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

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.

Comments are closed.