Articles for ‘Herbert’

Herbert, Donne, and the Cunning Use of Language

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Rachel Thorpe was in her second year of studying English at Sidney Sussex College when she wrote this piece on the distinctive accessibility of George Herbert's language. While Herbert was often considered by his contemporaries to be John Donne's poetical heir, this essay focuses on the important differences in their respective styles.

'Catching the sense at two removes'

For T. S. Eliot, writing in 1926, there was no question that the work of Herbert in The Temple was indebted to that of his poetic predecessor, John Donne. Eliot wrote: "Herbert must have learned from Donne the cunning use of both the learned and the common word, to give the sudden shock of surprise and delight" (my emphasis). This 'cunning' use of language was something that concerned Herbert throughout his poetic career, and he was often gripped by paranoia that the work of the poet was one of obscuring God's truth. In 'Jordan (I)' he writes:

Must all be vail'd, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Donne, by contrast, revels in first obscuring his meaning, and then unravelling it for his reader. Perhaps his most famous secular poem is 'The Flea', in which a flea forms the centre of the the speaker's argument - to persuade his mistress to come to bed with him. Donne communicates at two removes:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is.

Not only does the flea represent something to the woman addressed in the poem ('mark...'), but the poem represents, by that representation, something to its reader ('mark in this...'). The improbability of the image, too, makes the reader uneasy, and necessitates a justification.

How is it then that Herbert, the poet of self-conscious plainness, can be said to have been influenced by Donne, the poet of the extended metaphor?

'In paraphrase'

Herbert's poem 'Prayer (I)' is a list of phrases synonymous with the noun 'prayer'.

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

No element in this list is grammatically privileged, nor is there a driving argument. Rather, Herbert expresses the simplicity, and through that simplicity the mystery, of prayer. Each image has its significance within itself - prayer is just as much 'the Churches banquet' as it is 'reversèd thunder' or 'the soul in paraphrase'. Each image is complete within itself, yet rich in meaning.

For example, while 'reversèd thunder' is an image we can accommodate within the poem, what does it mean? A familiar image is that of God showing violence towards human beings, or even dealing punishment, by throwing lightning bolts - an image borrowed from Greek mythology and Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning. That we might be able to reverse the process, hurling thunder 'against th' Almightie', is a startling suggestion. Is this the power that prayer allows us? Certainly prayer might be thought the reciprocation of sound as our accumulated, desperate pleas thunder in heaven. Prayer invites us into a relationship where we have a voice and a form to speak to the Almighty. Coming to such an understanding may help us unravel some of Herbert's meaning, but it does not destroy the beauty and mystery of the image.

So how does this image work in relation to the poem as a whole? Having started with 'Gods breath in man', it becomes a fearful tune, which is used as an 'Engine against th' Almightie'. And yet, despite the seeming connotations of violence and anger implicit in the roar of thunder leaving man's mouth, it is further 'transpos[ed]' so it becomes 'Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse'. Prayer, then, is in this image a passionate and resounding growl coming from somewhere deep within the human soul. It expresses anger and frustration, and is a fearful tune. Yet it is at once made into something sweet sounding. For Herbert, this is possible because of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Romans 8:26, KJV)

It is significant that prayer becomes audible in this poem - a 'tune' - only when it is expressive of anger and frustration. Prayer is a form which allows human language to express something true to God, and yet it must be transposed back again, by God's power, into something unspeakable. For God can skip over the stage of human language and make 'something understood' in the individual, transcending clever metaphor and elaborate rhetoric.

Herbert is desperate, as much as possible, to bypass the stage of human poeticizing, and instead to replicate the way that God through nature expressed the unutterable. He feels that this is the true commission of the poet, as a 'friend' tells him:

There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense. ('Jordan (II)', ll. 17-18)

But the decision to reproduce in words what already exists in nature is not simply one to 'save expense'. Herbert's fear is greater than that of wasted labour. The concern that language may become too rich is connected to a concept of what poetry is for. Quite the opposite from Sir Philip Sidney (writing around 1580), Herbert was quite sure that poetry was not capable of 'making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature'. (Sidney, An Apology for Poetry) For Herbert, God is the only and the most almighty creator, and the poet could never hope to rival or out-do him.

