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Faith and George Herbert

The George Herbert window in All Saints’, Bishop Burton, near Beverley in Yorkshire:
 ‘Lord I have loved the habitation of thine house.’ 

An address given at Evensong on Sunday the 23rd of October at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne as part of a series on ‘Heroes of the Faith’.

[Poem: Superliminare]

Thou, whom the former precepts have
Sprinkled and taught, how to behave
Thyself in church; approach, and taste
The church’s mystical repast.

Avoid, profaneness; come not here:
Nothing but holy, pure, and clear,
Or that which groaneth to be so,
May at his peril further go.

The people who work on the other side of the hedge of the car park of this church come to learn there is life after politics. Or we hope they do. The poet George Herbert lived a life that could be described as before and after politics. “Power seldom grows old at court,” he says in one of his Outlandish Proverbs, and he experienced the truth of that saying in his own life. As a favourite of King James the First, Herbert was a great orator and may well have gone on to be a brilliant planner or diplomat for the newly formed British crown, anywhere in the known world. James conducted a court of best minds, in which open discussion of theology as well as the humanities of literature, statecraft and so forth, was encouraged. The authorised translation of the Bible, that has carried the King’s name ever since, was just one result of this ferment within the court.

When James died in the spring of 1625, Herbert’s chances of preferment slipped away and he chose to follow his other vocation and enter holy orders. I cite this as a first example of how we learn faith. Faith is about keeping the possibilities open in oneself and for others, about not narrowing our prospects in life, about being ready for what providence and chance, blessing and misfortune, may challenge us with. He once wrote

Why should I toil so perversely to be famous
When I could stand in silence for nothing?

This year the Australian theologian Ben Myers, who will speak in this place in a few weeks on Herbert’s starry contemporary William Shakespeare, listed on his Facebook page some of the writing that effected his childhood. And I quote:

“I read and learned many of [Herbert’s poems in his collected works called The Temple] during my early high school days. My mother was writing a PhD thesis on The Temple and she was always sharing some little morsel from Mr Herbert. I loved the poems because my mother loved them, and because of the plain speech. Later I loved them because I discovered that they were true. The Temple is still the most precise and honest account I’ve ever come across about what the Christian life is really like (not what it’s meant to be like: the problem with nearly all other books on this topic.)”

Unquote. Not many of us can boast of having the works of Herbert read to us by our mother by the age of 14, but it would have an effect. Our parents are likely to show, by example, as well as word, how to live inside faith, with the unknown, with God. Our parents are never going to give us everything, which is why as we grow we are drawn to others who may teach us about faith.

Lady Magdalen Herbert, George’s mother, was a civilised individual. It was she who wanted him to go into the church, rather than whatever else was the going thing. We can conclude that she herself perceived gifts in her son that he himself would only discover through time. The poet John Donne, who was a close friend of the Herberts and who delivered Lady Magdalen’s commemoration eulogy, praised her “loving facetiousness and wit,” as well as her “holy cheerfulness and religious alacrity.” Donne wrote: “God gave her such comeliness as, though she were not proud of it, yet she was so content with it as not to go about to mend it by any Art.” When we hear this description, it helps us understand George Herbert all the better, his own “holy cheerfulness” and lack of pretension. His mother instilled in him a focus on faithful living and on the potential for presenting this through words.

George Herbert was a kind of psalmist. He loved the Psalms for their variety of address to God: prayer, supplication, wonder, lament, argument, rebuke, wonder, praise. He left his English poetry in the care of his friend Nicholas Ferrar of the Little Gidding community, an act of faith in itself, and none was published in his lifetime. Yet it is how we know him best.

