Articles for ‘Herbert’

Herbert and Music

Friday, September 25th, 2009

It doesn't take long to find a reference to music in The Temple - only four lines of poetry, in fact, before Herbert mentions singing in his 'Dedication'. Elsewhere Herbert writes of trumpets and lutes, choirs and consorts, psalms and anthems. Musical imagery in poetry of this period is not, of course, uncommon; but the sheer quantity of references to music in The Temple seems especially noteworthy. This short essay by graduate student Simon Jackson explores how an understanding of Herbert as musician can enrich our readings of The Temple.

Herbert the Musician

Izaac Walton, Herbert's seventeenth century biographer, records that the poet's love of music flourished throughout his life. He records:

His chiefest recreation was Musick, in which heavenly Art he was a most excellent Master, and, compos'd many divine Hymns and Anthems, which he set and sung to his Lute or Viol. (Walton, The Life of Mr George Herbert (1670), pp. 59-60)

According to Walton, Herbert would attend choral services at Salisbury Cathedral; and before returning to his parish in Bemerton, 'he would usually sing and play his part, at an appointed private  Musick meeting'  - even occasionally missing services in his parish to indulge his hobby. (Walton, p. 60)

Herbert's interest in music seems to have been fostered from a young age. In one of his Latin poems, Memoriae Matris Sacrum ('In Sacred Memory of My Mother', Magdalen Herbert), Herbert remembered how there was always music in the family home (Memoriae II, 'Corneliae sanctae', ll.42-44). Two of the most famous musicians of the day, the composers William Byrd and John Bull, dined at the family home in London. Music in the Herbert household wasn't simply reserved for after-dinner entertainment, and often coincided with more 'virtuous' concerns. George's oldest brother Edward taught himself to sing and play the lute at university, 'that I might entertaine my selfe...and that I might not neede the company of younge men in whome I obserued in those tymes much ill example and deboist [debauchery].' (The Life of Edward, First Lord Herbert of Cherbury, ed. Shuttleworth, pp.16-17). More piously still, John Donne, preaching at Magdalen Herbert's funeral in 1627, recalled how the family ended each sabbath 'with a generall, with a cheerfull singing of Psalmes'. (Donne, 'Funeral Sermon on Magdalen Herbert, Lady Danvers', 1627)

Walton records that music played as important a part in the poet's death as it did in his life. The biographer never met Herbert, and his account - which seems intent on representing the poet as a contemporary saint - needs to be approached with a certain amount of caution. Nevertheless, regardless of whether the anecdote is drawn from Herbert's life or from a reading of his poetry, Walton's deathbed scene provides an appropriate end for the musician-poet-priest:

The Sunday before his death, he rose Suddenly from his Bed or Couch, call'd for one of his Instruments, took it into hand, and said -

 My God, my God,
 My Musick shall find thee,
 and every string
 Shall have his attribute to sing.

And having tun'd it, he play'd and sung:

 The Sundayes of Mans life,
 Thredded together on times string,
 Make Bracelets, to adorn the Wife
 Of the eternal glorious King:
 On Sundays, Heavens dore stands ope;
 Blessings are plentiful and rife,
 More plentiful than hope.

Thus he sung on Earth such Hymns and Anthems, as the Angels and he, and Mr. Farrer, now sing in Heaven. (Walton, p. 77)

Music in The Temple

So Herbert's life seems to back up our original impression that music was important to the poet. But where does that leave us? We can read The Temple with a new alertness, perhaps, pricking up our ears and noting with relish each new musical pun; but that will only get us so far and seems a rather soulless, I-Spy approach to such richly suggestive poetry. Instead, the rest of this essay will be interested in the ways in which Herbert employed musical ideas and motifs to explore many of the key themes of The Temple; and thus also interested in how recognising and understanding Herbert's use of music can enrich our readings of his verse.

Why does Herbert introduce music into his Temple? To answer this question, we could draw attention to the ways in which poetry and music are both concerned with communication, or even communion.  One of the most famous hymn settings of a Herbert poem is 'Let all the world in every corner sing', recorded for the Cambridge Authors project by the choir of Queens' College, Cambridge; try listening to this recording, and think about the ways in which the poem tries to collapse the immense distance between God and man: 'The heav'ns are not too high...The earth is not too low'.


When listening to the recording, think about the choir's decision to change from four-part harmony to unison singing for the second verse. If we get everyone together from all the corners of the earth, Herbert argues, if we shout and sing our psalms loudly enough, we stand a good chance of being heard. It is unsurprising that the poem has become a popular hymn, uniting one person with another, and human with divine. ('Let all the world in every corner sing' is number 3 on the 'Musical Settings' page. When you're done with the recording, close the window or tab and read on.)

A similar effect is achieved in Herbert's translation of 'The 23d Psalme'. At first glance, this poem may seem to have little to do with music. But remember that this is a psalm, and that The Temple as a whole has been compared to the songs of David, found in the Biblical book of Psalms. Considering Herbert's metrical inventiveness, this poem may seem distinctly unremarkable, written in a form the hymn books call 'Common Metre'. Since the  sixteenth century, this verse form has been popular with hundreds of psalm translators and hymn writers. At one time, though, the form was associated with secular ballad singing. Hymn writers borrowed these popular tunes, hoping to encourage the popular singing of sacred songs. The ghost of a popular, familiar and perhaps secular melody lies behind the Common Metre of 'The God of love my shepherd is' - an echo of Herbert's passion for 'Musick-meetings' and household psalm-singing on a Sunday, and entirely appropriate to a translation of one of the most comforting of psalms.

Indeed, converting the secular into the sacred seems to have been one of Herbert's main motivations for writing poetry. 'Jordan (I)' challenges the conventional wisdom that all poetry should be interested solely in the passions of worldly lovers: 'Who says that fictions only and false hair/Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?' (ll.1-2). One way in which Herbert attempted this was to write new words to existing music - a practice known as 'contrafaction' or 'parody'. Herbert's poem 'A Parody', then, does not suggest subversion and mockery (as the modern usage of the word might suggest); instead, it draws attention to its secular origins as a song written by Herbert's relative William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Simply glancing at the two poems demonstrates their similarities:

 Soul's joy, now I am gone,
 And you alone,
 (Which cannot be,
Since I must leave myself with thee,
 And carry thee with me).... [Pembroke, 'Song', ll.1-5]

 Soul's joy, when thou art gone,
 And I alone,
 Which cannot be,
Because thou dost abide with me,
 And I depend on thee.... [George Herbert, 'A Parody', ll.1-5]

Far from mockery, Herbert's exploration of God's presence-in-absence is reinforced by our sense of the presence-in-absence of Pembroke's song: 'Because thou dost abide with me,/And I depend on thee'.

Herbert's description of 'Church Music' as 'Sweetest of sweets' may initially seem sweeping. But the more we read of The Temple, the more aware we become of the ways in which Herbert used music in his poetry, and the more we realise how deep Herbert's understanding of the art is. Herbert's music isn't, for instance, a concordant, perfect harmony - music that would, in other words, be intensely boring to listen to. Instead, it includes discords, clashes and suspensions, all waiting to be resolved; as a lutenist and viol-player he understands that to tune a stringed instrument, the string must be put under pressure, pulled taut and stretched. All these ideas come together in the central section of one of Herbert's most popular poems: the discord of the crucifixion, like the tuning of an orchestra, is understood as a necessary prelude to the jubilant song of praise of 'Easter':

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
 With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
 Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day. ['Easter', ll.7-12]

Musical Settings of The Temple

Although Walton suggested that Herbert sang his own poems, unfortunately no settings from his lifetime still exist. However, after the posthumous publication of The Temple in 1633, musicians were soon drawn to set his short lyrics. We still have a number of seventeenth-century settings of some of Herbert's verse, by John Jenkins, John Wilson, and Henry Purcell. Many of Herbert's poems became popular as hymns, which are still sung regularly in churches today - have a listen to the recordings on this website of 'King of glory, King of Peace', 'Teach me my God and King', 'The God of love my shepherd is', and 'Let all the world in every corner sing'. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers are still drawn to Herbert's verse, and it is well-worth exploring this wide repertoire. Perhaps the most famous settings are Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Five Mystical Songs' (one of which, 'The Call', is recorded here), which have been popular since their first performance in 1911. Composers are still responding to The Temple, and in 2003, the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan set Herbert's short poem 'To my successor' for the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Further Reading

Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London, 1954). Summers' book includes an informative chapter discussing Herbert's interest in music

Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and music in seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 1997). Aware of the musical background to poetry of the period, McColley provides a reading of three major seventeenth-century poets - Donne, Herbert and Milton - in terms of the great choral tradition of the period.

John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton, 1961). This is an interesting account of the relationship between poetry and music between 1500 and 1700. It includes a substantial section on Herbert's verse.

David Lindley, Shakespeare and Music: An Arden Critical Companion (London, 2006); and Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres (London, 1993, repr. 2006). Herbert's verse was informed by Classical ideas about music. These two books offer interesting, readable introductions to the subject.

Further Thinking

Simon Jackson suggests that music and poetry are not simply analogous arts, but for Herbert were virtually one and the same. In your reading of poems from The Temple, how do you think Herbert achieves the dissonant, concordant, rhythmic, tonal, and dynamic effects of which Simon speaks here?

The musical emphasis that Simon Jackson describes in Herbert's poetry tends to shift his poems toward voice and performance, and away from the solitude of a single reader's encounter with words on a page. How do you square this emphasis on 'communication' or 'communion' with the decidedly personal, even intimate nature of Herbert's poetry?

The Cambridge Authors Herbert pages include settings of Herbert's music, as well as readings of some of his prose writing. Try reading some of this poetry or prose, and then listening to it sung or spoken. How are these experiences different, if at all? Does music tend to foreground aspects of the poetry other than its semantic meaning? Do you think the composers responsible for the music have understood, sympathised with, or challenged the sense of Herbert's poems? How and why? (Click here for the music, and here for the prose.)

Silicon Chips and Seaweed: The Modern University Orator

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

George Herbert held the position of University Orator at Cambridge. His job was to provide Latin speeches for important academic occasions. These were in Latin, because Latin was the main language of academia at the time. There is still a University Orator, and the Orator's speeches are still in Latin, but Latin is no longer the language of university life. Raphael Lyne looks at the published orations of one of the most recent university orators, and thinks about the value they still have.