His metaphors therefore do not try to adorn the truth, or to distance his poems from the nature or the God that they describe. Rather, they are emblems or hieroglyphs, encapsulating meaning and mystery in a way which allows readers immediately to understand. The seeming simplicity of Herbert's language and images allows readers to feel they can grasp what he is saying, and share in the poems as 'something understood'. The reader of 'Prayer' does not need, then, to 'divine' its meaning; rather, the reader simply experiences the transition from pride to anger and back to humility.

'Something understood'

Donne on the other hand uses lists to keep his readers in the dark, and in suspense, before his final explanation. His poem 'Song (Go, and catch a falling star)' begins a list of impossible tasks, which he later likens to the impossible task of finding 'a woman true, and fair'. The motive which drives the list is the revelation of the ultimate unattainable act, but the reader is left unaware of this until the end of the first stanza, wholly reliant on Donne to provide a rationale for the poem.

The reader is even more reliant on Donne in a poem like 'The Flea'. Although to a contemporary reader the conceit would have seemed a little more appropriate because of its connection with other poems about exploring the female body, Donne still needs to explain exactly how 'This flea is you and I'. The immediacy of Herbert's hieroglyphs is replaced by a sense of distance and confusion, soluble only by the intrusion of the poetic voice.

From this position of power within the poem, Donne is able to deliver the list of 'Song' as a set of instructions, prefixed by the verb 'Go'. The imperative form is often found in Donne, even when he addresses God. In one of his Holy Sonnets, he directs him:

Batter my heart, three person'd God,

and he continues his catalogue of instructions, which culminate in the paradoxical command to God, 'imprison me'.

Herbert is far more subservient, and even when violent verbs encroach upon his poems (e.g. in 'The Collar': 'I struck the board, and cry'd, No more'), it is God who is able to still him:

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, child:
And I reply'd, My Lord.

The final word, though Herbert's, is one of obedience and recognition, putting God in the place of authority.

Donne's religious poems, however, stop short of imagining any responsive voices, and the voice of God does not appear in his poetry. Often he ends his poems by pre-empting the response of the reader, or imagined recipient of the poem, thus quieting them. 'The Flea' ends on the twist that in fact the killing of the flea only goes to further prove his case. While it may seem that 'thou triumph'st', in fact, his argument is proven: ''Tis true'. 'Song' ends when Donne tells his (male) reader that even if he were to succeed in the impossible task of finding a faithful woman, she would not remain so anyway. No other voice is allowed to intrude to question, as the poems rest on Donne's ability to prove his images relevant and appropriate, and to safeguard them against queries and complaints. His language gains authority, and his images significance, through his argumentative reasoning.

Herbert on the other hand uses images that are significant in themselves, which imitate nature's mystery rather than surprising or brow-beating the reader. He moves away from Donne's highly performative, authoritative poetic voice to find his own. It is quieter and softer, often found in the whisper of a friend. While at times it is 'fierce and wilde', and always mysterious, it is simple and immediate, full of

Softenesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse.

Eliot is perhaps right, that Herbert learnt from Donne the power of using words astutely, for effect. Yet he does so carefully, and as Eliot goes on to note, he does not use his knowledge of language to claim poetic authority, as Donne does. Rather, he is 'a master of the simple everyday in the right place, and charges it with concentrated meaning' - meaning rich yet simple, mysterious yet transparent, paraphrased from nature yet something that - because it reflects our own experience, and our own nature - can be understood.

Further Reading

It is best to start with Herbert by enjoying his poems, but if you want to find out a little more, try Eliot's short introduction, which is written as a study guide:

  • T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (London: Longmans, Green, 1962).

If you are interested in Herbert's concerns about the role of the poet, try:

  • Ernest B. Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

To think more about what metaphor does in poems and other texts, you might look at:

  • Terence Hawkes, Metaphor (London: Methuen, 1972).

