16 April 2010

'That Brilliant Young Star'—George Herbert

A recent and brilliant post by Felix Culpa analysing the poem ‘Church-monuments’ by the dear English poet George Herbert made me realise I had been forced to skip posting on his birthday because of the coincidence this year of that day with Holy Saturday. It is a shame, because Herbert approaches more closely to sanctity than almost any of the writers I plan to post on, he is one of my own favourite poets, and as Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna has written, Herbert is ‘a genius who is too often ignored today’. [1] So while it is rather late, here is a modest post on George Herbert, whom Alexander Witherspoon and Frank Warnke call ‘a towering figure in Baroque poetry and . . . perhaps the finest devotional poet in our language’, [2] and Charles Williams ‘that brilliant young star, the Public Orator of Cambridge, Mr George Herbert, who (in a sedate Anglican manner) renounced the world for God’. [3] To begin with, I offer Dame Helen Gardner’s brief biographical note on the poet in her Penguin Classics anthology, The Metaphysical Poets:

George Herbert, 1593-1633 (p. 20). [Born in Montgomery, Wales,] George Herbert was the fifth son of Richard and Magdalen Herbert and was only three years old when his father died. He was brought up wholly by his mother, who did not marry her second husband, Sir John Danvers, until 1609. Herbert was educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected Fellow before taking his MA in 1616. He was made Reader in Rhetoric in 1618 and was Public Orator from 1620 to 1627. Like Donne, Herbert looked towards the Court and it was only with the death of his ‘Court hopes’ that he decided to ‘lose himself in an humble way’ and take Orders, an unusual step for a man of family at this period. He was ordained deacon some time in 1626 and spent the next years in retirement. In April 1630 he was presented with the living of Bemerton, near Salisbury, and was ordained priest in September. Less than three years after, he died. Herbert wrote no secular verse; in his first year at Cambridge he sent two sonnets to his mother, promising to consecrate his ‘poor Abilities in Poetry’ to God’s glory. The Temple was published a few months after his death and was constantly reprinted through the century. Walton’s Life of Herbert (1670) was not based on personal acquaintance but on good hearsay. [4]

It may not, however, be quite clear from the above how well educated Herbert was, a point that deserves note because of how often the poet’s ‘simplicity’ is insisted upon. Isaac Walton’s Life of Mr George Herbert insists that he ‘was blest with a high fancy, a civil and sharp wit, and with a natural elegance, both in his behaviour, his tongue, and his pen’, [5] but also ‘well instructed in the rules of grammar’, and that ‘he came to be perfect in the learned languages, and especially in the Greek tongue, in which he after proved an excellent critic.’ [6] In fact, we still possess a number of pieces that he composed in ‘the learned languages’, frequent speeches in Latin having been one of the requirements of the Public Orator position at Cambridge. In the words of Walton, ‘And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such that we may conclude he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue and a serious study of learning.’ [7] No less than in his poetry, this virtue and learning are thus on (modest) display in Herbert’s other writings: The Country Parson, his Character, & Rule of Holy Life, his letters, Brief Notes on Valdesso’s Considerations, and his orations.

But of course, Herbert is also a Christian of a very high sort (indeed, I understand he is venerated as a Saint by some Anglicans!). Speaking of how many of his favourite writers and poets even as a young atheist were thoroughly imbued with Christianity, C.S. Lewis has written:

Most alarming of all was George Herbert. Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment, but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I still would have called ‘the Christian mythology’. On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as predecessors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly. [8]

Similarly, just before he begins an argument that those elements of the Anglican church under the Stuarts that were sometimes mistaken for ‘Romish and papistic’ were rather ‘patristic’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge says of Herbert:

G. Herbert is a true poet, but a poet sui generis, the merits of whose poems will never be felt without a sympathy with the mind and character of the man. To appreciate this volume, it is not enough that the reader possesses a cultivated judgment, classical taste, or even poetic sensibility, unless he be likewise a Christian, and both a zealous and an orthodox, both a devout and a devotional Christian. But even this will not quite suffice. He must be an affectionate and dutiful child of the Church, and from habit, conviction, and a constitutional predisposition to ceremoniousness, in piety as in manners, find her forms and ordinances aids of religion, not sources of formality; for religion is the element in which he lives, and the region in which he moves. [9]

The context of Coleridge’s comment brings me to one aspect of Herbert that is particularly likely to appeal to Orthodox Christians: his devotion to the Fathers. Archbishop Chrysostomos refers to ‘a Patristic profundity to the insights and experiences of his soul’. [10] Herbert himself recommends to the country parson the study of the Fathers as essential to the understanding of Scripture:

As he doth not so study others, as to neglect the grace of God in himself, and what the Holy Spirit teacheth him; so doth he assure himself, that God in all ages hath had his Servants, to whom he hath revealed his Truth, as well as to him; and that as one Country doth not bear all things, that there may be a Commerce; so neither hath God opened, or will open all to one, that there may be a traffic in knowledge between the servants of God, for the planting both of love and humility. [11]

