George Herbert (1593–1633) was born in Montgomery, Wales, into a junior branch of the great Herbert family. His father died in 1596, when his mother moved the family, first to her mother’s house at Eyton-upon Severn, then via Oxford to Charing Cross, between London and Westminster. As a scholar of Westminster School, he was given a thoroughly classical education, punctuated by Bible readings and prayers, and was chosen for a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he spent the next 14 years of his life, rising through the academic ranks to be Orator, “the finest place in the University.” He had lobbied for it frantically, but gradually withdrew from it into a seclusion, which was at last broken by his marriage and by finding the courage to become a priest, spending his final three years as the Rector of Bemerton with Fugglestone, between Salisbury and the great Herbert house at Wilton.

In their very different styles, Herbert and Milton are England’s two great biblical poets. Herbert set out his own use of the Bible in chapter 4, “The Parsons Knowledge,” of A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson, written to give him “a mark to aim” at in his final years as Rector of Fugglestone and Bemerton and published posthumously in 1652. “The chief and top of his knowledge consists in the book of books, the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures. There he sucks and lives.” He describes four principles of interpretation, the first and most important being “a holy life … because they [the scriptures] are not understood but with the same Spirit that writ them.” This is indispensable to understanding Herbert’s poetry, which is both about his life and biblically saturated. Then comes prayer, another source of pleasure and wonder according to his poem “Prayer (I),” and a practice that should precede reading. “The third means is a diligent Collation of Scripture with Scripture,” stitching up the unity of scripture, for all its variety, verse to verse. And “the fourth means are Commenters and Fathers, who have handled the places controverted, which the Parson by no means refuseth.” He himself used the scholarly commentary of the Catholic Lucas Brugensis (he left it to his curate in his will). The order is deliberate and telling.

Herbert’s pair of sonnets, “The Holy Scriptures, I and II,” shows his delight in the Bible with light-footed, extrovert cheerfulness. The Bible is delicious: “let my heart / Suck ev’ry letter, and a honey gain.” With a huckster’s cry he exclaims “Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass, / Which mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well that washes what it shows”: it is medicinal. In the second sonnet he rejoices in collation: “This verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie. … These three make up some Christian’s destiny”—the primacy of actual life again (“thy words do find me out”), combined with scripture commenting on scripture. The concordances bound with Geneva Bibles helped this verse-hopping, as did the asterisks, little stars in the margins, in the later King James Version. The latter inform that last line, “This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.” The authority of the Bible did not concern Herbert. He took that for granted. What mattered to him was use of it as a practical help and enjoyment of it as a nourishing source of comfort and joy.

Thanks to translators and printing presses, the English Bible was more available in Herbert’s time than ever before. The Geneva Bible of 1560 had gone through more than 50 editions before Herbert was born. It yielded to the official King James Version of 1611 only when the latter, at first in black-letter folio, began to appear in handier formats, cheap and in Roman type. The reformers of the previous century had put the Bible at the center of Christian life, communal and individual. As Herbert’s “The Holy Scriptures” sonnets testify, it was exhilarating to have the oracles of God, the source and pattern of your life, in your own hands. The extraordinary variety of genres in the “book of books,” library rather than monograph, is reflected in the variety of Herbert’s poetry.

The final collection of that poetry in The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations was published in 1633 after Herbert’s death, having been copied by the scribes at Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding into a fair copy for the press, which survives in Oxford as the “Bodleian Manuscript.” It begins with a dedication grown from Deuteronomy 26:1–2, which is followed by “The Church Porch,” a kind of book of Proverbs for seventeenth-century youth in 77 stanzas of common sense and good advice (Herbert was a keen collector of proverbs, poetry at its vivid briefest). Then comes “The Altar,” a collage of scriptural references shaped like an Old Testament altar as pictured in the frontispiece of the New Testament in the King James Version and in a woodcut at Exodus 30 in the Geneva Bible. “The Sacrifice,” with apt continuity, follows. Its 63 stanzas have a version of Lamentations 1:12 as their insistent refrain, “Was ever grief like mine?” Traditionally referred to as Christ’s Passion, it allows the whole poem to be a monologue spoken by Christ and constructed from the Gospels, interwoven with frequent collating references to the Old Testament, of which Herbert’s treatment of Christ’s crown of thorns in lines 161–168 and of his cross in lines 201–204 are notable examples.

The relation of the Old Testament to the New within the Bible interests Herbert for both its cohesion and its contrasts. In “Decay” the Old Testament is a golden age, a time when God was easily accessible to Lot and Jacob, Abraham and Moses, in a familiar landscape where “great Aaron’s bell” (a reference to Exodus 28) can be heard over the fields. In the Christian present, by contrast, “the world grows old” and God is closeted up in “in some one corner of a feeble heart,” waiting to burst out in fiery judgment. “Sion” is less enthusiastic about the old days and more positive about now. The glory of Solomon’s temple is recounted, then qualified: “all this glory, all this pomp and state / Did not affect thee [God] much, was not thy aim [referring to Isaiah 1:11–15]”—which was always the human heart. “One good groan” from there—Herbert is recalling St. Paul’s view that groaning expresses hope despite frustration at Romans 8:22–23—goes up to God: “the note is sad, yet music for a King.” In “The Bunch of Grapes,” the Old Testament and the Christian present are at one in a masterpiece of typological collation. Frustration is once again the problem, the Christian’s journeying heart finding itself back where it started. Scripture solves it. The book of Numbers 13–21 tells how the Jews reached the border of their Promised Land, but, despite the huge bunch of grapes brought from there by their spies, withdrew in fear of giants. So God sent them right back to the Red Sea where they began. Herbert links incident after incident in Numbers to the Christian’s present and exploits the image of grapes in terms of the Eucharist. So “their [the Jews’] story pens and sets us down.” God’s will for the Jews of old is the same for us now. In “The Jews” Herbert expresses sympathetic sorrow for those heirs of the Old Testament in their present state. They had lost out when the Christian era began, the streams that nourished them diverted to the Church “by the Apostles’ sluice.” He prays earnestly for them that in the end “your sweet sap might come again.” The imagery of the sluice comes from his own back garden at Bemerton with its view of the elaborately engineered water meadows on the other side of the river.