For thoughts on Donne, see:

  • John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber, 1981).

And for other critical readings of Herbert, the following are a sample of helpful books:

  • Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1979).
  • Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
  • M. E. Rickey, Utmost Art: Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966).
  • Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954).

Further Thinking

Rachel Thorpe notices, in this article on Herbert's poetry, how Herbert seems to use language (and images) in an open, unassertive way, while at the same time achieving 'charge' and 'concentrated meaning'. Can you find your own examples of the surprising everydayness of Herbert's diction?

Rachel Thorpe's representation of Herbert's poetry might almost suggest that, in his posture of humility and obedience, Herbert risks writing poetry so simple that it becomes boring. But she also suggests that this simpleness arises from the way Herbert's poetry 'copies' the world he sees around him, and replicates for the reader the experience of that world. In what ways do you think reading a poem like 'Prayer (I)' might create the experience of prayer? Can you think of other poets who who induce in their readers the experience of the thing they are representing?

To Sir John Danvers, 18 March 1617

Friday, April 24th, 2009

[Text from The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), pp. 364-65.]



I dare no longer be silent, least while I think I am modest, I wrong both my self, and also the confidence my Friends have in me; wherefore I will open my case unto you, which I think deserves the reading at the least; and it is this, I want Books extremely; You know Sir, how I am now setting foot in Divinity, to lay the platform of my future life, and shall I then be fain alwayes to borrow Books, and build on anothers foundation? What Trades-man is there who will set up without his Tools? Pardon my boldness Sir, it is a most serious Case, nor can I write coldly in that, wherein consisteth the making good of my former education, of obeying that Spirit which hath guided me hitherto, and of atchieving my (I dare say) holy ends. This also is aggravated, in that I apprehend what my Friends would have been forward to say, if I had taken ill courses, Follow your Book, and you shall want nothing: You know Sir, it is their ordinary speech, and now let them make it good; for, since, I hope, I have not deceived their expectation, let not them deceive mine: But perhaps they will say, you are sickly, you must not study too hard; it is true (God knows) I am weak, yet not so, but that every day, I may step one step towards my journies end; and I love my friends so well, as that if all things proved not well, I had rather the fault should lie on me, than on them; but they will object again, What becomes of your Annuity? Sir, if there be any truth in me, I find it little enough to keep me in health. You know I was sick last Vacation, neither am I yet recovered, so that I am fain ever and anon, to buy somewhat tending towards my health; for infirmities are both painful and costly. Now this Lent I am forbid utterly to eat any Fish, so that I am fain to dyet in my Chamber at mine own cost; for in our publick Halls, you know, is nothing but Fish and Whit-meats: Out of Lent also, twice a Week, on Fridayes and Saturdayes, I must do so, which yet sometimes I fast. Sometimes also I ride to Newmarket, and there lie a day or two for fresh Air; all which tend to avoiding of costlier matters, if I should fall absolutely sick: I protest and vow, I even study Thrift, and yet I am scarce able with much ado to make one half years allowance, shake hands with the other: And yet if a Book of four or five Shillings come in my way, I buy it, though I fast for it; yea, sometimes of Ten Shillings: But, alas Sir, what is that to those infinite Volumes of Divinity, which yet every day swell, and grow bigger. Noble Sir, pardon my boldness, and consider but these three things. First, the Bulk of Divinity. Secondly, the time when I desire this (which is now, when I must lay the foundation of my whole life). Thirdly, what I desire, and to what end, not vain pleasures, nor to a vain end. If then, Sir, there be any course, either by engaging my future Annuity, or any other way, I desire you, Sir, to be my Mediator to them in my behalf.