Speeches and Ceremonies

Anthony Bowen, former University Orator of Cambridge and fellow of Jesus College.

Cambridge awards thousands of degrees to people when have finished their studies. It also awards a few Honorary Degrees each year to people who have not. These are people of great distinction in many different fields, whom the university wants to honour, and with whom it wants to associate itself. A formal ceremony is held in the Senate House, and for each person there is a performance by the university orator. These speeches, all specially written in Latin, take about 3-4 minutes to deliver as a rule. Most people present follow an English translation, but a few people do their best to appreciate all the wit and thought that goes into the Latin. Even when it's not understood, lots of people find that Latin sounds grand and formal. Anthony Bowen was Orator of the University from 1993 to 2007, and has published a selection of his work in Cambridge Orations 1993-2007 (Cambridge University Press, 2008). One of the most interesting things about them is the way that the Latin language, fitted most naturally for describing the world before about 1600, and most at home a long time before that, is adapted to fit modern circumstances. Looking at how this works can tell us something, I think, about how the university brings together the old and the new.

A good example is the oration for Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, who was honoured by eight universities in a single ceremony at Buckingham Palace. There was not time for every institution to do all its usual things, so it is a little shorter than most. As always the challenge was to encapsulate why the accolade is deserved, in words that might not seem to have been designed to discuss quite these particular achievements. The speech finds ingenious but also serious ways of honouring its subject. Mandela is depicted as an epic hero in the classical style: like , the founder of Rome, he is a kind of exile. Unlike Aeneas, who left Troy and wandered the world, Mandela was an exile in his own land. There are other references to classical poetry - the phrase 'siliquas panemque secundum', translated as 'husks' (literally it means 'husks and second-class bread'), comes from . As well as exploring how Mandela might be compared to classical models, the speech also attends closely to the historical man and his special achievements. His lack of hatred, and a key word 'iucundum' (translated as 'charm') towards the end, fill out the impression of Mandela's unusual form of political heroism.

Towards the end of the speech there are some witty points that do not entirely cross between languages. The description of Mandela's colourful shirts, compared to Joseph's rainbow coat in the Bible (which links him to another hero of a captive people), tries to capture his human side. This comes after two sets of puns that work differently in English and Latin. In the latter, he is seen gathering 'algam' (seaweed) 'inter phocas' (among seals): the name of Mandela's prison, Robben Island, is Dutch in origin, and it means 'Seal Island'. And the prisoners did indeed gather seaweed. In contrast with this, he is now taking up the robe ('togas') of academia. In English there is a pun on weed - the seaweed of prison is replaced by academic 'weeds', an old word for clothes. This speech is typical of the way Bowen uses the Latin language to record and praise the achievements of great people, sometimes by noting special qualities that don't translate easily.

The university orator's Latin orations make sense within the conservative traditions that govern the conferral of honorary degrees in Cambridge.

Untranslatable Things

The challenge for the Latin language is obviously even greater when things that post-date the heyday of Latin - especially scientific discoveries - are the subject. This causes Bowen to come up with innovative solutions. Sometimes a word can just slip into Latin as if it was meant to be there. Sometimes a Latin word describing something similar will do. Sometimes a strange paraphrase is required. So the word for a silicon chip, a necessary one in an oration for Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, is 'assula', which means in Latin actually means a chip, but a wood chip, or splinter (p. 62). Physicist Nevill Mott is credited with the establishment of the 'T¼ law, called the law of variable range hopping', which helps explain the movement of electrons. In Latin this becomes 'legem... quae [that law which] T ad quartam vocatur [is called T¼]... saltandi pede uno [by jumping on one foot, i.e hopping] quousque expediat [far enough to get free]' (p. 64). As someone who knows Latin, I think I can detect self-conscious humour here as the words get a bit contorted, but I can also see a serious try at capturing modern discoveries in Latin, the language of inscriptions and monuments.

It is not only in the realm of science that the Latin language is stretched by the orator's subjects. The opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa is descended from a Maori chieftain, we hear. The Romans had no idea New Zealand existed, so there is no true Latin word for Maori; however it actually adapts well, and she becomes a descendant of 'dux Maororum' (literally, a chief of the Maoris, p. 88). The title of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (a novel by Muriel Spark, and a film starring Maggie Smith, who is the subject of the speech) becomes Aetatis Brodianae Flos - literally The Flower [flos, flower, can also mean 'prime'] of Brodie's Life [perhaps more literally, 'age']. David Hare's play Stuff Happens, which doesn't sound very Latin, becomes 'Fit Quod Fit' (literally, 'what happens, happens').

The speeches include Latin poetry as well as prose, including translations of T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare (for example in the oration for playwright Tom Stoppard, p. 82). There are original mock-heroic poems ingeniously discussing Aaron Klug's discoveries in molecular biology, including the virus that causes warts (p. 50). The oration in praise of Gurdev Singh Khush, pioneering plant scientist with a special interest in rice-growing, starts with the old rhyme wondering 'do you or I or anyone know / how oats, peas, beans, and barley grow?' (p. 44-5). The tone throughout is ceremonial and serious - these are major achievements being described. But there is also lightness, humour, and a sense that the oration is a relic of the past, to be treated with affection.

Past and Present

Bowen's orations don't just describe; they also evaluate, as far as they can, the achievement of the people being honoured. Sometimes they do this by comparing new things with old, as in the case of Edward Witten, a physicist who has done pioneering work on superstring theory (which aims to describe how particles and matter and energy come into being):

sed fila quid faciunt? uibrantur, ita ut ex uibrationibus uis tota generetur qua geruntur omnes res; qua ratione probate, quattuor illae potestates forsitan ad unam tandem redactae sint, mittaturque harmonia illa caelestis quam posuere Pythagoras Platoque.

What do the strings do? They vibrate, and from their vibrations all the energy that works the world is generated. If the theory is established, perhaps at last the four forces of modern physics will be unified in one theory, and that music of the spheres will be released which Pythagoras and Plato once imagined. (pp. 104-5)

Here the cutting edge of modern physics is compared to an ancient Greek idea - the music of the heavenly spheres. The suggestion seems neither too serious nor too humorous: it is a friendly gesture between arts and science, and between ancient and modern. Something similar happens when Bowen summarises the achievement of Elias Corey, a molecular chemist. The orator stands back and says that all the complex processes outlined by Corey remind him of bees at work (p. 22). In doing so, he is not just being descriptive and familiar; he is also tapping into a long tradition, founded in the classical world and featured in its poetry, of comparing natural phenomena, but also human societies, to bees.

There are other examples of this wish to recognise that the old and the new have things in common. Marking the achievements of Bridget Riley, one of the foremost living abstract artists, Bowen starts by describing the classical architecture of the Senate House in Cambridge, where honorary degrees are conferred (p. 70). The point is to show that all eras of art have valued the shapes and forms suggested by light. The sculptor Antony Gormley, creator of 'The Angel of the North' ('septentrionalis angelus') is credited with reviving a tradition of statue-making that goes all the way back to the Romans and Greeks (p. 30). Cambridge is an ancient university at the cutting edge of study and research. It looks back to the lessons of the past while it participates in modern life. That is a key aspiration of the university, one that lots of people try in different ways to fulfil. The orator's work is more a part of this than I'd expected when I set out to look at it.<-->

The hero of Virgil's Aeneid, the greatest Roman epic poem. It tells the story of his exile from Troy, his tragic love for the Carthaginian queen Dido, and the way he conquered Italy.
A Roman poet, and a contemporary of Virgil. He wrote several collections of short poems - Odes, Satires, Epistles (letters), and Epodes. These cover a range of topics from philosophy to politics to social life and its pleasures.

Chapter VII (‘The Parson preaching’) from The Priest to the Temple

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

[Text from George Herbert, The Priest to the Temple (London, 1652), pp. 21-28. Note: we have preserved the punctuation and the spelling ('then' for 'than', 'Judg' for 'Judge', etc.) of the 1652 edition.]

Chapter VII.

The Parson preaching.

The Countrey Parson preacheth constantly, the pulpit is his joy and his throne: if he at any time intermit, it is either for want of health, or against some great Festivall, that he may the better celebrate it, or for the variety of the hearers, that he may be heard at his returne more attentively. When he intermits, he is ever very well supplyed by some able man who treads in his steps, and will not throw down what he hath built; whom also he intreats to press some point, that he himself hath often urged with no great success, that so in the mouth of two or three witnesses the truth may be more established. When he preacheth, he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestnesse of speech, it being naturall to men to think, that where is much earnestness, there is somewhat worth hearing; and by a diligent, and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know, that he observes who marks, and who not; and with particularizing of his speech now to the younger sort, then to the elder, now to the poor, and now to the rich. This is for you, and This is for you; for particulars ever touch, and awake more then generalls. Herein also he serves himselfe of the judgements of God, as of those of antient times, so especially of the late ones; and those most, which are nearest to his Parish; for people are very attentive at such discourses, and think it behoves them to be so, when God is so neer them, and even over their heads. Sometimes he tells them stories, and sayings of others, according as his text invites him; for them also men heed, and remember better then exhortations; which though earnest, yet often dy with the Sermon, especially with Countrey people; which are thick, and heavy, and hard to raise to a poynt of Zeal, and fervency, and need a mountaine of fire to kindle them; but stories and sayings they will well remember. He often tels them, that Sermons are dangerous things, that none goes out of Church as he came in, but either better, or worse; that none is careless before his Judg, and that the word of God shal Judge us. By these and other means the Parson procures attention; but the character of his Sermon is Holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy. A Character, that Hermogenes never dream'd of, and therefore he could give no precepts thereof. But it is gained first, by choosing texts of Devotion, not Controversie, moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full. Secondly, by dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths, truly affecting, and cordially expressing all that we say; so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is hart-deep. Thridly, by turning often, and making many Apostrophes to God, as, Oh Lord bless my people, and teach them this point; or, Oh my Master, on whose errand I come, let me hold my peace, and doe thou speak thy selfe; for thou art Love, and when thou teachest, all are Scholers. Some such irradiations scatteringly in the Sermon , carry great holiness in them. The Prophets are admirable in this. So Isa. 64. Oh that thou would'st rent the Heavens, that thou wouldst come down, &c. And Jeremy, Chapt. 10. after he had complained of the desolation of Israel, turnes to God suddenly, Oh Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself, &c. Fourthly, by frequent wishes of the peoples good, and joying therein, though he himself were with Saint Paul even sacrificed upon the service of their faith. For there is no greater sign of holinesse, then the procuring, and rejoycing in anothers good. And herein St Paul excelled in all his Epistles. How did he put the Romans in all his prayers? Rom. 1. 9. And ceased not to give thanks for the Ephesians, Eph. 1. 16. And for the Corinthians, chap. 1. 4. And for the Philippians made request with joy ch. 1. 4. And is in contention for them whither to live, or dy; be with them, or Christ, verse 23. which, setting aside his care of his Flock, were a madnesse to doubt of. What an admirable Epistle is the second to the Corinthians? how full of affections? he joyes, and he is sorry, he grieves, and he gloryes, never was there such care of a flock expressed, save in the great shepherd of the fold, who first shed teares over Jerusalem, and afterwards blood. Therefore this care may be learn'd there, and then woven into Sermons, which will make them appear exceeding reverend, and holy. Lastly, by an often urging of the presence, and majesty of God, by these, or such like speeches. Oh let us all take heed what we do, God sees us, he sees whether I speak as I ought, or you hear as you ought, he sees hearts, as we see faces: he is among us; for if we be here, hee must be here, since we are here by him, and without him could not be here. Then turning the discourse to his Majesty, And he is a great God, and terrible, as great in mercy, so great in judgement: There are but two devouring elements, fire, and water, he hath both in him; His voyce is as the sound of many waters, Revelations 1. And he himselfe is a consuming fire, Hebrews 12. Such discourses shew very Holy. The Parsons Method in handling of a text consists of two parts; first, a plain and evident declaration of the meaning of the text; and secondly, some choyce Observations drawn out of the whole text, as it lyes entire, and unbroken in the Scripture it self. This he thinks naturall, and sweet, and grave. Whereas the other way of crumbling a text into small parts, as, the Person speaking, or spoken to, the subject, and object, and the like, hath neither in it sweetnesse, nor gravity, nor variety, since the words apart are not Scripture, but a dictionary, and may be considered alike in all the Scripture. The Parson exceeds not an hour in preaching, because all ages have thought that a competency, and he that profits not in that time, will lesse afterwards, the same affection which made him not profit before, making him then weary, and so he grows from not relishing, to loathing.