Herbert was fluent in several languages. He wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, which he himself regarded as better than his English poems. Only a classical antiquarian, or specialist critic, reads those now, while new imprints of the English poems come out about every other year. His gift to English poetry, and those desiring to learn more about our relationship with God, is its direct language, alive with subtleties of meaning and motion. He valued clarity, lucidity and transparency. He took from the Latin poets like Horace and Ovid the deft placement of words into structured  patterns: a few words doing a lot of work. In his day Latinate words were supercool and many of his peers dotted their poems, or rather lapidated them, with these features to look original and educated. What is marvellous, and even shocking, about Herbert is his indifference to looking supercool. The most ordinary everyday words are the quickest way to the reader, and to God.

[Poem: Love III]

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

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 shame
            Go 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.

Articles, sermons and whole books have been written about these 126 words. But what do we find? How do we individually ourselves find them? We find that for Herbert faith is about relationship. Most of his poems, including ‘Love III’, describe or enact a relationship between himself, that is anyone, you or me, and God. God is “quick-ey’d Love”, the one who made the eyes to see, also the one who invites the perhaps worthy individual to the table because he makes them worthy. We find the psychological acuity of guilt, the to-and-fro that will develop if we only persist in our openness to change, to our simple readiness to accept and serve. We find a poem that describes the action of the Eucharist in just a few lines, where each line leads convincingly and truly from the one that preceded it to the one that follows. Because indeed it is Love that invites us to the mystery and does so wherever we happen to be in time and space, in our own difficulties. There are no rules, no favouritisms, no denials, only the possibility that the worthy yet unkind and ungrateful self may respond favourably to Love itself, in the person of the Lord who first welcomed us.

Like many in his day, Herbert set his words to music and played them on the lute. It is one reason why they are still so easy to sing. But, like musicians then as now, Herbert was a better performer and composer than he was an archivist. We don’t know the kinds of composition he employed, but we can guess because we hear the movement of the simple language, where the stresses fall and how the metres run, in the poetry.

[Poem: The Call]

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
            Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
            Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
            Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
            Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
            Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
            Such a Heart, as joys in love.

Today, though we all encounter poetry at special times in our life, poetry itself is seen as a minority or even elite art form, the realm of romantic and modernist experiment, a means to self-expression but also to secret codes and private games. Herbert and his peers like Shakespeare and Donne would have found this peculiar, living in a society where such language art form was common and essential.

Why write poetry? Herbert flourished in a society where community life within a local parish was central. Knowledge of Scripture and regular engagement with English liturgy informs all of his poetry. Furthermore, he expects and believes his readers to know the same. We read his words and hear in them the ongoing life of faith, whether in affliction or beatitude, whether in company of others or in solitude, whether deep in prayer or simply experiencing everyday existence.

Herbert was a fortunate inheritor of the reforms of the English Church. As the biographer John Drury puts it, “Herbert was pre-eminently [a godly man, fit to be called forth for his talents], conscientious but pragmatic, who valued his Church’s stance between the extremes of dogmatic Calvinism and elaborate catholic ritual.”

While clearly poetry was Herbert’s gift and a matter of persistent play, when he handed his manuscript to Nicholas Ferrar prior to his death at the early age of 40, George Herbert said this poetry “may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” I hear a priest saying these words, a priest who has gone somewhere outside Salisbury to work amongst those given into his charge, someone whose own prayerful experience of life in God has found its way into poetry. His time as a country parson was short. He would say he was going “to hide in Christ”, which is where faith, hope, and love may be found. He didn’t even know if anyone would read his words after him. And so I conclude with a reading of the second of two poems he entitled ‘Jordan’, a summary of the life of a certain kind of poet.

[Poem: Jordan II]

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excel,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did run,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begun;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun,
Much less those joys which trample on his head.

As flames do work and wind, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense,
But while I bustled, I might hear a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d:
Copy out only that, and save expense.


Drury, John. Music at midnight : the life and poetry of George Herbert. Allen Lane, 2013

Herbert, George. The complete English works, edited and introduced by Ann Pasternak Slater. Everyman’s Library, 1995

Myers, Ben. The 7 best books I read before I turned 25. Facebook entry, 15 September 2016. Also on his blog ‘Faith and Theology’ on the same day. 



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