Now I write to you, Sir, because to you I have ever opened my heart; and have reason, by the Patents of your perpetual favour to do so still, for I am sure you love

Your faithfullest Servant,


Speaking, Writing, and Teaching: Herbert as Orator and Priest

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Between 1620 and 1628 George Herbert served as University Orator at Cambridge, an office of considerable prestige that required Herbert to compose and deliver Latin addresses for formal occasions. Although the texts of three of Herbert's public orations still exist, such as that written for the presentation of honorary degrees to two European ambassadors by the University in 1622, we cannot be sure whether the extant English translations are Herbert's own. Furthermore, Herbert's prose is not as impressive or as moving in these Latin orations as it is in some of his other works. His personal letters, written to family and friends during his time at Cambridge, and his priestly handbook A Priest to the Temple, are a fairer demonstration of his mastery of prose form, his belief in the power of language, and his humility before God.

Two letters and extracts from A Priest to the Temple are read here by Mr Anthony Bowen, a Fellow in Classics at Jesus College, who held the five-hundred-year-old position of Cambridge University Orator between 1993 and 2007.

1. Letter to Sir John Danvers, Trinity College Cambridge, 18 March 1617 (Track 1, 04:58)

John Danvers, a wealthy politician, was Herbert's stepfather. In this letter Herbert writes to ask him for more money to pay for books, as he is now 'setting foot into Divinity' and beginning to 'lay the platform' of his future life as a clergyman. He claims that his need for more books and the costs of his recent illness have meant that he has been fasting to make his limited resources stretch further.

herbert-bowen-1Read the text of the letter (opens a new window)

2. Letter to Sir John Danvers, Trinity College Cambridge, September 1619 (Track 2, 03:20)
Having been in Cambridge for a decade now, Herbert tells his family that he is being considered for the position of University Orator, and must make an hour-long Latin oration the following week. With excited anticipation, he explains the responsibilities and duties associated with this position, albeit one which brings more glory in name than in financial reward. Sir Francis Nethersole, mentioned by Herbert as an 'ancient acquaintance', was the University Orator to whom Herbert served as deputy for a year. For Nethersole, who went on to become secretary of state, the position clearly provided opportunities to mix with influential people and to advertise to king and court his skills in the art of . Herbert's eventual decision to enter the Church meant that his own rhetorical prowess would find a use in a different setting.

herbert-bowen-2Read the text of the letter (opens a new window)

3. A Priest to the Temple, Chapter VI: The Parson Praying (Track 3, 04:22)
With meticulous precision, Herbert describes how the priest's words and actions should guide the congregation in corporate prayer. As he does constantly throughout A Priest to the Temple, Herbert advocates a devout moderation - the parson's spoken words should be 'treatable and slow, yet not so slow neither as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing'. The priest's own behaviour and posture in church serve as a model for everyone else; in this way the priest draws the bodies and souls of the faithful closer to God as they are shown how to engage with the words they hear, and to 'meditate as they speak, that God hath ever had his people that have glorified him as well as now'.

herbert-bowen-3Read the text of the extract (opens a new window)

4. A Priest to the Temple, Chapter VII: The Parson Preaching (Track 4, 07:13, with some abridgements)
'Dangerous things': this is how Herbert describes the transformative qualities of a priest's sermons in this key chapter of A Priest to the Temple. In church the pulpit should be seen as the parson's 'joy and his throne', the place from which the words of scripture are expounded and meditated upon by the parson before his gathered flock. There is a true and simple art to preaching, Herbert argues, and the parson must decide how best to engage an audience of diverse people, perhaps with 'stories and sayings they will well remember' according 'as his text invites him'. The explanation of carefully chosen 'moving and ravishing texts' brings the faithful to a closer union with God. Above all however, the speaker must be concerned with reflecting upon the holiness of God, rather than his own wit or eloquence. The Bible is the most important of all written texts, and God the Judge is the preacher's ultimate critic.

herbert-bowen-4Read the text of the extract (opens a new window)

These readings bring together the ancient traditions of the office of University Orator, as it was practised in George Herbert's time, with the voice of one of the university's modern orators. This confluence of old and new is at the heart of much of the writing and reading on the Cambridge Authors site. If you want to think further about some of the issues raised here, read Raphael Lyne's examination of the 'Oratours place' in the life of a modern university.

Rhetoric - the art of speaking well - was widely studied and practised in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, much as it had been in Greek and Roman antiquity.