Chapter VI (‘The Parson praying’) from The Priest to the Temple

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

[Text from George Herbert, The Priest to the Temple (London, 1652), pp. 17-20. Note: we have preserved the punctuation and the spelling ('then' for 'than', 'Judg' for 'Judge', etc.) of the 1652 edition.]

Chapter VI.

The Parson praying.

The Countrey Parson, when he is to read divine services, composeth himselfe to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands, and eyes, and using all other gestures which may expresse a hearty, and unfeyned devotion. This he doth, first, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himself alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation, whose sins he then beares, and brings with his own to the heavenly altar to be bathed, and washed in the sacred Laver of Christs blood. Secondly, as this is the true reason of his inward feare, so he is content to expresse this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himself, hee may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to a reverence, which they forget againe, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying. Accordingly his voyce is humble, his words treatable, and slow; yet not so slow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and dy between speaking, but with a grave livelinesse, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performes his duty. Besides his example, he having often instructed his people how to carry themselves in divine service, exacts of them all possible reverence, by no means enduring either talking, or sleeping, or gazing, or leaning, or halfe-kneeling, or any undutifull behaviour in them, but causing them, when they sit, or stand, or kneel, to do all in a strait, and steady posture, as attending to what is done in the Church, and every one, man, and child, answering aloud both Amen, and all other answers, which are on the Clerks and peoples part to answer; which answers also are to be done not in a hudling, or slubbering fashion, gaping, or scratching the head, or spitting even in the midst of their answer, but gently and pausably, thinking what they say; so that while they answer, As it was in the beginning, &c. they meditate as they speak, that God hath ever had his people, that have glorified him aswel as now, and that he shall have so for ever. And the like in other answers. This is that which the Apostle cals a reasonable service, Rom, 12. when we speak not as Parrats, without reason, or offer up such sacrifices as they did of old, which was of beasts devoyd of reason; but when we use our reason, and apply our powers to the service of him, that gives them. If there be any of the gentry or nobility of the Parish, who somtimes make it a piece of state not to come at the beginning of service with their poor neighbours, but at mid-prayers, both to their own loss, and of theirs also who gaze upon them when they come in, and neglect the present service of God, he by no means suffers it, but after divers gentle admonitions, if they persevere, he causes them to be presented: or if the poor Church-wardens be affrighted with their greatness, notwithstanding his instruction that they ought not to be so, but even to let the world sinke, so they do their duty; he presents them himself, only protesting to them, that not any ill will draws him to it, but the debt and obligation of his calling, being to obey God rather then men.

To Sir John Danvers, September 1619

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

[Text from The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), pp. 369-70.]



This Week hath loaded me with your Favours; I wish I could have come in person to thank you, but it is not possible; presently after Michaelmas, I am to make an Oration to the whole University of an hour long in Latin, and my Lincoln journey hath set me much behind hand: neither can I so much as go to Bugden, and deliver your Letter, yet have I sent it thither by a faithful Messenger this day: I beseech you all, you and my dear Mother and Sister to pardon me, for my Cambridge necessities are stronger to tye me here, than yours to London: If I could possibly have come, none should have done my message to Sir Fr: Nethersole for me; he and I are ancient acquaintance, and I have a strong opinion of him, that if he can do me a courtesie, he will of himself; yet your appearing in it, affects me strangely. I have sent you here inclosed a Letter from our Master in my behalf, which if you can send to Sir Francis before his departure, it will do well, for it expresseth the Universities inclination to me; yet if you cannot send it with much convenience, it is no matter, for the Gentleman needs no incitation to love me.

The Orators place (that you may understand what it is) is the finest place in the University, though not the gainfullest; yet that will be about 30 l. per an. but the commodiousness is beyond the Revenue; for the Orator writes all the University Letters, makes all the Orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University; to requite these pains, he takes place next the Doctors, is at all their Assemblies and Meetings, and sits above the Proctors, is Regent or Non-regent at his pleasure, and such like Gaynesses, which will please a young man well.

I long to hear from Sir Francis, I pray Sir send the Letter you receive from him to me as soon as you can, that I may work the heads to my purpose. I hope I shall get this place without all your London helps, of which I am very proud, not but that I joy in your favours, but that you may see, that if all fail, yet I am able to stand on mine own legs. Noble Sir, I thank you for your infinite favours, I fear only that I have omitted some fitting circumstance, yet you will pardon my haste, which is very great, though never so, but that I have both time and work to be

Your extreme Servant,


George Herbert

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Born in Montgomery, Wales in 1593 into a wealthy family, George Herbert was the seventh of ten children. When his father died in 1596, the family moved to Oxford and then to London. Herbert was tutored at home before entering Westminster School in 1604. On 5 May 1609 he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1613, and became a minor Fellow in 1614 before being promoted to a major Fellowship and Master of Arts status in 1616. By 1620 he had been given the privilege and responsibilities of the University Orator's position. As his extant letters reveal, Herbert's time in Cambridge was marked by ill health and worries about money. At Trinity he began both to write devotional poetry and to consider a career in the Church. The role of University Orator involved writing and addressing official speeches to King and court, as well as to visiting dignitaries and ambassadors. Herbert spent some time away from Cambridge in 1624 after he was elected MP for Montgomery.

Herbert was ordained deacon in 1625 or 1626. By this time John Donne was a close family friend, and when Herbert's mother died in 1627 Donne preached the sermon at her funeral. Today Herbert is perhaps most often associated with the parish of Bemerton, Wiltshire, where he spent the last three years of his life as rector. Nicholas Ferrar arranged for the devotional poems which became known as The Temple to be published in Cambridge after Herbert's death in 1633 by the university printer, and such was its success that by 1641 there had been six editions. His most significant piece of prose writing, A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) was written during his final years at Bemerton and published in 1652. Other works include letters, Latin verse, and translation projects, such as the rendering of Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning into Latin.

The Herbert resources on Cambridge Authors approach him from several angles. On the menu on the left you'll find articles that introduce his key works and suggest how they fitted into his life - The Temple in particular, and The Country Parson. You will also find essays that posit similarities and differences with other seventeenth-century poets - especially Donne, Crashaw, and Vaughan. If you find Herbert interesting, then other writers were tackling the same challenges in very different ways. Finally - and not to be missed - you will find resources in which you can hear Herbert as well as read him. He was the University Orator, and we have another, more recent University Orator, reading some of his prose writing. His work has also been set to music many times, and we are very fortunate to have commissioned some special performances for this site: have a listen, and think about what difference the music makes to how you understand the poems.

Choosing a text or texts of Herbert's works will depend on your reasons for reading him, and your reading habits. Helen Wilcox's magisterial recent edition of Herbert's English poems for Cambridge University Press only comes in hardback, and has a price tag to match, but it will make a long-lasting, if massy, reading copy. The paperback Penguin edition of the English poems, edited by John Tobin, can more easily be tucked in a large pocket - perfect if you plan to read Herbert on the go, frequently, or when the occasion demands him.

Herbert: Musical Settings

Friday, May 8th, 2009

English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often found its way into music: for example, the lyric verse of Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Edmund Spenser (?1552-1599), Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), and others was set and sung in the courts of Elizabeth I and James VI and I. John Donne writes, in 'The Triple Foole', about the experience of hearing his own verse sung back to him in this way, though if it ever happened, he was probably more gratified than galled (as he claims). But though the poetry of George Herbert was popular, and circulated widely after its publication in The Temple in 1633, it was many years before it was extensively set for choral performance, and many of the best settings are by twentieth-century composers.

Herbert's poetry continues to be encountered and understood within the choral and even liturgical traditions today. In Cambridge, for example, settings of his poetry are regularly sung - in hymns - all over the university and city, and anthems based on his poetry rank among the favourites of many singers who love John Blow, Henry Purcell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten. The choir of Queens' College, Cambridge, under the direction of Madeleine Lovell, very generously offered an hour of their time to record some of the more famous modern settings of Herbert's poetry, to which you can listen, below. You may want to consider how settings like this interact with the written words of Herbert's poetry, and how the situation of his poetry in a liturgical context and community may affect our assumptions about what these poems can do and mean. Or you may just want to listen to the music!