Robert Willmott quotes a remark of Herbert’s first editor, Barnabas Oley, ‘He that reads Mr Herbert’s poems attendingly, shall find the excellence of Scripture Divinity, and choice passages of the Fathers bound up in the metre.’ Willmott then comments:

Herbert did not forget to consult, for his outpourings of heart-praise and love, that commonplace book of Greek and Latin theology which the Country Parson is recommended to collect and ponder. Many of his curiosities of fancy have a Patristic, rather than a poetic ancestry, and are to be sought in Chrysostom or Cyprian, instead of in Donne, or Marini. [12]

Willmott is referring, of course, to the next chapter of Country Parson, where Herbert insists:

The Country Parson hath read the Fathers also, and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proportion of all, out of all of which he hath compiled a Book and Body of Divinity, which is the storehouse of his Sermons, and which he preacheth all his Life; but diversely clothed, illustrated, and enlarged. [13]

In light of Coleridge’s and Willmott’s observations, I can’t help but wonder at the frequent and superfluous references to Herbert’s Protestantism in what is otherwise one of my favourite articles on Herbert: ‘“Brittle Crazy Glass”: George Herbert’s Devotional Poetics’, by an acquaintance who taught at my alma mater in my undergraduate days, Mark A. Eaton, now of Azusa Pacific University:

To a Protestant poet like Herbert, the very activity of writing poetry entails a self-assertion authorized only insofar as it succeeds in directing our gaze past the poetry toward God.

. . . Of course, Protestant exegesis of Scripture provided a simple interpretive procedure: God could be found behind every text, when read properly. [14]

The obvious place for a Protestant Christian to search for God is in the Bible. More often than not, biblical exegesis as it appears in Herbert’s poetry is typological. Reformation typology evolves from medieval exegesis and looks back across the centuries to St Augustine. [15]

[And quoting Barbara Lewalski,] . . . ‘typology permitted Protestants to identify their own spiritual experience much more closely with that of the Old Testament types. [16]

In short, I see nothing specifically Protestant in any of this. As Coleridge notes, it is patristic, and while English Protestants may have attempted a fidelity to the Fathers in the seventeenth century, they certainly did not continue such an attempt consistently, nor did the early Reformers themselves. Fr Andrew Louth reminds us, ‘Luther . . . was fundamentally and deeply opposed to allegory and to the concomitant idea of the multiple senses of Scripture . . . (not that this prevented Luther from having resort to allegory on other occasions).’ Fr Louth goes on to quote John Keble’s observation, ‘During the struggle of the Reformation, men had felt instinctively, if they did not clearly see, that the Fathers were against them’. [17]

Herbert even goes against the Protestant grain in his admiration for asceticism. L.R. Lind considers him exemplary of ‘a return to asceticism’ which ‘characterized some of the best English poetry’ of the time. [18] This is illustrated beautifully by Herbert’s encomium on Egyptian monasticism in these lines of ‘The Church Militant’, quoted by Coleridge as evidence of his veneration of the Fathers:

To Egypt first she came, where they did prove
Wonders of anger once, but now of love.
The ten Commandments there did flourish more
Than the ten bitter plagues had done before.
Holy Macarius and great Anthonie
Made Pharaoh Moses, changing th’ historie.
Goshen was darknesse, Egypt full of lights,
Nilus for monsters brouth forth Israelites.
Such power hath mightie Baptism to produce,
For things misshapen, things of highest use. [19]

It is interesting indeed that Herbert, when naming the ‘lights’ that shown forth from Egypt, chooses the desert ascetics, Ss Macarius and Anthony, rather than the great Doctors of the Church, Ss Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria.

But one thing that interests me in Herbert above all is what Ann Pasternak Slater calls his ‘abiding theme’: ‘that man’s soul is God’s temple’. [20] It may sound at first like a simple commonplace—we are all familiar with St Paul’s question in I Corinthians, ‘What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own’ (I Cor. 6:19)? But the Fathers discovered in this verse a very profound mystical doctrine, one which informed their reading of Scripture, their experience of liturgy, and their practice of prayer. Consider this passage from the Mystagogy of the Church of St Maximus the Confessor: ‘And again from another point of view he used to say that holy Church is like a man because for the soul it has a sanctuary, for mind it has the divine altar, and for body it has the nave.’ [21] Then compare the analogous interiorisation of the altar in Herbert’s poem (I apologise that I do not know how to reproduce the deliberate ‘altar’ shape of the lines in the printed texts—see the image to the left):

The Altar

A broken Altar, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares: [22]
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A heart alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name:
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed Sacrifice be mine,
And sanctifie this Altar to be thine. [23]

Mary Ellen Rickey argues persuasively that the poem is a sanctification of a classical pattern, but at any rate the echo of a patristic theme only confirms her judgement that it is certainly ‘no mere quaint vagary of a naïve sensibility, as for two centuries it was mistakenly thought to be, or even an eccentricity redeemed by its skillful combination of Biblical allusions’. [24]

I have said or quoted a great deal about Herbert, but offered very little by way of his own words. I refer readers to a number of previous posts, here (where I also mention the study of Herbert by the late Mother Thekla of the former Dormition Monastery in Whitby, Yorkshire), here, here, here, and here. But I shan’t miss the opportunity to post just two more.

