
Do seem to equally divide.
The face that appears in Robert White’s portrait of Herbert, copied from a lost original and printed in the first edition of Walton’s Life, has these qualities: it is thin and spare, long and bony, and radiates both content and care.
However, Herbert’s primary concern during the 1620s, more than health or money, was choosing his vocation, a recurrent theme in “The Church.” Walton describes Herbert’s path as a kind of involuntary conversion. His noble birth, upbringing, and education nurtured “ambitious Desires” for “the painted pleasures of a Court-life” and “the outward Glory of this World,” but serious illness coupled with the death of his most influential friends at court led him to brood over his “many Conflicts with himself.” “At last,” Walton relates, “God inclin’d him to put on a resolution to serve at his Altar,” and Herbert entered the church. Despite Walton’s effort to praise Herbert’s holiness and enviable commitment to church service, he stops just short of demonstrating that Herbert became a priest largely out of frustration and impatience.
Walton’s analysis discounts the fact that well before the mid 1620s Herbert was preparing himself for a career in the church and believed that secular advancement was not necessarily antithetical to holy living. In a letter to John Danvers, dated 18 March 1618, he mentions his plans for a spiritual vocation as a long-acknowledged fact, not an agonizing crisis: “You know, Sir, how I am now setting foot into Divinity, to lay the platform of my future life.” But this did not keep him from other pursuits: his public position as orator, which he defended as having “no such earthiness in it, but it may very well be joined with Heaven,” and friendships with ambitious and powerful men at court and such as Francis Bacon and John Williams. These two men bolstered Herbert’s hope that secular and sacred interests could be fruitfully reconciled: Bacon was lord chancellor and translator of Certain Psalmes (1625), dedicated to Herbert; and Williams was a holy bishop and a formidable power broker and patron at court and for a time Herbert’s greatest benefactor.
Walton is right to note that after many early successes Herbert’s chances for advancement began to falter. His highly placed friends died (Ludovick Stuart, second Duke of Lennox, in 1624 and James Hamilton, second Marquis of Hamilton, in 1625) or tumbled as a result of political infighting. (Bacon’s fall into disgrace after going to trial for accepting bribes may have taught Herbert a great deal about the vagaries of power and the difficulty of reconciling morality and public greatness; and Williams went into retreat after losing battles with first Buckingham and then Laud.) His stepfather and his good friend Ferrar struggled in vain to save one of their pet projects and investments, the Virginia Company, formed to both colonize the New World and help spread the Gospel. After the king dissolved the corporation, Ferrar removed himself to a life of devotion at Little Gidding, while Danvers, much more volatile and angry, intensified both his gardening at his house in Chelsea and his political agitating. Two decades later he was actively fighting against Charles I and ultimately became one of the regicides, directly responsible for the king’s execution.
The power and reputation of some of Herbert’s influential friends and family members were thus certainly being challenged and weakened at this time, but Walton drastically oversimplifies Herbert’s character by identifying thwarted ambition as his primary motivation in moving closer to the priesthood. Although we cannot know for sure, it is just as likely that Herbert was deeply influenced by firsthand experience of the world of business, political intrigue, and court maneuvering and discovered not so much that it did not offer him a place as that it did not suit him. His youthful confidence that the sacred and the secular could be harmonized was not confirmed by the lives of those around him, and his attendance at the particularly tumultuous Parliament of 1624 more likely stifled than fanned any desire for a public political career. Years later, in The Country Parson, he recommended political service as a necessary part of the education of a gentleman: “for there is no School to a Parliament.” But the lesson he learned there may be one stated simply in his poem “Submission,” where he finds that worldly success and divine service are not easily blended: “Perhaps great places and thy praise / Do not so well agree.”
Late in 1624 Herbert was preparing to take holy orders. Doing so would preclude any further service in Parliament and cut him off from many types of secular employment, but would be necessary for him to remain at Cambridge. (Fellows and other officials at the universities were required to take holy orders, normally within seven years of obtaining a master’s degree, a vestige of the medieval origin of the university as primarily a training ground for church service.) But at this time Herbert was leaving both Parliament and Cambridge behind. He was largely absent from Cambridge and delegated most of his duties to others. He did not return even to deliver the funeral oration commemorating the death of King James on 27 March 1625, and though he was not officially replaced as the university orator until January 1628, he had basically begun his removal from the Cambridge community by late 1623.