1. Hymn: King of Glory, King of Peace
(to the tune of Gwalchmai, by J. D. Jones)

¶ Praise.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 140)

King of Glorie, King of Peace,
I will love thee:
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.

Thou hast granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar'd me.

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.

Though my sinnes against me cried,
Thou didst cleare me;
And alone, when they replied,
Thou didst heare me.

Sev'n whole dayes, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.

Thou grew'st soft and moist with tears,
Thou relentedst:
And when Justice call'd for fears,
Thou dissentedst.

Small it is, in this poore sort
To enroll thee:
Ev'n eternitie is too short
To extoll thee.


2. Hymn: The God of Love my Shepherd Is
(to the tune of University, by Charles Collignon)

¶ The 23 Psalme.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 167)

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe;
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in deaths shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staffe to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev'n in my enemies sight:
My head with oyl, my cup with wine
Runnes over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my dayes;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.


(Here the choir sings verses 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6)

3. Hymn: Let all the World in Every Corner Sing
(to the tune of Luckington, by Basil Harwood)

¶ Antiphon.
(From The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 45)

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The heav'ns are not too high,
His praise may thither flie:
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.


4. Hymn: Teach Me My God and King
(Traditional English melody, published by William Sandys, 1833)

¶ The Elixer.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), pp. 178-79)

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:

Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav'n espie.

All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.


(Here the choir sings stanzas 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6)

5. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'Sweet Day'

¶ Vertue.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 80)

Sweet day, so cool, co calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall sweep thy fall to night;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all my die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season'd timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.


6. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'The Call', from 'Five Mystical Songs'

¶ The Call.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 150)

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And 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 joyes in love.


The bass soloist in 'The Call' is Ciaran Woods, of St John's College.

With thanks to Madeleine Lovell, Alex Breedon, Jemima Stephenson (organ), and the choir of Queens' College, Cambridge; and to the President and Fellows of Queens' College, Cambridge for use of the College chapel. The recordings were made and mixed by Nick Sutcliffe.

Herbert’s Influence: Vaughan and Crashaw

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

One of the best ways to understand and evaluate the work of a poet is to consider the influence and impact of his or her work on contemporaries. Here, undergraduate Duana Chan focuses on the impact George Herbert made on Henry Vaughan, a seventeenth-century Welsh Protestant poet, and on Richard Crashaw, a Catholic devotional writer of the same period.


The work of George Herbert was beloved by both Renaissance readers and writers. Herbert adulation is documented in the wave of imitations which emerged in the wake of The Temple. Herbert's anthology was the first of its kind to incorporate various religious poems in a single body of poems in a method reminiscent of Philip Sidney's secular sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (written c. 1580). Inspired by The Temple, subsequent Renaissance religious poets like Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and Christopher Harvey produced anthologies such as Silex Scintillans, Steps to the Temple, and The Synagogue respectively. The poet Christopher Harvey was so moved by Herbert's materially-inspired poems such as 'The Altar', 'The Church Floor' and 'The Windows', that he made them structural blueprints for The Synagogue. Extemporising on a theme derived from Herbert's 'The Church Porch', Harvey's variations included 'The Church Gate', 'The Church Wall' and 'The Church Stile'. Although Harvey did not enjoy the fortune of his predecessor's success, a few of Herbert's imitators did. Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw are particularly prominent among those who went on to achieve literary renown.

Herbert inspired Vaughan and Crashaw to different degrees and to different ends. Vaughan was fascinated by how Herbert made the poem an object for the eye as much as it was an object for the ear. This was revolutionary for its time. At the time of Herbert's publishing, the technology of movable type printing (developed by Gutenberg in 1450) was still relatively new. Publication and typography were new domains. Writers of the time (poets in particular) were still exploring the yet un-codified typographical possibilities of the page. Unlike manuscripts (which were handwritten and often circulated within a select circle), printed poems were able to reach wider audiences. Printed poems were also able to exploit typographical effects. The full range of these possibilities was of particular interest to Henry Vaughan. Like those of Herbert, Vaughan's poems require the reader to be acutely aware of the poem's physical existence as a page. Under the influence of Herbert's highly visual poems, Vaughan exploited the poem's corporeal and spatial dimensions to forge meaning through shape. Vaughan, does not, however, exalt the physical world in these highly sensate 'shape poems'. Instead, he decries it and calls the world as understood by the senses mortal, tainted, and inherently duplicitous - 'False life! A foil and no more, when / Wilt thou be gone?' ('Quickness').

Whilst Richard Crashaw also wrote under Herbert's influence, his poems were inspired in a demonstrably different way. While Vaughan casts aspersions on the veracity of the physical world, Crashaw, by contrast, celebrates the physical world's materiality. He views nature as something which is God-affirming, and his poems are thus grounded in material motifs more frequently than Vaughan's are. It is thus correspondingly unusual that it is not Vaughan but Crashaw who inherited Herbert's poetic musicality. This might be considered striking as music appears to be at odds with physical matter: sound is incorporeal and abstract, while matter is corporeal and has both form and substance. Like Herbert, Crashaw often conceives of poetry as sound - the rarest and most refined of the physical senses. Poems are not merely words but songs. Crashaw shared Herbert's awareness of music inhered in verse. Poems are songs through which the poet can praise the divine. Crashaw's aesthetic values are thus unusual if not paradoxical, for they result in an apparent disjunction between poetic method and poetic themes. The motifs in Crashaw's poems are often physical. Crashaw's poetic world is a material, if not quasi-natural, physical universe; one in which he constructs 'New similes to nature' ('A Hymn'). Conceptually, however, Crashaw equates his poetry with sound - the most abstract, immaterial and incorporeal of aesthetic forms.

Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) led an extraordinarily diverse professional life. He received a legal education in Oxford and the , but went on to a career in medicine when his legal studies were interrupted by military service and the Civil War. Although a practising physician, Vaughan also wrote poetry. He was widely recognized for the Welsh cultural influences in his work, and was known as 'The Silurist' (after the ancient Welsh tribe of the Silures), a name he adopts in his first printed poetical anthology Olor Iscanus, or The Swan of Usk. His use of alliteration, assonantal rhymes, and dyfalu or Welsh similes (which involve the multiplication of comparisons held ), are distinct features of his poetry.

Some critics, however, claim that whilst Vaughan's poems are Welsh, they are also a 'tissue of echoes' which allude to works ranging from Donne and Jonson to Habington and Carew. Nevertheless, it is the poems of George Herbert which Vaughan personally cites as the single, most significant influence on both his artistic vision and temperament after his conversion to Anglicanism. In the preface to Silex Scintillans, his first anthology of religious poems, Vaughan makes his admiration for Herbert explicit - he calls Herbert a man 'whose holy life and verse gained many pious Converts (of whom I am the least)'. Twenty-six poems in Silex Scintillans are titled after poems from Herbert's The Temple. Others - like 'Unprofitableness' (which clearly alludes to Herbert's 'The Flower') - begin with direct quotations from Herbert.

'The most glorious true Saint'

The physician-turned-poet Vaughan often expressed explicit admiration for Herbert whom he called the 'most glorious true Saint' of the British church. Vaughan viewed Herbert as the perfect instantiation of the poet prophet. A common Renaissance conceit, this unity was popularised by Sidney's The Defence of Poesie (written c. 1580), in a passage on the Latin cognate of the Greek word 'poet' - vates - which means 'prophet' or 'diviner'. It is thus particularly significant that Vaughan praised Herbert as 'a seer' whose 'incomparable prophetic Poems' (The Works of Henry Vaughan, p.186) predicted present political and religious upheaval. Like Herbert, who believed that secular poetry - once 'wash[ed]... with tears' and 'brought... to church well dressed and clad' ('The Forerunners') - could be sanctified for religious purposes, Vaughan also believed in the reformative power of Christian verse:

Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into sacrifice.
('Perirrhanterium', The Church Porch)

Both poets wrote in the shadow of the Erasmian tradition, which advocated religious teaching through wholesome and preferably scriptural, but nonetheless pleasurable, influences. Following Herbert's lead, Vaughan, too, was adamant to refute Puritan allegations against the vacuity or vanity of 'idle' verse.

'The root'

Vaughan's poems are distinctly Herbertian in a number of ways. As I mentioned earlier, several are grounded in actual lines from The Temple. From this collection Vaughan also adopted many of the motifs of Silex Scintillans. For example, 'The poor root... still trod / By ev'ry wandring clod' ('I walked the other day (to spend my hour), ll. 37-42') is immediately evocative of Herbert's own - 'Sweet rose... Thy root is ever in its grave' ('Virtue', The Church). Again, the opening to Vaughan's 'The Morning-watch' directly alludes to Herbert's own opening to 'The Holy Scriptures (I)'. Like Herbert's 'O Book! infinite sweetness! / let my heart / Suck ev'ry letter', Vaughan, too, begins his poem with one of Herbert's favourite adjectives - 'O Joyes! Infinite sweetnes! With what flowers / And shoots of glory, my soul breakes, and buds!' Later in the same poem, Vaughn attempts, also like Herbert, to both articulate and apprehend the spiritual enigma of prayer through periphrasis. Under the influence of Herbert's famous lyric 'Prayer (I)', he speaks of how 'Prayer is / The world in tune, / A spirit-voyce, / And vocall joyes / Whose Eccho is heavn's blisse' (ll. 18-22).

Herbert frequently shapes his verse in ways which demonstrated how he considered the poem (as it exists on the printed page) not simply an object for the ear but an object for the eye. In 'Justice (II)', Herbert doubts the power of 'show and shape' even as his verse form visually enacts the imbalance that will one day prove to be God's overwhelming weight on his behalf:

O Dreadfull Justice, what a fright and terrour
Wast thou of old,
When sinne and errour
Did show and shape thy looks to me,
And through their glasse discolour thee! ('Justice (II)', ll. 1-5)

Like Herbert, Vaughan's poems are not simply aural artefacts but visual ones. This was revolutionary for its time. As established earlier, the printing press (developed by Gutenberg in 1450) was a relatively modern invention. Prior to this, poems were either distributed as handwritten manuscripts or they were memorised (a process eased by rhyme) and recited from person to person; written poems, especially in the court context, were also sometimes set to music, and circulated through performances. Hence, most Medieval and Renaissance lyrics treated poems as highly, if not purely, aural objects. Although Herbert frequently equates his verse with sound, often calling it 'my music' ('The Thanksgiving') or 'my song' ('Whitsunday'), he nevertheless viewed the poems as visual objects.

