Poets: George Herbert

George Herbert (1593 – 1633) was an Anglican priest, lutenist and poet, known chiefly for a single volume of poetry called “The Temple” (pub. 1633) – a massive collection arranged, as it were into a single cohesive unit. Part of a noble family, he originally sought a position in parliament (and thus ultimately perhaps in court), but after the death of King James sought instead the priesthood.

Although highly renowned in his own time and after, George Herbert is not well known to us due to the vicissitudes of poetic fashion. Since, as I have written elsewhere, that poetry as we know it is generally a series of intellectual word-games practiced by the literary (or otherwise) elite, if fashions change, often indicating other changes in politics, the old poetic canons get swept away.

Our knowledge, for example, of Shakespeare is due to a revival in appreciation for his work rather than a continuous appreciation; likewise, for example, with the greatly famed J. S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, two now-well-known musical composers. It should be noted that Herbert is roughly contemporary with John Donne, and due to his short life (it appears he died of consumption like many of my cousins who lived in the cities in those days) only slightly outlived him (by about two years.)

It has been remarked, though I think it is exaggerated, that while Donne is more of an intellectual poet, whereas Herbert is more affective; and certainly as Herbert was often ill throughout his life he would definitely be “speaking from the heart” about illness of body. However, in both cases we’re dealing with what is sometimes called “Baroque” poetry; that is, actually — poetry that is, to begin with, more intellectual than emotional. When they discuss ‘the affections’ in context to the musical composers I mentioned, they do not mean the emotiveness of the Romantics (or the nihilistic emotional outpourings of 90’s rockers) but rather a total emotional effect that the devices of the Baroque composition have on the person. When reading the linked-to-copy of The Temple (apologies in advance for the web design, friends) it is an effect one will notice creeping up on one in particular poems that resonate with one’s experience.

Herbert was considered a “metaphysical” poet due to his subject matter, although in some sense this is an unfair attribution since in fact The Temple was a sort of private poetic devotion – prayers really – published later. That prayers would have a strong ‘metaphysical’ content almost goes without saying, and the epithet connecting what are merely contemplative poems to metaphysics specifically probably relates more to the almost animalistic materialism of the later critics who evidently could not find any air between Dionysius the Areopagite musing on the celestial powers, or Dante envisioning the transcendent Paradise, and this: (note that in traditional Christian churches from the very beginning people, sometimes even saints, are buried inside the walls, under the altar, etc, within a church. These would be the monuments of which he speaks.)

Church Monuments

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines ;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

This poem is obviously merely contemplative; it in fact is missing the real metaphysical elements of discussion when considering the monuments of the dead, that is, questions about the actual connection between the dust of the body and the soul when the body is dissolved as such, and so on. The image of the body as an hour-glass holding dust is, however, at least touching on what we might mean.

You will also notice a departure from orthodoxy here, only subtle but more clear in the poem “To All Angels and Saints” which is the denial of the fullness of the communion of the members of the Church Militant (people on earth) with the Church Triumphant (people in heaven) – something which the Catholics did not believe. In this model, which is a marked and definitely intentional (and polemical) departure from the classical model, asking for intercessions from any of the Church Triumphant is viewed as idolatry. However, despite his disdain for kissing the monuments of the dead over contemplating what dust can teach him regarding memento mori, it is known to us now that in the earliest days they would hold the service of the Eucharist over the body of a dead martyr; so much for the only use of saints is models and of monuments, remembering death.

This change, naturally, was driven by the necessity of politics: if the Anglicans agreed with the Catholics on all things, why would they not be in submission to the pope? And if so, would this not threaten the royal control over the Church of England? Some of these distinctions in retrospect seem needless, but are certainly maintained to prevent the church from becoming a liability to the security of the state, as it had been since at least the time of John of Salisbury (take for instance the anti-Royal, pro-Papal tract Policraticus written in 1159 – claiming not just a higher ecclesial authority following tradition and Dionysius to the Church and its head(s), but merging the “ordo saeculorum” completely into the ecclesial order, attempting to give reason that the Church itself should have temporal authority over the King in certain circumstances — namely, when the church disapproved of some act that the King took. [A dangerous precedent, indeed!])

