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George Herbert's Life and Poetry

by William J. Long

"O day most calm, most bright," sang George Herbert, and we may safely take that single line as expressive of the whole spirit of his writings. Professor Palmer, whose scholarly edition of this poet's works is a model for critics and editors, calls Herbert the first in English poetry who spoke face to face with God. That may be true; but it is interesting to note that not a poet of the first half of the seventeenth century, not even the gayest of the Cavaliers, but has written some noble verse of prayer or aspiration, which expresses the underlying Puritan spirit of his age. Herbert is the greatest, the most consistent of them all. In all the others the Puritan struggles against the Cavalier, or the Cavalier breaks loose from the restraining Puritan; but in Herbert the struggle is past and peace has come. That his life was not all calm, that the Puritan in him had struggled desperately before it subdued the pride and idleness of the Cavalier, is evident to one who reads between his lines:

I struck the board and cry'd, No more!
          I will abroad.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind.

There speaks the Cavalier of the university and the court; and as one reads to the end of the little poem, which he calls by the suggestive name of "The Collar," he may know that he is reading condensed biography.

Those who seek for faults, for strained imagery and fantastic verse forms in Herbert's poetry, will find them in abundance; but it will better repay the reader to look for the deep thought and fine feeling that are hidden in these wonderful religious lyrics, even in those that appear most artificial. The fact that Herbert's reputation was greater, at times, than Milton's, and that his poems when published after his death had a large sale and influence, shows certainly that he appealed to the men of his age; and his poems will probably be read and appreciated, if only by the few, just so long as men are strong enough to understand the Puritan's spiritual convictions.

Life. Herbert's life is so quiet and uneventful that to relate a few biographical facts can be of little advantage. Only as one reads the whole story by Izaak Walton can he share the gentle spirit of Herbert's poetry. He was born at Montgomery Castle,[163] Wales, 1593, of a noble Welsh family. His university course was brilliant, and after graduation he waited long years in the vain hope of preferment at court. All his life he had to battle against disease, and this is undoubtedly the cause of the long delay before each new step in his course. Not till he was thirty-seven was he ordained and placed over the little church of Bemerton. How he lived here among plain people, in "this happy corner of the Lord's field, hoping all things and blessing all people, asking his own way to Sion and showing others the way," should be read in Walton. It is a brief life, less than three years of work before being cut off by consumption, but remarkable for the single great purpose and the glorious spiritual strength that shine through physical weakness. Just before his death he gave some manuscripts to a friend, and his message is worthy of John Bunyan:

Deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed 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. Desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it, for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.

Herbert's Poems. Herbert's chief work, The Temple, consists of over one hundred and fifty short poems suggested by the Church, her holidays and ceremonials, and the experiences of the Christian life. The first poem, "The Church Porch," is the longest and, though polished with a care that foreshadows the classic school, the least poetical. It is a wonderful collection of condensed sermons, wise precepts, and moral lessons, suggesting Chaucer's "Good Counsel," Pope's "Essay on Man," and Polonius's advice to Laertes, in Hamlet; only it is more packed with thought than any of these. Of truth-speaking he says:

Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie;
A fault which needs it most grows two thereby.

and of calmness in argument:

Calmness is great advantage: he that lets
Another chafe may warm him at his fire.

Among the remaining poems of The Temple one of the most suggestive is "The Pilgrimage." Here in six short stanzas, every line close-packed with thought, we have the whole of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The poem was written probably before Bunyan was born, but remembering the wide influence of Herbert's poetry, it is an interesting question whether Bunyan received the idea of his immortal work from this "Pilgrimage." Probably the best known of all his poems is the one called "The Pulley," which generally appears, however under the name "Rest," or "The Gifts of God."

  When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us, said he, pour on him all we can:
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
    Contract into a span.
  So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed; then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
    Rest in the bottom lay.
  For, if I should, said he,
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
    So both should losers be.
  Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
    May toss him to my breast.

Among the poems which may be read as curiosities of versification, and which arouse the wrath of the critics against the whole metaphysical school, are those like "Easter Wings" and "The Altar," which suggest in the printed form of the poem the thing of which the poet sings. More ingenious is the poem in which rime is made by cutting off the first letter of a preceding word, as in the five stanzas of "Paradise ":

I bless thee, Lord, because I grow
Among thy trees, which in a row
To thee both fruit and order ow.

And more ingenious still are odd conceits like the poem "Heaven," in which Echo, by repeating the last syllable of each line, gives an answer to the poet's questions.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things