Herbert viewed the poem as both page and sound. This is particularly surprising as the idea of poem as a page was relatively modern for his time. Herbert's awareness of the poem's physicality was revolutionary. This resulted in his creation of iconic poems with physically emblematic structures. Herbert manipulated typeface, lineation and typography to create a range of stanzaic innovations and effects, generating subtle arguments via visually expressive forms. Herbert was fond of these highly emblematic shapes which allowed the poet to merge both form and substance. The conjunction of both the ear and the eye in Herbert's poetry (a practice later adopted by Vaughan) is most evident in the pattern poem.

A form both popularised and pioneered by Herbert, the pattern or emblem poem is shaped around the object its represents. A type of glyph, the poem becomes an icon which takes on the visual nature of its subject. Herbert's most famous shape poems, 'The Altar' and 'Easter Wings', for instance, are shaped after an altar and a pair of wings, respectively. The pattern poem's iconic shape thus creates at least some of its meaning through sight.

Herbert's 'Easter Wings' was a homage to Stephen Hawes' 'A pair of wings', a Medieval lyric from the collection titled The Conversion of Swerers (1523) - the first recorded emblem poem in English. Herbert's popularisation of the form subsequently resulted in the assimilation of various elements of the pattern poem into the poems of Crashaw and Vaughan. As Vaughan wrote in one of his poems, the visual shape of the poem could act to lead the reader to the poem's meaning:

When first thy Eies unveil, give thy Soul leave
To do the like; our Bodies but forerun
The spirits duty.
('Rules and Lessons', Silex Scintillans)

Like Herbert, Vaughan's poems require the reader to negotiate between the eye, the ear, and the understanding. This is particularly evident in an emblem poem like 'The Waterfall':

With what deep murmurs through times silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool and watry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose Retinue staid
Lingring, and were of this steep place afraid,
The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend
Not to an end:
But quickened by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

Here, Vaughan makes sound semantically resonant. In the 'stealth' / 'wealth' couplet assonance and alliteration seem both furtive (the 's' and 'a' / 'e' sounds merge in hushed tones) and fertile as the vowels proliferate. Hence, assonance represents and encapsulates 'stealth' and 'wealth' respectively. However, it is not just sound but sight which is simultaneously represented in the poem. There here exists a recognisable incorporation of both aural and visual elements. In addition to the assonance and sibilance ('silent stealth') which aurally evokes the waterfall's 'deep murmurs', Vaughan uses alternating stanza length to visually evoke the 'flowing fall' of the waterfall's cascading 'liquid, loose Retinue'. The stanza beginning with 'Here flowing fall' is abruptly indented and curtailed in a way which pictorially represents the flowing undulations of a waterfall. This kind of facility with the poem's graphic elements is a debt Vaughan owed to Herbert.

Even when Herbert's poems are not explicitly emblematic, he adopts, nevertheless, techniques derived from the pattern poem in order to foreground the simultaneously aural and visual nature of his writing. In some fleeting instances, for example, Herbert manipulates line breaks and spacing in order to show, for example, 'my heart broken, as was my verse' ('Denial', The Church), or how spiritual suffering can be manifested bodily, or even textually:

Broken in pieces all asunder
Lord hunt me not.
('Affliction (4)', The Church)

This kind of breaking is evident in a more sustained way in a poem like 'Easter (I)'. Although it is not a pattern poem, it uses shape to forge a thematic argument. Its bipartite structure essentially divides the work into two halves - regular, whole stanzas follow from the jagged, broken stanzas with which it opens. This division creates a visual progression from the broken to the whole which physically evokes its subject - the crucifixion and resurrection, in celebration of Easter. Brokenness (recalling the broken body of Christ) which heightens the wonder of resurrection is forged on a local level through emblematically broken lines such as -

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays.

The syntactic conclusion of the opening - 'thy Lord is risen' - does not correspond with the line's conclusion as it segues into 'Sing his praise'. This phrase is not resolved and its abrupt division is augmented by its indentation into 'Without delays'. The result is a sequence in which sound, sight and syntax combine to achieve a unified effect. The line is broken on two levels - visual and syntactic. This is physically emblematic of the brokenness which both precedes and heightens the resurrection with which Herbert's 'Easter (I)' is concerned. This practice was adopted by Vaughan in similar structures, such as 'Happy those early dayes! when I / Shin'd in my Angell-infancy' ('The Retreat'). Like Herbert, Vaughan uses the division of sight and syntax physically to evoke the displacement with which the poem is concerned.

Richard Crashaw, title page from Steps to the Temple (London, 1646).

Richard Crashaw

The poems of Richard Crashaw (1613-49) are distinctive. Sensuously  and sonorously resonant, they are frequently expressions of ecstatic religious rapture. They are also the only English Renaissance poems to represent the Catholic counter-Reformation. Crashaw's conversion to Catholicism may have been incited, in part, by his education. He was first a student at the Charterhouse, then at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Both institutions were noted in the seventeenth century for their Laudian Anglicanism which, like Catholicism, favoured both clerical hierarchy and liturgical ceremony. Crashaw's attraction to the rituals and devotions of the Catholic faith is evident in his poetry. Its vivid metaphors are often grounded in continental, baroque motifs which include the infant Jesus, the wounds of the broken, crucified Christ and the sufferings of the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dolorosa. This was a familiar practice in the medieval spiritual tradition of affective piety or devotion. Affective piety - which appeals to faith through sense and consequently emotion - is often grounded in loving expressions of the humanity of Christ, particularly in highly visual emphases on the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

Crashaw's first and second collections of sacred poems - Steps to the Temple (1646, 1648) - acknowledge Herbert's The Temple. However, they are very different in tone and temperament from Herbert's. Unlike Herbert, Crashaw's poems are often unbridled celebrations of nature. In Crashaw's poems, even secular objects such as 'darts' and 'nests' become means to religious expression. Consequently, Crashaw's poetic syntax was often highly as his poems were often premised on incorporation and synthesis. On the other hand, Herbert's poems were elegant and concise. Though Crashaw's poetry may differ markedly, in important respects, from the style and meaning of Herbert's, it bears, nevertheless, the inescapable influences of Herbert's work.

The extent and degree of Crashaw's allusions to Herbert - intentional or otherwise - is particularly evident in the opening to 'A Hymn to the Nativity':

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, Day in night.
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth.

The stanza is essentially predicated on conjunction - 'all wonders in one'. On a lexical level, this principle of incorporation is reflected in its morphology, such as the compound 'all-embracing'. The hyphenated compound welds two elements - 'all' and 'embracing'. This incorporative gesture reflects the unity of opposites - 'summer in winter', 'day in night' - which dominates the poem. These recurrent metaphors of paradoxical union are part of a figurative system which contains the theological argument of how 'God in man... Lifts earth to heaven' and 'stoops heav'n to earth'. The poem is about the apparent disparity between man's persistent unworthiness of God and His salvation of man in spite of this. The couplet 'birth' / 'earth' summarises this argument in précis. The break in the potential couplet that might have been forged between 'sight' and 'night' (in lines 1 and 3) or between 'span' and 'man' (in lines 2 and 4) is also evocative of this mismatch between the unity of 'heaven' and 'earth'. Whilst Crashaw could have made both lines couplet rhymes, he chooses, instead, to arrange them in terms of syntax (i.e. breaking and beginning a new line with the syntactic end) instead of sound. He thus begins each new line when new syntax begins.

Although Crashaw's poems are distinct from Herbert's in both religious and aesthetic terms, these lines are, nevertheless, highly reminiscent of Herbert's. 'Heaven in earth', 'God in man' and 'all-embracing birth' which 'lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth' conspicuously recall lines from Herbert's 'Prayer (I)' like 'Heaven in ordinary ', 'God's breath in man returning to his birth' and 'the Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth'. The most pervasive mark of Herbert's influence on Crashaw, however, is the latter's usual equation of poetry with song. Crashaw calls the poem a 'hymn', although it is not composed of music but words. Also, Crashaw uses musical forms to structure his poems. He inherits this practice from Herbert whose poems - such as 'Antiphon' and 'A Dialogue-Anthem' are effectively speech-songs.


Herbert and Song

My music shall find thee, and ev'ry string
Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
And prove one God, one harmony
('The Thanksgiving', The Temple)

Herbert's religious lyrics are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, poetry's essentially musical nature makes them (i.e. the poems) an appropriate vehicle for articulating religious ideas. The conceptual, philosophical and theological implications of music in Herbert's day were rooted in medieval conceptions of music. The writings of the philosopher Boethius often refer to how many people in the Middle Ages believed music to be a litmus test for the condition of one's soul. The purer one's soul, the more beautiful the music. One's soul both reflected and resonated with the music of the spheres. Musica mundana reflected musica humana. This medieval idea survived in Renaissance theatre. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, for instance, the antagonist Malvolio cannot and does not appreciate song. Neither can The Merchant of Venice's Shylock. Music was moral as much as it was aesthetic.

To write a verse or two, is all the praise,
That I can raise.
('Praise (I)', The Temple)

Music, purity and goodness thus existed reciprocally in the Renaissance. Since poems were often associated with music, Christian verse - particularly in a mode much like the Old Testament Psalms - became an ideal choice for didactic, contemplative and meditative purposes. This connection is one which is particularly marked for the critic Samuel Singer. In Das Nachleben der Psalmen or 'The Afterlife of the Psalms', Singer posits that the basis of the medieval religious lyric tradition was one founded entirely on the tradition of the Old Testament Psalms. Whilst Douglas Gray has contested this argument, calling it an 'impossibly exaggerated claim', nevertheless Gray, too, asserts that the medieval religious lyric tradition is largely premised on are essentially abstractions and meditations of Biblical verses for ease of the lay-person.