First, Michael Ward suggests that Lewis’s depiction of the descent of the planetary gods in That Hideous Strength may have been influenced by the following lyric of Herbert’s, where the line ‘The starres were coming down to know / If they might mend their wages, and serve here’ is underlined in Lewis’s copy at the Wade Center: [25]


Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

Where is that fire which once descended
On thy Apostles? thou didst then
Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

The sunne, which once did shine alone,
Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

But since those pipes of gold, which brought
That cordiall water to our ground,
Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right. [26]

The other poem—‘The Windows’—is partially quoted by Archbishop Chrysostomos, in his enthusiastic review of Jane Falloon’s Heart in Pilgrimage: A Study of George Herbert. [27] It is also a major subject of Dr Eaton’s article. Slater takes the window to be the minister’s preaching, [28] but Eaton astutely goes a bit further, seeing in it an unmistakable reference to Herbert’s own poetry. [29]

The Windows

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preachers, then the light and glorie
More rev'rend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the eare, not conscience ring. [30]

In conclusion, I highly recommend Felix Culpa’s meditation on ‘Church-monuments’ (here). But there are also many other good sources on Herbert online, including the Herbert page at the Luminarium (here), the Cambridge Author page (here), and a dissertation—‘The Dwelling Place of God: The Significance of Structure in “The Temple” by Lillian Myers (here). By all means, read more of and about this brilliant and pious man who ‘occupies a permanent and central position in our understanding of the development of English poetry and is recognized as one of the chief poets of the seventeenth century’. [31]

[1] Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Review of Heart in Pilgrimage: A Study of George Herbert by Jane Falloon, Orthodox Tradition XXVI.3, 2009, p. 58.

[2] Alexander M. Witherspoon & Frank J. Warnke, eds., Seventeenth-Century Prose & Poetry, 2nd ed. (NY: Harcourt, 1963), p. 842.

[3] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent, 2002), p. 195.

[4] Dame Helen Gardner, ed., The Metaphysical Poets (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 313.

[5] Isaac Walton, ‘The Life of Mr George Herbert’, The Complete English Works, by George Herbert, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (NY: Knopf, 1995), p. 346.

[6] Ibid., p. 340.

[7] Ibid., p. 344.

[8] From Surprised by Joy, qtd. in Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life & Imagination of C.S. Lewis (SF: Harper, 2005), p. 126.

[9] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notes & Lectures on Shakespeare & Some of the Old Poets & Dramatists, Vol. 2, ed. Mrs H.N. Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1849), p. 255.

[10] Archbishop Chrysostomos, p. 58.

[11] George Herbert, The Works of George Herbert in Prose & Verse, ed. Robert Aris Willmott (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1857), p. 223.

[12] Robert Aris Willmott, ‘Introduction’, Herbert, p. xxii.

[13] Herbert, p. 224.

[14] Mark A. Eaton, ‘“Brittle Crazy Glass”: George Herbert’s Devotional Poetics’, Christianity & Literature 43.1, Autumn 1993, p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 9.

[17] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), p. 98.

[18] L.R. Lind, ed., Latin Poetry in Verse Translation (Boston: Houghton, 1957), p. 393.

[19] Herbert, p. 203.

[20] Ann Pasternak Slater, Introduction, The Complete English Works, p. xv.

[21] St Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, tr. George C. Berthold (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1985), pp. 189-90.

[22] Although Herbert refers to the ‘heart’ where St Maximus has ‘mind’ (nous), recall Columba Stewart’s observations that in the ‘Evagrian’ tradition these two faculties are often directly identified, and are at any rate closely related in the patristic tradition as a whole. See Columba Stewart, OSB, Cassian the Monk (Oxford: Oxford U, 1998), pp. 42 & 166, n. 13.

[23] Herbert, p. 18.

[24] Mary Ellen Rickey, Utmost Art: Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert (Lexington: U of Kentecky, 1966), p. 15.

[25] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford U, 2008), p. 37.

[26] Herbert, pp. 54-5.

[27] Archbishop Chrysostomos, p. 58.

[28] Slater, p. xii.

[29] Eaton, p. 6.

[30] Herbert, p. 63.

[31] John R. Roberts, George Herbert: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1905-1974 (Columbia, MO: U of Missouri, 1978), p. x.


Joseph Patterson said...

Bravo! Back in my days as an Anglican priest no one inspired my ministry more than Herbert's "Country Parson".

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Excellent work, Aaron! I become lost in Herbert, or is that found?

I recommend to everyone the smart little Everyman's Library edition George Herbert: The Complete English Works. It's a smackingly beautiful read.