Herbert chose the titles of his poems with care, sometimes enigmatically. As so often, scripture is the clue. The two “Jordan” poems are an instance. There is apparently, but only apparently, no reference to the river Jordan in the poems themselves. They are both about the virtue of simplicity in poetry: the first in general, the second in Herbert’s own experience of writing. The Jordan often figures in the Old Testament, but 2 Kings 5 is the key here. It is the story of the Syrian general Naaman, a leper who scorned the prophet Elisha’s prescription (insultingly, by proxy) to cure his disease by bathing in the Jordan. He had far better rivers at home. His servants overcame his objection, and he did as directed and “his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” The story appealed to Herbert as combining his love of cleanliness and childhood (“childhood is health” “Holy Baptism [II]”) and of simplicity (“A Wreath”). It takes a seasoned Bible reader to pick up the clue. Herbert makes things easier in “The Pearl. Matthew 13:45” by including the scriptural reference in his title. This is just as well since, again, there is in the poem no apparent reference to the parable concerned: the merchant who sold all that he had to buy the one “pearl of great price.” Instead, we have longish stanzas listing academic and courtly attainments, pleasures and values, concluding with “Yet I love thee” and finally “To climb to thee.” So the whole contents of the poet’s world are transcended (they are not denied or demeaned) by love. And this is his “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42), for Herbert supreme even over God in “Discipline.” First John 4:16, “God is love,” is arguably Herbert’s key conviction, so ardently believed as implicitly to allow its reversal, “Love is God.” The title of “Colossians 3:3. Our life is hid with Christ in God” is a necessary clue to the structure of the poem, the text, somewhat paraphrased, being hidden line by line diagonally, in the poem. Buck, the printer of The Temple, picked out its words by italics, whereas in Buck’s copy of the Bodleian Manuscript it was not—Herbert expected more exertion from the reader than Buck. This was a favorite text of his, according to Aubrey inscribed “at his wive’s seat” in Bemerton church. The hidden life appealed to Herbert (“The Temper [I]”), and he did indeed virtually go into hiding in 1625–1629 between Cambridge and Bemerton.

Of all the scriptures, the book of Psalms mattered most to Herbert. The Psalms were, after all, the best known scriptures, being recited communally and all through every month, morning and evening, according to the Book of Common Prayer, as well as being used for prayers individually and at home. Many poets before him had put them into English verse: Wyatt, Surrey, Francis Bacon, and Philip and Mary Sidney. Herbert did this only for “The 23d Psalme,” but it was in the Psalms that Herbert found his exemplar and his matter. Chana Bloch, in her masterly study Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (1985, p. 231), concludes that “his Temple conveys the spirit of the Psalms in its unsparing self-revelation, its intimate address to God, its pervasive musicality, its yoking of complaint and praise.” It was a matter of digestion rather than mere quotation or paraphrase.

The emphasis on digestion in the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (seasonal prayer) for the second Sunday in Advent applies to Herbert’s poetry with particular precision:

"Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our saviour Jesus Christ. Amen."

Above all “inwardly digest them.” “Love (III),” the final masterpiece of The Temple, moves readers who know little or nothing of the Bible.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,Guilty of dust and sin.But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slackFrom my first entrance in,Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:Love said, you shall be he.I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,I cannot look on thee.Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shameGo where it doth deserve.And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?My dear, then I will serve.You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:So I did sit and eat.

Yet on examination it proves to be a tissue of biblical tropes and references. The whole biblical scheme of history is there, from Adam whom God made, eyes and all, of dust at Genesis 2:7 and guilty of sin in Genesis 3, through Christ who “bore the blame” according to the doctrine of Paul’s Epistles, to the end of the world when “ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). Within that biblical frame there are echoes of Psalm 23 (“Thou hast prepared a table before me”), Song of Solomon 2:4 (“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love”), and Luke 12:37, in which the lord “shall make them sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” There may well be more than all that, but the point is that none of it is obtrusive, let alone ostentatious. Its other qualities apart, “Love [III]” is a tour de force in the inward digestion of the scriptures. Just as we will never have done with Herbert, so he never had done with his Bible.

[See also ENGLISH LITERATURE, EARLY MODERN and MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Bloch, Chana. Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Di Cesare, Mario, and Rigo Mignani, eds. A Concordance to the Complete Writings of George Herbert. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
  • Drury, John. Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert. London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2013.
  • Herbert, George. The Works of George Herbert. Edited by F. E. Hutchinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945.
  • Herbert, George. The English Poems of George Herbert. Edited by Helen Wilcox. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Herbert, George. The Complete Poetry of George Herbert. Edited by John Drury and Victoria Moul. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.

John Drury