Herbert, 'the sweet singer of the Temple', was celebrated as a highly musical poet who 'rightly knew David's harpe'. This is readily attested by how easily his poems were set to hymns, some of which include settings by Isaac Watts. Herbert's poems were often associated with both scripture and ecclesiastical music for a number of reasons. These reasons affected Crashaw to varying degrees and ends. These similarities are significant as the equation of music with spirituality - whilst alluded to - was not often made explicit in the period. Herbert's reverence for music was so deep that it altered his views on prayer. He viewed prayer as song itself - 'a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear' ('Prayer (I)'). Crashaw did likewise. The ancillary text which precedes 'Prayer', for instance, makes that poetic 'ode' part of 'a little Prayer-book'. Music was inalienable from prayer. Herbert also equates music with flight. In 'Whitsunday', song is concomitant with flight - 'Listen sweet Dove unto my song, / And spread thy golden wings in me'. In lines from 'A Hymn', Crashaw speaks likewise - 'Awake and sing / And be all wing'. Herbert viewed music as a way to grasp spiritual enigmas. Herbert uses the musical triad, for instance, as an analogue for the Holy Trinity:

Or since all music is but three parts vied
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art
(Herbert, 'Easter (I)')

Like Herbert, Crashaw also invokes music to meditate on divine nature - as he appeals to God, 'Help me to meditate mine Immortall Song' ('A Hymn').

Although Crashaw's poems were highly different in tone from Herbert's, both Crashaw and Herbert equated religious poetry with music and song in highly similar ways. This is apparent in lines from Herbert's 'Praise (I)'. In it, poetic 'verse' is essentially synonymous with musical 'praise' and 'To write a verse or two, is all... praise / That I can raise'. This equation is one also which he makes explicit the poem 'Virtue'. 'Virtue' is musical in both thematic and structural ways. Herbert calls his verse a song - 'My music shows ye have your closes, / And all must die'. He equates both this music and death with revelation. Like its musical themes, the poem's structure is corresponding song-like. Each of the stanzas ends with a refrain; like a musical chorus, each of these stanzas concludes with the modal imperative 'must die'. The tonality of the poem shifts at its 'coda' or close. The melancholy refrain modulates to a triumphant 'And chiefly live' like a musical tierce di picardie, the movement from a minor key to a major one often found in the music of Herbert's time.

Like Herbert, Henry Vaughan, too, equates poetry - Crashaw's 'songs in the night' - with music. Nevertheless, the connection that Herbert forged between poetry and song is most evidently realised in the poems of Richard Crashaw. Whilst Herbert often asserts that verse and music are essentially synonymous, Crashaw subordinates speech to song. Crashaw speaks of how music is transcendent. This is encapsulated in the opening lines to 'A Hymn'.

'I sing the Name which None can say' reveals how Crashaw believes that song can and does transcend the limitations of human language. Singing is transcendent. 'The Name which None can say' refers, undoubtedly, to the Hebrew YHWH, a reference to God so sacred that it is not traditionally spoken. However, a reading of the line pivots between two possible interpretations. Each of these readings is hinged on different ways of understanding the modal auxiliary verb 'can'. In the context of the line, 'can' modulates between its deontic sense and its dynamic sense. The deontic 'can' refers to what one is socially or morally obligated to do after an action has been authorised by a superior. The dynamic 'can' refers to what one is capable of doing. Hence, in one sense, Crashaw 'can' circumvent speaking by singing because the verb ('sing') refers to an action which is not to speak. To 'sing' is not to speak. Thus, Crashaw plays on definitional lines - the explicit assertion that speech is not song results in an implicit suggestion that song surpasses speech. This modulation pivots on the deliberate ambiguities latent in 'can'. In another sense - one which also affirms this one - Crashaw speaks of singing allows him to circumvent social obligations of what he 'can' or cannot do, in its deontic sense. Thus, he 'can' 'sing' of God's name because he is not socially obliged not to. Singing, hence, is a superior mode of communication to speech.

In a manner derived from Herbert's 'Antiphon', Crashaw's poems consistently associate poetry with music in both structural and thematic ways. Like those of Herbert, Crashaw's poems are also structural hybrids which merge poetry with song. Crashaw calls and treats his poems as 'hymns' and 'songs'. The most famous of these include works like 'A Hymn to the Nativity', 'A Hymn to St. Teresa', 'A Song' and 'Prayer, An ode'. These poetic hybrids synthesise music and poetry in more than metaphorical ways. Through them, Crashaw merges song and word.

Herbert and the twentieth century

The force of Herbert's revolutionary incorporation of vision with sound is clearly attested by the hold it was to have on poets who emerged centuries later. Four hundred years ahead of his time (in what is roughly the poetic equivalent of a Renaissance painter anticipating cubism) Herbert's iconic innovations - typographical, stanzaic and structural - inspired, influenced and catalysed ranging from Thomas Hardy to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot, and Emily Dickinson to e.e. cummings.

Herbert's iconic 'Colossians 3:33', 'Paradise', 'Anagram' and 'Jesu' demonstrate a revolutionary facility with the poem's graphic interface. This was to be fully realised in twentieth-century Modernism. Herbert's structural poems found their most vocal advocates in a movement pioneered by Pound - Imagism. The Imagists, too, believe in the power of speaking shapes. Hence, they were particularly partial to the pattern or emblem poem. Even non-Imagists - the poet Dylan Thomas, for instance - were so taken by Herbert that they created poems which were patterned after Herbert's. For instance, Thomas's emblem poem, 'Vision and Prayer', alludes directly to Herbert's 'Easter Wings'.

Further Thinking

Duana Chan shows in this discussion of Herbert and Vaughan how significant and imitable many of Herbert's poetical innovations were - and above all, his visual sense. Protestant theologians of the Reformation, though, had stressed the reading and interpretation of Scripture over the older Catholic religious life of saints, icons, and images. Does Vaughan's reception of Herbert's poetry help you to understand this contradiction?

In this article, Duana Chan has demonstrated some of the ways in which Herbert and Vaughan manipulated the visual impact of their pattern poems. Can you see other ways in which the shape of these poems represents or influences their meaning? How would you use shape in a poem today?

Duana Chan has shown how Crashaw's debt to Herbert runs much deeper than simple echoes of his words and phrases, extending rather into basic assumptions about the musical quality of poetry and its suitability for prayer and religious experience. Do you think that the musicality of some modern verse - whether influenced by Herbert or not - strives after a similarly spiritual (if not religious) end? What examples can you think of, and how do those poets create and exploit musical effects in their words and phrases?

The four Inns of Court - Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, and the Middle and Inner Temples - were considered by many in the seventeenth century to constitute 'the third University of England'; here young men studied the theory and practice of English common law, though many left the Inns without proceeding into the legal profession, and never became lawyers.
A musical term, taken from Italian, that means literally 'narrowly'. Here it refers to the way in which the comparisons are joined one to another, tightly and without intervening matter.
Ekphrasis is a term for a description of a work of art, often within another work of art. In Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece there is an ekphrasis wherein a picture depicting the Trojan war is described in words.
Parataxis is the coordination of independent clauses using conjunctions like 'and' and 'but'.

Herbert and The Temple: Reading Through Religious Experience

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

English devotional poetry of the seventeenth century might seem worlds away from the experiences of a twenty-first-century reader. As Elizabeth Davis writes in this tour of George Herbert's temple, it is worlds away  - but that's exactly what makes it such engrossing poetry. In this essay, written when she was in her second year of studying English at Cambridge, she guides the reader through some of the key poems in Herbert's collection, showing how the links between poetry and religious meditation raise important questions about metaphor and the privacy of reading.

'The Altar'

After entering through , one of the first ports of call in Herbert's temple, or church, is the Altar: the place of sacrifice and offering. The altar is where Jesus offers his own body to the faithful in the Eucharist and where the faithful offer Jesus their devotion. As a Protestant, however, Herbert did not believe in transubstantiation (the process whereby the Eucharist wafer becomes the body of Christ); the Eucharist remains a symbolic ceremony and so the altar, by extension, also becomes symbolic rather than literal (as in Catholic doctrine). As a result, Herbert already has a degree of freedom in talking about the altar: despite its material existence the altar's metaphorical nature, for Protestants, creates ambiguity which leads to and allows Herbert's metaphorical treatment of this part of the church.

The title page of the 1638 edition of George Herbert's The Temple: Sacred Poems, and Private Ejaculations. This fifth edition in five years testifies to the popularity of Herbert's devotional poetry.

The first of the collection's , this short poem physically represents both the place of offering and an offering in itself. Herbert's role as a priest becomes absorbed into his role as a poet as he leads the reader in prayer, as a priest would a congregation: 'A broken altar, Lord, thy servant reares', he writes, where 'servant' refers to both the poet-priest and the reader. 'The Altar' is very early on in the collection and the role of the poet is still, at this stage, to guide the 'dejected poor soul' by the hand towards God. The poem is astonishingly non-specific and impersonal, a far cry from the passionate outpourings of the later parts of the collection: the personal pronoun 'I' is only used once and the phrase 'thy servant' is deliberately ambiguous. Like a prayer learnt by heart, this poem could be recited by anyone, or on behalf of anyone.

And yet Herbert's choice to set out the poem in the shape of an altar immediately moves the poem into the private sphere: the fact that the visual impact of the poem - experienced by a single reader - plays such an important role in the overall impact of the work demonstrates the private nature of poetical (as opposed to liturgical) devotion. Furthermore, Herbert first circulated the poem in manuscript form - when he handed it to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, on his deathbed - a much more private means of transmission than that of print. Manuscripts had to be copied by hand, while printed texts could be reproduced exactly over and over by machinery. In the Tudor court, print had been shunned by some poets for its ; Herbert, however, wanted his poems published, saying they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul". (Izaak Walton, The Life of Mr George Herbert) Print clearly has its advantages for Herbert's work: it can be spread, preaching his beliefs to a wide congregation even after his death. On the other hand, print's generality might detract from the private, prayer-like nature of poems such as 'The Altar'. A tension between public and private devotion persists, then, in Herbert's compositional choices: the private attention Herbert wishes to give the reader is maintained still in the visual shape of the poem: the poem can only have its full effect seen up-close by an individual reader, something which recalls its manuscript origins.

The poem is both an act of devotion by the poet and the reader, and a visual focus for that devotion, like a painting or a crucifix above the altar. The poem is, in essence, a work of art, painstakingly constructed by the artist, Herbert, who uses rhyme instead of mortar and words instead of stone. The shape of the poem is maintained through the rhyme Herbert uses: for example, in the couplet, 'A heart alone/ Is such a stone', the strong rhyme marks the end of each line and maintains the division which creates the shape of the poem (an altar) on the page.

The dedication from the 1638 edition of Herbert's The Temple.

