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Celebrating George Herbert

George Herbert (1593-1633) is perhaps the Anglican poet, born in the reign of Elizabeth 1st he flourished in a time when Anglicanism was establishing itself as a distinct ecclesiastical and spiritual tradition – the King James Bible was published in 1611 – and after his death his collection of poems The Temple became almost a handbook of Anglican spirituality. Herbert was also a Welshman born near Montgomery in what is now Powys, but after the death of his father, like many Welshman since, he moved to London where he was educated at Westminster school. It soon became clear that he was a brilliant scholar and he then went on to Cambridge University where after his graduation he was appointed to the post of Public Orator which should have been a stepping stone to a brilliant public career. Things, however, didn’t work out for Herbert and along with his ill health and growing doubts about the value of such a public life he drifted for a number of years unsure what to do with his life. Eventually he settled on ordination to the Anglican priesthood, married and became the Rector of Bemerton, a village near Salisbury. This suited him perfectly and he became a model for the devoted rural vicar – particularly after the posthumous publication of his reflections on the role of the country Parson A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson. Sadly Herbert’s poor health caught up with him and within four years he he had died of tuberculosis. On his deathbed he passed on his collection of private devotional poems to his friend Nicolas Ferrar to see if he thought they might be of any value to anyone else. Ferrar immediately saw the great importance of Herbert’s verse and got them published, they quickly became popular and have never been out of print since. Herbert’s reputation was further established by a hagiographic biography by Izaak Walton which established him as the ideal of the Anglican parson – much to the chagrin of his successors who have struggled to live up to his saintly ideals!

During the summer weeks we will be exploring a few of Herbert’s poems during Evening Prayer at St. Cadmarch’s church. Herbert is often classified with the so-called metaphysical poets such as his fellow priest John Donne but he actually strove for a plainer style than Donne, although he did enjoy the conceits and wordplay that is typical of the metaphysicals. In fact his collection of poetry The Temple is itself one long conceit, reflecting the architectural style of the typical country church. His love of wordplay is demonstrated in his shortest poem Anagram

How well her name an Army doth present,

in whom the Lord of Hosts did pitch his tent!

Army is, of course, is an anagram of Mary whom the tiny poem celebrates. Herbert is a deeply serious poet but there is also a lot of fun to be had with his clever manipulation of the English language.

Yet there is much more to Herbert than clever wordplay or pious devotion. Above all his poems are about the struggle of the spiritual life and how we reconcile the doctrines and claims of Christianity with our actual human experience. This, no doubt, is why they have endured over the centuries and why even people with little interest in religion celebrate them as one of the great creations of the English language for they do, indeed, have the power to speak into the deepest recesses of the human heart. With their honesty, their deep feeling and profound thought they are one of the great treasures of Anglican spirituality. And they have continued to inspire people in the following centuries. We will, in particular, look briefly at the work of the Brecknockshire poet Henry Vaughan who seems to have been converted to a deeper Christian commitment by reading Herbert’s verse. As he recovered from the trauma of the Civil War he himself wrote an important collection of devotional verse which whilst nowhere near as well-known as Herbert’s poetry still has a respected place within the canon of English literature. It is particularly interesting for us for it does seem to me to reflect a distinctively Welsh sensibility whilst also drawing heavily on the model of Herbert. And their influence has continued into more recent times – CS Lewis, for instance, was also heavily influenced by Herbert during his process of conversion to Christianity. Today George Herbert is still part of our spirituality, particularly through the influence of his poetry that has been set as hymns, one of which is reproduced below

I have tried to select some of the more popular and accessible of Herbert’s poems in the hope that they will enable us to honestly explore our own spiritual journey and perhaps dip for ourselves into the rich treasury of his work. His work is widely available both in books and online. Some helpful websites include:

http://www.georgeherbert.org.uk/ A good website focused on his parish of Bemerton
http://www.georgeherbert.org Another comprehensive site

John Drury’s Music at Midnight a recent biography of George Herbert has been rightly and widely praised and is now available in paperback or e-book for not much more than a fiver.

Antiphon

Chorus Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,

My God and King.

 

Verse The heav’ns are not too high,

His praise may thither flie:

The earth is not too low,

His praises there may grow.

 

Chorus Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,

My God and King.

 

Verse The church with psalms must shout,

No doore can keep them out:

But above all, the heart

Must bear the longest part.

 

Chorus Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,

My God and King.

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