Ordination as a deacon, which Amy M. Charles suggests occurred in late 1624, by no means resolved the major problems of Herbert’s life and in fact may have coincided with a heightening of them. He was presented by Bishop John Williams with several church livings, one at Llandinam in his home county of Montgomeryshire in 1624 and another at Lincoln Cathedral in Huntingtonshire near Little Gidding in 1626, and these brought him at least modest income and required only a minimal effort of supervising some church functions and preaching once a year at Lincoln Cathedral. But this was not enough to support him, and between 1624 and 1629, with no house of his own, he stayed with a succession of friends and relatives: with “a friend in Kent,” his stepfather and mother at Chelsea, his brother Henry at Woodford, and Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby (John Danvers’s brother), at Dauntesey House in Wiltshire.
His financial condition improved substantially when in July 1627 a Crown grant made him part owner (with his brother Edward and Thomas Lawley, a cousin) of some land in Worcestershire, which was then sold to his brother Henry. The grant, about which little is known, may have assured Herbert that his family was not completely neglected (perhaps his estimate of his own current fate) nor out of royal favor (the frequent state of Edward, whose life as a courtier and diplomat oscillated between royal grace and disgrace), and the money he gained from the sale of the land was certainly welcome. Charles suggests that it allowed him to resign his position at Cambridge and gave him the wherewithal to turn toward one of the favorite projects of his later life, rebuilding churches, an activity he undertook not only at Leighton Bromswald but also at Bemerton. But the fact remains that at this time Herbert was still without a settled vocation.
Many of the poems of “The Church” focus on the problems of finding a proper vocation. Some, such as “Affliction” (I) and “Employment” (I) and (II), seem to be early meditations on Herbert’s uneven progress toward finding a position that might satisfy both his and God’s desires. Others, such as “The Priesthood” and “Aaron,” are undoubtedly later poems reflecting on the specific implications of his decision to become a priest. “The Crosse,” though, describes an intermediate stage, one at which Herbert was distressingly stuck in 1626, the probable date of this poem. The speaker seeks “some place, where I might sing, / And serve thee,” but he comes to realize that the consequences of this desire are far more overwhelming than he had anticipated. “Wealth and familie,” and indeed any sense that even the most dedicated believer brings something useful to Christ, prove to be irrelevancies and must be set aside. This “strange and uncouth thing,” the Cross, completely disrupts one’s normal life, and any potentially heartening illusions about “My power to serve thee” are replaced by an awareness that “I am in all a weak disabled thing.”
One of the deepest ironies of the poem is that even when one’s hesitancies about serving God are resolved, the basic impossibility of doing so still remains. As in so many of his other poems, Herbert finds himself on receding ground: God takes him up only to throw him down; devotion is not a release from physical and spiritual pain but an introduction to an even more devastating experience of “woe”; and the fulfillment of one’s desire is never finally satisfying or peaceful–the speaker can “have my aim, and yet… be / Further from it then when I bent my bow.” But, after trying so hard to plan his own life, the speaker finally discovers his role in a life planned for him. There are various images and patterns of crosses in this poem, not the least of which is the intersection between man’s choosing God and God’s choosing him. The pains of life–“these crosse actions” that “cut my heart”–link one inextricably to Christ, particularly as a model of patient suffering and devoted service to man and God. Despite the plea “Ah my deare Father, ease my smart!” in the conclusion of the poem, Herbert is ultimately less concerned with escaping suffering than he is with finding meaning for it, and he does so by speaking Christ’s words on the Cross, simultaneously letting Christ speak these words through him: “Thy will be done.”