One definition of the word 'altar' in the Oxford English Dictionary is 'a metrical address or dedication, fancifully written or printed in the form of an altar' and although this definition of the word is first used around 1680 (fifty years after the publication of The Temple), it is likely that Herbert's poem 'The Altar' gave rise to it. By constructing the poem in the shape of an altar Herbert mirrors the work of God as creator: as God created the physical world and everything in it, Herbert creates an echo of the physical world through his concrete poem. However, the altar of the poem is not restricted to a literal sense: the altar, we are told, is 'made of a heart and cemented with teares'. In one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians he writes 'know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost' (1 Corinthians 6:19), a sentiment which Herbert literalizes in this poem: if the body is a temple, or church, the Altar would be approximately where the heart is. Although this is perhaps being too literal, Herbert clearly wishes to emphasise the metaphor of the body as a place of worship: the poem repeatedly refers to parts of the body, from the 'hand', to the 'heart'.

The word 'altar' appears in both the first and last lines of this poem; by the end of the poem, however, the word encompasses not only the High Altar, but also this poem and the heart itself: our understanding of the term has changed considerably and so Herbert's education of the reader continues.

'The Church-Floore'

In the cathedral of Siena, Italy you can find one of the most intricate church floors anywhere in the world. Created from 1372 to 1547 by the most talented artists in Siena (including Beccafumi), the large marble inlaid panels depict biblical stories, fables and intricate patterning. Where Herbert writes, metaphorically, of the church floor that 'that square and speckled stone,/ Which looks so firm and strong,/ Is Patience', the floor in Sienna literally depicts a fable of patience or humility, confidence or love. As in 'The Altar', this poem takes a physical part of a church and applies an allegorical status to it. In this case, sections of the floor stand for virtues ('Patience', 'Humilitie', 'Confidence', 'Love' and 'Charitie') and Sinne and Death act out an allegory over them. Herbert's church floor, more broadly, becomes a metaphor for a solid grounding, or foundation, in faith.

Like many of Herbert's poems, 'The Church-Floor' owes much to the King James Bible (first published in 1611). Herbert's constant use of italics recalls, at least visually, the use of italics in the King James Bible. Secondly, the use of allegory to communicate a moral is a key biblical characteristic, as, for example, in the parables told by Jesus and his disciples. The reference to God as the 'Architect', however, allows for the final allegorical level to be added by Herbert. Until the final line the reader believes the church and the floor to be actual, even if imbued with an allegorical layer; in the wording of the final lines - 'Blest be the Architect, whose art/ Could build so strong in a weak heart' - it becomes clear that, just as 'The Altar' finally comes to mean the heart, so the whole church, the entire place of worship in 'The Church Floore', is located within the human body - within the heart.

'Mark you the floor?' is thus not simply a question, but a challenge, a hint that we should notice and appreciate the true nature of the ground beneath us. The virtues Herbert enumerates form the foundation of faith, his suggestion being that we had not noticed such virtues within ourselves because we had never looked for them. What makes the floor of Siena's cathedral so enchanting is its demand for attention: other Italian cathedrals have beautiful floors but they are unobtrusive and visitors do not 'mark' them. In Siena the visitor cannot help but 'mark' the floor; like Herbert, the artists of the marble panels wanted to draw our attention to something which is always there ('Love' or 'Confidence') but is rarely appreciated. But unlike Beccafumi, Herbert insists in 'The Church-Floore', as in 'The Altar', that the true ground of faith lies not in stones but in the self.

'The Storm' and 'Love'

These two poems herald a new direction within The Temple: the poet-priest of 'The Altar' is replaced with a very human, fallible poet-persona who has 'sighs and tears' and is 'Guiltie of dust and sinne', like everyone else. Moreover, while 'The Altar, 'The Church-floore' and the 'The Windows' (another poem from The Temple) all deal with material objects, at least as a starting point, 'The Storm' and 'Love' take as their subject forces much less tangible.

Perhaps the most effective element of these poems is the tight form which Herbert uses to express psychological turmoil. The strict AABBCC rhyme scheme of 'The Storm' echoes the bands by which the poet-persona feels himself bound: his frustration beats against the line endings as waves beat against the sea wall. The enjambment found in the opening couplet - 'If as the windes and waters here below/ Do flie and flow' - expresses the persona's feeling of claustrophobia and attempts to break free. A more powerful enjambment occurs across couplets later in the first stanza ('Sure they would move/ And much affect thee'), but by the final stanza all but one of the lines are end-stopped. Like the metaphorical storm, the rage of the persona has calmed by this point: 'Poets have wrong'd poore storms: such days are best;/ They purge the aire without, within the breast'. Herbert slows done the penultimate line with additional punctuation and adds the pleasing symmetry of 'without, within' in the final line to suggest a restored harmony, the calm after the storm. The use of zeugma here, joined to a transition from the exterior ('without') to the interior ('within'), further emphasises the way in which order must be received by the poet, rather than achieved.

Whilst the tone of this poem is not as formal as some of the others in the collection, it could still be called 'prayer-like'. The poet addresses God in a very personal and informal manner, as in these lines, where the poet-penitent threatens heaven with his impudence: 'It quits the earth, and mounting more and more,/ Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy door'. If 'The Altar' presents the reader with a public prayer spoken by a poet-priest, 'The Storm' represents a much more private, emotional prayer. Our role in relation to this prayer is that of an eavesdropper, rather than a fellow supplicant. Herbert has switched from lending the reader a guiding hand to sharing his experience, as he told Nicholas Ferrar on giving him the manuscript: '[the book contains] a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master'. (Izaak Walton, The Life of Mr George Herbert)

The apparent sincerity of this poem is somewhat belied, however, by the fact that it is a printed poem. Although never printed in his lifetime, Herbert passed the manuscript of The Temple to a friend with a request that he publish it. Our role as eavesdropper, then is a false one, for Herbert wrote the poem for public consumption. 'Love', on the other hand, does not claim to be a prayer: there is no addressee, aside from the reader - it is unequivocally a poem, albeit a spiritual one. The final poem in the collection, 'Love' describes the poet-persona's relationship with God in terms of a shared meal. Coming at the end of 'The Temple', it signifies an assumption that we now share Herbert's Christian belief and offers a glimpse of the final reward of faith: an existence with God, in Heaven. For the first time in the collection, Herbert addresses the reader directly; after having prayed with him, witnessed his crises and enjoyed his artfulness, Herbert finally addresses the reader as an equal.

'The Collar'

The Collar takes its tone from its elegantly ambiguous title: a collar is both a badge of Herbert's profession in the clergy and a restraint used on an animal. Both senses are key to an understanding of this passionate poem. The poet-persona cries 'No more' to what he feels is a life lived in 'a cage', dictated by Divine Will; what follows is an outpouring, an explosion of questions and exclamations with the professed aim to break out of this 'cage'.

Line lengths vary from ten to four syllables seemingly at random, giving the impression of a mind in turmoil; the short lines in themselves suggest breathlessness and impatience: 'Away; take heed:/ I will abroad'. The frankness with which Herbert presents this spiritual crisis contributes to the sense of self, not only in this poem, but in the collection as a whole. For the 'dejected poor soul' who may be reading this poem the message is an encouraging one: even a clergyman occasionally finds submission to the Divine Will a difficult task.

The poem is, however, recalled in tranquillity: this rage was in the past and the seeming chaos is only an illusion. For example, although the variation in line length appears arbitrary and random at the outset of the poem, by the end, it has been resolved into a clear alternating pattern. Herbert is implying that, like the pattern, the will of God has been there all along but was incomprehensible until - for both the reader and the poet - it was made evident by experience.

'The Collar' demands a very particular role from the reader: we should recognise ourselves in the persona's frustration and finally submit, as the persona does, to God's will. In short, this poem demands that the reader share the Christian faith of the poet: that's not to say that it can only be enjoyed by Christians but rather that if we are to feel a satisfactory sense of conclusion in the final lines, we must accept God's existence as fact. To a non-Christian reader the final lines communicate a sense of calm and peace: 'Methought I heard one calling, Childe:/ And I reply'd, My Lord' but leave, perhaps, a sense of something unexplained.

Chaos is restored by the intervention of God: a gentle nudge from the Divine Being to the poet. In this more sceptical age Herbert's poetry can sometimes be hard to understand or unapproachable but Herbert's continual demands on the reader's attention and interaction make him a strikingly open and honest poet, whatever your cultural background.

Further Reading

  • The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Izaak Walton, The Life of Mr George Herbert, in The lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert, 1670 (Menston: Scolar Press, 1969).
  • 'George Herbert', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
  • Elizabeth Clarke, Theory and Theology in George Herbert's Poetry: 'Divinitie, and Poesie, Met' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
  • Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), ch. 3.
  • Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, rev. edn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
  • Michael Schoenfeldt, Prayer and Power: George Herbert and Renaissance Courtship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  • Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert's Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  • J. W. Saunders, 'The Stigma of Print', Essays in Criticism, 1 (1951), 139-64.
  • Joseph Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954).
  • Helen Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

Further Thinking

The practice of expressing prayer - a deeply intimate experience for someone of religious faith - through a formal medium like poetry might seem, as Elizabeth Davis argues, to create a problem: are these poems private, personal essays, or generic, public performances? Does thinking about this problem within the context of George Herbert's seventeenth-century Anglicanism help you to understand poetry, and its problems of sincerity, more generally?

One of the recurring themes of Herbert's devotional poetry, Elizabeth Davis argues, is the transition from material to metaphorical icons, architectural spaces, and devotional aids. This transition from the material to the linguistic was consistent with Herbert's protestant faith, which stressed the importance of Scripture, reading, and interpretation in Christian spiritual life; but it may also give us access to broader ideas about the means and bases of understanding - both of the divine and of the self. Do you think poetry might be, as for Herbert, a good (the best?) tool or medium for thinking about our place in the world?

Elizabeth Davis' presentation of Herbert's poetry stresses its universality: although written by a Christian clergyman for an ostensibly Christian purpose, the ideas that pour out of Herbert's poetry seem to be of much wider, more universal significance. One of the most important of these, of course, is that of our relation, as readers, to the voice of a poem. How does reading Herbert's poetry help you to understand the ways in which a poem addresses, invites, manipulates, and even coerces its readers?