Despite this, the poems are all very excellent, some are merely clever and will get a laugh. There is also one other point to consider, that about the five “Affliction” poems. In them, we find a typical “feminized” approach towards affliction, which many thinkers accused Christianity in general of having:

BRoken in pieces all asunder,
                      Lord, hunt me not,
                    A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
               A wonder tortur’d in the space
               Betwixt this world and that of grace.

Because, as I noted earlier, the work is a unit, some of the poems actually only make sense in context. An editor writes:

Editor’s Note: The Affliction Poems appear in the 1633 text with several poems in between each. Read together they show the spiritual development of the persona/Christian/author/poet.

As such, it is notable that the final Affliction poem (V) ends with this statement:

           Affliction then is ours;
We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
While blustering winds destroy the wanton bowers,
And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
       My God, so temper joy and woe,
       That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.

Thus, as per the tradition, the essentially Stoic insight into suffering is maintained and understood as the endpoint of development. Nowadays, this is often given to us in a simple phrase: “No pain, no gain.” As with many of these objects of art and philosophy, what often happens to them is that they are read incompletely, or not read at all, merely taken in hearsay. As an example of this, Dr. Samuel Johnson is accused of having given his opinion on the ‘metaphysical’ poets based entirely on carrying on the opinion of those he respected; and given Johnson’s style in comparison to Herbert’s, it’s understandable that Johnson would have little interest in reading these poems in any case.

One final point before I share a poem of my own. One of the aspects of “metaphysical” poetry was its contemplation of a particular object, which often ‘swirls’ about it, as does the poem on Church Monuments. We can legitimately say that it is a swirling motion because there is often a circular return to words or themes which generally, with each stanza or cycle, get closer to the heart of what the poet intends. This also gives us a general rhetorical form which ends with striking at the heart of the matter (Elucidation). This, I think, affirms Ezra Pound’s intuition about the core goal or vision of English poetry, whether expressed in the terms of Vorticism or Imagism. To see how extreme this “moving about the image” can become in Herbert, simply observe his most “famed” poem, Easter-Wings, where the poem itself is an image of the text; a trick some modern poets will attempt in typesetting (though it’s hard to determine for sure if they have depicted their abstractions well).

I was personally upbraided for this poem, for being perhaps too literal… but, it stands on its own, I think:

To a Persian Rug

I have oft considered this rug before,
Waiting in dim light for confession
Still, inert, spread upon the floor
And yet not devoid of expression
Though I think it is knit with flowers
In these late, half-dreamed hours
My mind’s eye begins a digression
And sees instead the elements’ powers.

Lilies with the face of a sleeping child
A star that is perhaps a Nasturtium;
On a field of deep blue it is styled
Seraphs like eyes on the face of heaven
The border of red, whose tangled crown
Morning glory–? The vine is grown
Around in eddies and twists uneven
Where four rivers of paradise had flown;

My drooping reverie goes deeper still
The eye sees itself in this arrangement
Shapes of terror, or unknown good will
Of heaven’s or earth’s estrangement;
Though some find such objects to be a bore
Lying still as a corpse on this wooden floor
Its life coheres with the mind’s engagement–
Yes, I have considered this rug before.

Note that all of Herbert’s poetry is in The Temple. A great deal of criticism/praise has been written of him elsewhere and can be found if you are interested in other opinions.

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  1. Jack Highlands May 7, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    Your poem is good. Now put it aside for several months at least and forget it. Then return to it with a few items in mind: are there simple changes – not many at all – one could undertake to make it more masculine and assertive, and less archaic in diction?

    1. About the archaicism; it’s intentional. Archaic language is one way (along with odd word order) to knock the person’s attention out of a prosaic mode.

      Note: the original is here


      So the poem itself is about one and a half years old as of the writing of this entry.

      As for the lack of “masculine assertion”; I do not know if it fits the subject. What did you have in mind?

  2. “The Collar” is perhaps one of the best pieces of English poetry ever written, and that’s with John Donne in mind.

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