As a logical conclusion, this will not do: Herbert fails to spell out exactly how one goes about following “thy will,” details that would be especially important during a time of decision for him, such as the mid 1620s. But the last four words are a sign of devotional assent: a leap from, rather than a culmination of, rational analysis. This sudden imagination of the impossible–a characteristic movement in Herbert’s most dynamic poems, such as “Prayer” (I) and “The Collar”–allows “The Crosse” to end with at least a momentary stay against confusion, as Frost might describe it. Weaving Scripture into his verses was an integral part of Herbert’s attempt to forge a vocation as a servant of the Word of God, as both poet and priest. Here it allows him a sudden intuition into the blending of “mine” and “thine” as not one of the great problems, but one of the great joys, of religious experience. My will and thy will, my words and thy words, my voice and thy voice prove to be, as it were, intersecting beams in this poem about not the adoration, but the cooperative construction, of a cross.
Joseph H. Summers describes the years between 1626 and 1629 as “the blackest of all for Herbert,” filled with anxious concern–conveyed in such poems as “The Crosse”–not only about his spiritual duties but also his physical health. In Walton’s words Herbert was “seized with a sharp Quotidian Ague” in 1626 that required a full year of careful diet and convalescence. And not long after, in June of 1627, his mother died, an event that affected him in complex, even contradictory ways. The death of a parent–and in Herbert’s case, of his one parent–can be an emotional shock that is both devastating and liberating, confusing and clarifying. Herbert indeed moves through this wide range of response in the nineteen Latin and Greek poems that make up Memoriae Matris Sacrum, registered for publication along with Donne’s funeral sermon on Magdalen Herbert on 7 July 1627, a month after her death. Mourning in general is highly ritualized, and such poems are usually formal and traditional rather than spontaneous and directly personal. One should therefore not expect these poems to record Herbert’s unmediated feelings about the death of his mother, and one cannot know for sure when the poems are conventional exercises and when they are somewhat more telling autobiographical outbursts.
Even with these cautions in mind, Memoriae Matris Sacrum is an extremely revealing collection, giving important insight into his relationship with his mother and his corresponding sense of himself. Interestingly, it is the only collection of poems he published during his lifetime. (Although Lucus, Passio Discerpta, and the poems of The Temple were carefully copied out in manuscript, no doubt in preparation for eventual publication, they did not appear until after his death.) This may be explained by the prevailing norms of poetic practice for nonprofessionals at the time, which allowed for the publication of heroic, historical, and occasional poems, particularly of public celebration and mourning, but discouraged anything more than the circulation of other poems in manuscript, followed perhaps by posthumous publication. But Herbert’s sense of himself as a poet was deeply intertwined with his relationship to his mother–as indicated by the early sonnets announcing to her his fiery poetic devotion–and not only writing but publishing Memoriae Matris Sacrum may have been part of a complex process of poetic self-assertion and self-definition as well as mourning.
It is common in elegiac and memorial poems to dwell on the impossibility of satisfactorily praising and mourning the person departed, but far more than this Herbert’s poems examine the ways his mother both authorizes and threatens his poetry. “You taught me to write,” he says in the second poem, and when he comes to write about important topics, such as her praise, “that skill, unloosed, / Floods the paper.” And in the ninth poem he imagines himself in perennial communication with her, a “zealous child” sending her poems that she takes time off from her heavenly singing to read. She is integral to his fame: “For how can there be laurels for me, / How Nectar, unless with you / I pass the day in song?” But he also associates her with deep suspiciousness of language–“language being chaos since the time of Babel”–and complains that she failed to educate her children in a particular kind of verbal skill that might have made life easier: “manners’ smooth / Mellifluous gift, the charm of words / To beat the lion back from us.”
In the sixth poem Herbert confirms that poetry is his only remaining vehicle of contact with his mother and his only way of attempting to heal his deep distress, but the almost hallucinatory imagery conveys not only grief but also the intensity of Herbert’s intertwined feelings about his mother and himself as a poet. After dismissing traditional medicine and suicide as possible sources of relief, he focuses on the act of writing in terms that are of great psychological interest. He pictures his arm swollen with the heat of “writing’s fever,” and anyone attempting to check his pulse would feel “the beating vein / My mother’s residence.” His swelling, setting aside its sexual suggestiveness, is both sickness and pregnancy, as his body now contains his mother, and his condition is, to say the least, precarious and unique: “Not sure my state: / My quality of flesh is not another’s.” But this same fever of creation is his best medicine, not an “Ill heat, but the only thing that heals the heart.”