The first poem in Herbert's collection, which proves an architectural as well as poetical point of access.
A poem in which the shape of the poem on the page is as important as the words within it.
For some discussion of attitudes to print publication in this period, see J. W. Saunders, 'The Stigma of Print', in Essays in Criticism, 1 (1951), 139-64.

‘Majesty and humility … reconciled’: George Herbert as Parson and Poet

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

In this discussion of George Herbert's dual identity - the poet of homespun, plain divinity and difficult, metaphysical speculation - undergraduate Samantha Fong reflects on the interplay, in his poetry, of the spaces and psychology of religious experience.

I. Herbert as the Country Parson

Izaak Walton's The Life of Mr. George Herbert was published in 1670, 37 years after Herbert's death. It traces Herbert's spiritual development as well as his career, dividing his life into two opposing halves: the first half full of worldly success - his brilliant mind, fine education, exalted social circle, and court ambitions - and the second half showing him turn away from the world to serve God, love the poor, and lead a life of 'almost incredible' virtue (Walton, §44). As a result of Walton's friendship with and great admiration for Herbert, the biography is far from an objective document, resembling instead an extended or even the of a saint. It was tremendously influential, however, and served to cement the early impression of Herbert as a model of Christian piety.

This reputation as a firm rejecter of the vanities of the world - 'like a saint, unspotted of the world' (Walton, §94) - is also supported by Herbert's own self-identification as a 'country parson'. The phrase is not merely a description of his job and location but also an implicit declaration of a deliberate stance of separation and renunciation: the term 'country' in the period was often defined in direct opposition to the court, as well as to the city; and the idea of a 'parson' or pastor, with its etymological link to the ideal and the literary genre of pastoral (as made explicit in the anti-ecclesiastical eclogues of Edmund Spenser's 1579 The Shepheardes Calendar), connotes a retreat, exile, or isolation from court and city life (see Sir Thomas Wyatt's anti-court satire, 'Mine Own John Poyntz').

The title page of George Herbert's A Priest to the Temple, Or, The Country Parson, 2nd edn (London, 1671).

This sense of separation and sanctification runs through The Country Parson (1652, 1671), where Herbert aligns himself with the set of values and choices associated with the pastoral ideal while simultaneously othering and rejecting their opposites. For instance, he implicitly contrasts the ideal parson with the intellectual, with the poet, and with courtier, respectively prizing the pragmatic practice of a virtuous life over 'difficult', riddling intellectualism and 'curiosity in prying into high speculative and unprofitable questions' (TCP, ch.9), preferring the parson's emotional 'patience, temperance... and orderliness' to the stereotypical poet's 'clamo[urs]... of the soul' (ch.3), and advising 'unfeigned' behaviour instead of the courtier's cultivated (ch. 6). His aesthetic preferences and poetic practices are also consistent with this set of values, as he advocates 'plain and evident' simplicity rather than vain ornament, and 'direct and open' earnestness rather than 'witty, or learned, or eloquent' speech (ch.7). As a result, Herbert is often placed firmly and irrevocably on one side of the many great and enduring religious, moral and aesthetic debates - between Catholicism and Protestantism, court and country, feigning and integrity, ornament and plainness, difficulty and simplicity, and so on - which characterise the social and literary cultures of the Renaissance period.

This aspect of Herbert - as the decided, disciplined man who chose 'devotion, not controversy' once and for all (TCP, ch.7), and who utterly forsook the chaos and complexity of the world for the peace and protection of 'the sanctuary... of God' (Patrides, p.59) - is revealed in his poetry, and particularly in his conception and use of space and place. For example, the freedom, openness and simple radiance of the country temple - which, incidentally, is in its architectural aesthetic reminiscent of Herbert's conception of the parson's own 'plain, but reverend' home (TCP, ch.10) - is pitted against 'enchanted groves / And sudden arbours' condemned in 'Jordan (I)', the 'fictions' and 'false hair' of meaningless poetic embellishment linked both literally and metaphorically to the adorned, artificial gardens and spaces which set the scenes of the highly wrought and ornamented courtly poetry popular at the time.

Herbert's conception of space in the poems also figures The Temple as a sanctuary or retreat from the world: the hymns and songs themselves are seen as a sanctified space, a haven and a 'heaven upon earth' (Walton, §68). Furthermore, for Herbert, poetry - like the temple sanctuary - is also an organised space in which one can 'compose... distracted thoughts' (TCP, ch.3) into holy harmony through 'plain invention' ('Jordan II'). His highly patterned stanzas, rhyme schemes, and use of shape poetry demonstrate the remarkable ability of musical and poetic form and organisation to soothe the troubled breast, just as the persona's meditations on the various spaces, sections and structures of the temple building (from the contemplation of humility as the foundation of Christian piety in 'The Church-floor', to that of sacrifice in 'The Altar') help him to organise his thoughts into a useful creed or belief system, such that 'all divinity may easily be reduced' to helpful, pragmatic (TCP, ch.5).

This steadying, organising movement is also apparent on the level of the individual poem. In 'Aaron', for example, a 'poor priest' reflects on the mystery of how his physical body and human nature do not change with salvation, even as he undergoes a fundamental inner transformation. Just as the unusual rhyme scheme, with the exact same rhyme words repeated in each stanza, reinforces the poem's fixed physical structure even as the persona's attitude moves from the initial admiration of an ideal ('Holiness on the head'), to the despairing realisation of his own inadequacy ('Profaneness in my head'), and finally to the recognition of Christ's empowering leadership ('Christ is my only head'). In 'The Altar', it is the graphic shape or layout which organises the space and the thought of the poem, the central narrowness imposed by the shape of an altar breaking the sentence into short, fragmented lines:

A heart alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut

This enacts visually the metaphor that the sinner's 'hard heart' must be 'cut' into 'part[s]' by the power of God, just like a large rock which must be hewn into pieces before it can be built into an altar. The Temple - as both poetic work and imagined edifice - is thus above all an organised space, its spatial structuring lending it peace and understanding, and shielding it from the chaos and conflict of the outside, other world.

II. Herbert and the Metaphysicals

Entirely at odds with the notion of Herbert as the sequestered, sanctified exemplar of devout living is the idea of Herbert the Metaphysical, the brilliant but conflicted poet for whom the transition from sinner to saint is not linear, smooth or complete, but instead a continual trial or 'agony' like the constant 'tuning' of an instrument or the stretching of a mortified penitent on the 'rack' ('The Temper').

Critics from Dr Johnson onwards have identified the grand and violent yoking together of discordant images and the vivid juxtapositions of style (Gardner, p.15) as the distinctive and defining characteristic of the so-called metaphysicals; such a judgment only reinforces the impression of Herbert as one who, far from having sure and settled opinions on the moral and aesthetic disputes and uncertainties of his day, was in fact deeply embroiled in them. By the twentieth century, he was frequently grouped with his predecessor, John Donne, whose turbulent mind, flamboyant wit and daring, conceits came to dominate the popular perception of the metaphysical school; and Herbert came to be seen, alongside Donne, as a 'difficult [and] complex' 'master of troubled interiority' (Reid, p.20).

Once again, we may see such views reflected in Herbert's conception of the temple as a space, and specifically as a reflection of inner space and inner conflict. In 'Love (III)', for example, the hesitant Herbert thinks of the interior of the temple as a problematically divided (as opposed to a helpfully organised) space, imagining his soul standing on and '[drawing] back' from the threshold or 'entrance' of Love's inner sanctum. The idea of divided space is also present in a different form in 'The Temper': here, the chasm Herbert struggles to bridge is between the physical proportions of the temple building (and of his own human body), and the unimaginable, all-encompassing vastness of the God who is meant to inhabit them both:

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world's too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.

This characteristic paradox is reflective of Herbert's quite 'metaphysical' desire to pull irreconcilable spaces together despite their being on completely different planes, and to somehow 'Make one place ev'ry where'.

Thus, depending on one's perspective, it is equally possible to see Herbert's poetry as a 'harmony of holy passions' with a serene 'picture of a divine soul in every page', as his friend and confidante Nicholas Ferrar did, or to see them (as Herbert himself did) as 'a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and [the] soul' (Walton, §89). Perhaps it is this dual identity, this intriguing combination of the freedom, faith and sureness of a saint and the honest struggles of a human being, which has continued to draw people to Herbert's life and work.

Further Reading

  • Herbert, George. A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson (London, 1652).
  • Herbert, George. The Temple (London, 1633).
  • Walton, Izaak. The Life of Mr. George Herbert (London, 1670).
  • Clements, A.L. Poetry of Contemplation (New York, 2000).
  • Gardner, Helen. introduction to The Metaphysical Poets (London, 1972).
  • Patrides, C.A. George Herbert: The Critical Heritage (London, 1995).
  • Reid, David. The Metaphysical Poets (London, 2000).
  • Sharpe, J. A. Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760 (London, 1997).

Further Thinking

Samantha Fong notices in this discussion the way in which readers' expectations of a poem or book of poems can vary decisively depending on prevailing assumptions about the nature of the poet's biography: when Herbert is thought a parson, his poems may seem simple; when a metaphysical, his poems may seem academic and complex. Do you think these polarities are inevitable and irreconcilable in his poetry? Does this effect of biogrpahy on interpretation help you to understand similar changes of opinion about other poets?

Critical interest in Herbert's poetry may have struggled to decide whether his voice is that of the philosopher or the country pastor; but his poetry professes to offer its voice(s) as aids to religious meditation and prayer. How can you relate the single to the shared, the private to the public voices of Herbert's religious poetry?

Samantha Fong notices in this discussion some of the differences between the simplicity of Herbert's metaphors, on the one hand, and on the other the flamboyance of Donne's conceits. But Donne, like Herbert, also lived a 'double life', and enjoys a reputation now both as a dissolute young rake and a sage, revered divine. Do you think there is something about the poetry of these two men that leads readers to romanticize or mythologize their biographies?

An encomium is an extended prose or poetical oration in praise of someone or something.
'Lives' (or in the Latin vitae) of the saints were popular reading during the early modern period, especially among Catholic readers.
An Italian social virtue made famous by Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, sprezzatura describes an attitude or quality of effortless sophistication.
The catechism - a series of questions and answers illustrating doctrinal positions - was often used in religious instruction for children during the Reformation period.
Catachresis, also known as abusio, is the name of a rhetorical figure, used to describe the deliberate mis-use of a word or a metaphor.