Memoriae Matris Sacrum is of course not exclusively about poetry. It includes many poignant expressions of sorrow and both directly and indirectly presents an interesting character sketch of Magdalen Herbert. Alongside conventional praise of her beauty, modesty, wide knowledge (especially in practical matters), charity, love of music, and fine penmanship, the reader catches glimpses of her somewhat more intimidating qualities: she “besieges” the Lord with “Sharp and fiery prayer,” has a “Stern winsomeness,” is a “strict mother,” “Proud / and meek at once,” and a “source of fiery contention / Of lord and commoner alike.” Herbert’s poems not only mourn and memorialize her but attempt to analyze and express the burden of a mother’s love, a love that can both encourage and overwhelm, inspire and inflame. Not surprisingly, these dynamics recur in Herbert’s later poems–despite his vow in the concluding poem that “This one time I write / To be forever still”–and the God that he loves and contends with in “The Church” is frequently not God the Father but God the Mother, at least as described in Memoriae Matris Sacrum.
It is sometimes difficult to determine what is a coincidence and what is a consequence, but in any event the death of his mother was followed by some decisive changes in Herbert’s life. He separated himself finally from Cambridge (another of his mothers, alma mater) and went to stay at Dauntesey House in the countryside, where he recovered his health, probably wrote and revised some of the poems that would be gathered in “The Church,” and got married. Walton tells a fanciful tale of how Jane Danvers, his stepfather’s cousin, wooed by her father’s deep respect for Herbert, fell in love with him sight unseen. They first met only three days before their wedding, he says, “at which time a mutual affection entered into both their hearts, as a Conqueror enters into a surprized City, and made there such Laws and Resolutions, as neither party was able to resist.”
The romantic overlay seems to be Walton’s invention, uncorroborated by any other evidence and surprisingly dissonant with what we know of Herbert’s emotional life from his own writings, but there is little reason to doubt Walton’s fundamental assertion that the marriage was one thoughtfully negotiated and arranged, not uncommon during this time. Several sections in The Country Parson suggest that Herbert put a high value on companionate marriage, based on mutual love and shared work, and such a marriage with Jane Danvers at this time in his life may have served a variety of purposes: besides affording him emotional support, it perhaps also consolidated his relationship with the Danvers family, with whom he seemed to be very attached; eased his transition to life in Wiltshire, where he seemed to be gravitating; and allowed him to make practical plans for setting up his own household and accepting the vocation at which he had long aimed. Herbert and Jane were married on 5 March 1629, and although they lived for a year with her family at Baynton House, by the end of 1630 he was an ordained priest settled in the small parish of Bemerton, where he spent the few remaining years of his life.
Even after he had been presented with the living at Bemerton–probably through the influence of his relative William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, whose estate in Wilton was close to the tiny country parish of Bemerton–Herbert delayed entering the priesthood. He may have been, as Charles suggests, occupied with wrapping up bits of business of the life he was ready to leave behind: perhaps traveling to Lincoln Cathedral to deliver the last of his yearly sermons and to Little Gidding for a visit with Ferrar, something he might not have the luxury of doing once his full duties commenced at Bemerton. Or this may have been a final period of spiritual wrestling, with Herbert still needing to argue himself into a final conviction that he was worthy, willing, and able to be God’s servant. Walton is frequently melodramatic, but some of the melodrama may be authentic: he describes Herbert on the day of his induction at Bemerton lying “prostrate on the ground before the Altar,” devising rules for his own future conduct and making “a vow, to labour to keep them.” His long-awaited ordination as a priest on 19 September 1630 surely did not mark the end of all his spiritual worries or sense of personal frailty, but it may well have signified a new accommodation of them, a deepened understanding of how weakness and worry (which in any event can never be erased from human experience) can be integrated into one’s spiritual life.
While at Bemerton, Herbert was extremely busy with a wide range of activities. The Country Parson documents that for Herbert the priesthood was not only a spiritual vocation but a social commitment, and although this work was intended as an idealized portrait–“a Mark to aim at,” he writes in the preface–rather than an autobiographical statement, Herbert undoubtedly was much like the parson he describes: charitable, conversant with his parishioners outside as well as inside the church, an arbiter of local squabbles, and a familiar example rather than a formal sermonizer. Walton tends to describe Herbert’s life at Bemerton as a kind of intentional humbling of himself. He describes Herbert’s first sermon as a learned and witty exercise that confounded his parishioners, but he concluded with a promise never to preach that way again: he would from that point on “be more plain and practical in his future Sermons.”
This illustrates Herbert’s dramatic conversion from university orator to parish priest. But while The Country Parson implicitly acknowledges that he had to make strenuous adjustments to enter into the life–and barns and houses–of common country people, there is little indication that he did this grudgingly. The model for condescension (literally “stepping down”) is Christ, a model Herbert readily accepts. Throughout The Country Parson and in other poems (such as “Whitsunday,””Sunday,” “Lent,” and “The Elixir”) he shows himself to be a sincere ”Lover of old Customes,” common charity, and daily labor quite unlike any he would have done at Cambridge or court.
This is not to say that life at Bemerton was a continual round of conversations with farmers and catechizing the uneducated. Wilton House was nearby, and Herbert was a confidant of Lady Anne Clifford, wife of his kinsman Philip Herbert, fourth Earl of Pembroke. Salisbury was also within walking distance, and some of Walton’s most charming tales describe Herbert’s love of music and his visits twice a week to evensong at the magnificent cathedral in Salisbury. Herbert was also busy directing the rebuilding of the church and rectory at Bemerton and entertaining guests, such as Arthur Woodnoth, Ferrar’s cousin and an important intermediary between him and Herbert.
As deeply involved as he was in the social life of the parish, Herbert still had time for private meditation and writing. The Country Parson is dated 1632 in his preface. At or near this time he was also annotating John Valdesso’s The Hundred and Ten Considerations, a book of Catholic devotion sent him by Ferrar. In his “Briefe Notes,” eventually included in an edition of Valdesso published in 1638, Herbert describes Valdesso as a “true servant of God,” but one whose “defects” need correction. Herbert’s careful attention to such a book indicates not his attraction to Roman Catholicism but his willingness to appreciate and learn from spiritual advice from a wide range of authors, a devotional openness that thwarts critics who try to define Herbert’s theology too precisely. He was also engaged in translating A Treatise of Temperance and Sobrietie, by Luigi Cornaro, which shortly before his death he sent to Ferrar, who published it in 1634 as part of a larger work, Hygiasticon. Herbert’s editor F. E. Hutchinson speculates that Bacon may have proposed the idea of translating this work, but no matter who set the task for him, the subjects of temperance, sobriety, and careful diet were of lifelong interest to Herbert. During this time Herbert probably also continued to work on another lifelong interest, his collection of proverbs, published as Outlandish Proverbs Selected by Mr. G. H. in 1640 and in an expanded version in 1652 as Jacula Prudentum.
More important, though, is his final work at Bemerton composing, revising, and structuring The Temple. According to Walton, Herbert described it as containing “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: in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” But this is an incomplete and misleading picture in several respects. First, it gives the impression that The Temple is primarily a miscellany of assorted poems on wavering faith, unstable devotion, and human resistance, problems at last securely overcome by strenuous efforts not described by the poems. On the contrary, The Temple dramatizes both “spiritual Conflicts” and the achievement of “perfect freedom.” Second, Herbert’s brief description sets up a simple division between the troubles of the past and the peaceful obedience of the present, a division that The Temple repeatedly undermines. Many of the troubled narratives and complaints in “The Church” (“The Collar,” for example) are retrospective, presumably spoken from a position of strength or recovery, but the pains are conveyed with such vivid force and immediacy that they infiltrate the present. The past rarely stays past for Herbert: “perfect freedom,” obedience, peace, and joy are powerful realities in the poems, but they never become completely disengaged from the threats they overcome.
Herbert’s understanding of this dialectical relationship between worry and assurance and his corresponding insight into the rhythms of the spiritual life remain somewhat veiled if one examines the poems randomly and individually instead of as parts of an intricately interconnected whole. It is clear that Herbert carefully planned the arrangement of the poems in The Temple and intended it to be read in its entirety. An early version of nearly half of the poems eventually printed in the first edition of 1633 appears in a manuscript copied probably in the mid 1620s, and this so-called Williams manuscript indicates that Herbert had not only outlined the basic structure of the volume by this time but also that he was constantly tinkering with it. Some of the poems in the manuscript are set in different places in the printed arrangement, and Herbert made changes in the texts and titles to fit these poems into their new positions.
Even a casual reader could hardly miss the many clues that The Temple is a carefully constructed artifact or sequence, but Herbert virtually announces his plans in one of the poems placed early in “The Church,” titled “The H. Scriptures II.” Here he not only praises the Bible for its penetrating insight into human life but notes that its wisdom may be somewhat mysterious unless one knows how it is structured:
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a Third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destinie.
Scriptural interpreters of the time stressed that the Bible is best understood as a unified work: difficult passages could be explicated by comparison with other places in the text, and in general the many repetitions and parallels written into the Bible linked not only the Old and New Testaments but the lives of all Christians. In this as in so many other ways, The Temple is modeled after the Bible.
There are many levels of structure in The Temple, some broad or obvious, others subtle or minute. The three main sections, “The Church-porch,” “The Church,” and “The Church Militant,” of course indicate that the entire volume will move through stages of secular preparation, sacred initiation, and prophetic vision. Within “The Church” itself there is also a variety of clearly defined sequences of poems. The sense of temporal sequence is particularly strong in the first part of “The Church,” perhaps because Herbert wants immediately to call attention to the fact that his poems trace out stages in a devotional life, but also perhaps because he wants to accustom his readers to a simple notion of poetic order before he goes on to more complicated patterns. “The Church” begins with a series of poems that concentrates on Easter week and dramatizes not only Christ’s Crucifixion but the difficulties one faces in responding properly to this all-important event. Herbert starts his Christian calendar not with the birth of Christ, explored later in “The Church” in a two-part poem titled “Christmas,” but with poems that describe Christ’s death and how it allows his followers to live, including “The Sacrifice,” “The Agonie,” “Good Friday,” “Redemption,” “Easter,” and “Easter-wings.” And immediately after this sequence Herbert places another cluster of poems with a readily apparent linear plot. Even the titles of this group tell a familiar story: “H. Baptisme” (I) and (II), “Nature,” “Sinne” (I), “Affliction” (I), “Repentance,” “Faith,” “Prayer” (I), and “The H. Communion.”
Some of the sequences are not temporal narratives. For example, “Church-monuments,” “Church-musick,” “Church-lock and key,” “The Church-floore,” and “The Windows” are grouped together not so much because they describe a literal walk through the physical church but because each of these subjects prompts a meditation on interior qualities, a temple within. And other sequences allow Herbert to give sustained attention not to a plot but to a particular theme: the poems “Content,” “The Quidditie,” “Humilitie,” “Frailtie,” “Constancie,” and “Affliction” (III) comprise a kind of anticourt sequence in which Herbert contrasts the sacred and secular worlds. No one poem could convey so well Herbert’s complex understanding of the continuing allure of a life-style he sought to reject and the continuing difficulties and pains of a devotional style he sought to accept.
Just as it begins with a highly articulated temporal sequence, “The Church” ends with a series of poems that seems to confirm that all along Herbert has been tracing the life of an exemplary, though more than occasionally troubled, believer, and that at last these troubles are falling away. The final poems are filled with images of comfort and joy, and even potential worries are almost miraculously transformed into occasions for celebration. “Discipline” is an argumentative plea for God to “Throw away thy rod,” and its boldness betrays not lingering pride but confident intimacy with the God of Love. “The Invitation” issues a call to “Come ye hither All” to join with God in a splendid feast, a call answered in the following poem, “The Banquet.” “The Posie,” “A Parodie,” “The Elixir,” and “A Wreath” dramatize God’s presence in dedicated human labor and in particular stress that poetry can be a fit vehicle for praise of God, a recurrent concern for Herbert.
George Herbert. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2019, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/george-herbert