George Herbert, Secretary of Praise
|By James Wardwell|
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to Man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him Secretary of thy praise.
Nothing measures the depth and beauty of life in Christ like devotional poetry. As an augment to, not a replacement for, the use of scripture and the other spiritual disciples, devotional poetry helps us find and feel the truth, meditate upon it, and put it into action. In this way, seventeenth-century, English cleric and poet George Herbert’s words profoundly penetrate the marrow of a life lived in commitment to God.
In spite of the early dates to his life (1593-1633) and my own immersion in the English renaissance, Herbert has always struck me as remarkably contemporary. Inasmuch as the centrality of the Bible and a personal relationship to God through Christ are hallmarks of contemporary Christian faith, Herbert seems one with us. These two tenets of faith season his collection of poems, The Temple, with insight.
The continuing English reformation was a neighborhood event for George Herbert as a youth. When he was twelve and living near Charing Cross, Guy Fawkes and other Catholics attempted to blow up Parliament—building, members, and King—just down the street. In the same year, when King James first commissioned an Authorized Version of the English Bible, Herbert family friend and mentor Lancelot Andrewes was chosen as one of the translators at the Westminster School where George was a student. In his first sonnet entitled “The H. Scriptures,” Herbert refers to the bible as a “mass of strange delights” and God’s ambassador in this world. Not surprisingly, then, presenting the scriptures becomes a significant mode of operation in The Temple. Herbert aides us with three devotional exercises of sola scriptora: reminding us of the Bible’s content, constructing and teaching theology by aligning divergent passages, and challenging us toward “practical piety,” i.e. living out biblical injunctions.
Herbert wrote when most people were illiterate. He may have hoped people would hear scripture read or recited in his poems, thus calling it to mind. Thus Herbert was a participant in the reformation initiative to translate the Bible into the vernacular.
Translating the Psalms into your own language (a practice still commendable as a vehicle for personal spiritual development) was a private enterprise of literate Christians in the seventeenth century. Francis Bacon dedicated his versification of “certain psalms” to Herbert while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Herbert included his own version of “The 23 Psalm” in The Temple.
Yea, in death’s shady black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear. (13-16)
The translator’s work may also be observed in Herbert’s “Anagram” on the Virgin Mary’s name.
How well her name an Army doth present,
In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent.
This may be a very precise allusion to John 1:14, as the Greek word translated “dwelt” in the Authorized Version is etymologically connected to the building of the tabernacle and can be literally rendered “the word became flesh and “’did pitch his tent’” among us.
Scriptural references become titular for Herbert as in “Ephes. 4.30. Grieve not the Holy Spirit, & c.”. “The Odour, 2. Cor. 2” asserts the words “My Master” to be the sweetest aroma of praise God might hear and “my servant,” recalling the “good and faithful servant” of Matthew 25:23, the sweetest reply. Elsewhere, Herbert smoothly embeds the verse on the diagonal in “Coloss. 3.3 Our life is hid with Christ in God.”
My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid, and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt In flesh, and tends to earth.
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.
Herbert reminds his readers not only of what the Bible says but also of how it says it. He writes in biblical genres. He sings God’s praise like the heavenly host in “Even-song” and “Praise (2)” or like the new heavenly choir in “Antiphon (1)” and “(2).” When a star lands in his lap and speaks to him in “Artillery,” Herbert’s persona creates a parable. His poems are spotted with proverbs, like the conclusion to “Businesss.”
Who in heart not ever kneels
Neither sin nor Saviour feels. (37-38)
Displaying a personal affinity toward the proverbial, Herbert collected a notebook of 1,024 axiomatic expressions (some from recognizable sources but most not) which has been published as “Outlandish Proverbs.” The long introductory poem to The Temple entitled “The Church-porch” uses proverbial expression extensively. Like the book of proverbs, Herbert’s poem is addressed to a youth that it might “Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure” (4).
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (5-6)
On ribald humor, he writes,
He pares his apple, that will cleanly feed (64).
The stormy working soul spits lies and froth.
Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie:
A fault, which needs it most, grows two thereby. (76-78)
On material wealth:
The way to make thy son rich, is to fill
His mind with rest, before his trunk with riches:
For wealth without contentment climbs a hill
To feel those tempests, which fly over ditches. (109-112)
On moderation in drinking:
Drink not the third glass, which thou canst not tame,
When once it is within thee; but before
Mayst rule it, as thou list; and pour the shame,
Which it would pour on thee, upon the floor. (25-28)
Love is a personal debt (278).
Man is God’s image; but a poor man is
Christ’s stamp to boot: both images regard. (379-380)
Restore to God his due in tithe and time
A tithe purloin’d cankers the whole estate. (385-386)
On fashion, he recommends “cheap handsomeness” (187).
On preachers, he humorously contends:
The worst speak something good: if all want sense,
God takes a text, and preacheth patience. (431-432)
And lest we take the foibles of preaching too seriously, of your minister Herbert adds “love him for his Master” (443).
Not only does Herbert aid us devotionally by calling the scriptures to mind, but he employs them to build theology in his poems. He delineates such a process in his second sonnet entitled “The H. Scriptures.” “This verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie” (5-6). By laying divergent passages of scripture side by side in poems Herbert builds a systematic theology. His belief in prayer may serve as a case in point.
Lacking a verb, “Prayer (1)” stockpiles descriptive phrases as if to answer the question, "What is prayer?" Many of these phrases are derived from the Bible. Prayer is the “Church’s banquet” alluding to the harmonious, apocalyptic feast of Isaiah 25. “God’s breath in man returning to his birth” (2) claims the life force God breathed into Adam (Gen. 2:7) is rightly returned to God in prayer. The second quatrain of the sonnet proclaims the power that is at our disposal in prayer. Unlike that one in Babel, this “sinners’ tower” lifts us to the presence of God. The “Christ-side-piercing spear” brought forth the literal blood of our Lord, just as confessional prayer brings forth the blood of Christ that covers our sin. “The six-days-world transposing in an hour” suggests that an hour spent in prayer can be as productive as God creating all the world in just six days. In the last six lines of the poem, the images are less jarring and the rhythm smoother as Herbert positively celebrates in quiet confidence the surety of prayer. It is “Exalted Manna,” the miraculously sufficient, otherworldly provision of God to his sometimes grumbling, vagrant people. Prayer is “something understood.”
Lastly, Herbert uses the Bible to challenge his readers to live as it directs. Speaking of friendship in “The Church-porch,” Herbert wrote, “If cause require, thou art his sacrifice” (273). “No greater love hath a man than this that he lay down his life for a friend” (John 15:13) was not just an avenue to love for Jesus and the twelve disciples. Actual “drops of blood” may be required of Herbert for a friend.
In “Lent,” because “The Scriptures bid us fast,” Herbert teaches,
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, with no evasion,
When good is seasonable (13-15).
Although in fasting we can not reach “Christ’s forti’th day,” Herbert quotes “Be holy ev’n as he” (cf. Matt. 5:48) as our inspiration to try. For “Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone / Is much more sure to meet with him” (37-38).
Herbert’s repeated application of Romans 8:26 is both a challenge and a comfort. “In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In spite of the fact that he works in words, Herbert resorts to “Sighs and Groans” to express the anguish of the sanctification dialectic. After “The Church-porch,” “Superliminare” invites the reader of The Temple to move on to “taste / The church’s mystical repast” (3-4). The profane are excluded; only the good may read on into “The Church” which is the central section of Herbert’s book.
Nothing but holy, pure, and clear,
Or that which groaneth to be so,
May at his peril further go. (6-8; emphasis mine)
“The Sinner” recognizes his own inadequacy, finds in himself “quarries of pil’d vanities” and “shreds of holiness.” “In so much dregs the quintessence is small” (9). The soul of his soul, the “good extract” of his heart is only a “hundredth part,” i.e. one percent! Yet he begs God to hear and restore him.
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can groan,
Remember that thou once didst write in stone. (13-14)
“The Pearl Matth. 13.” combines Herbert’s uses of the Bible to record the sale of his own personal accomplishments to purchase a loving relationship to God. Teaching in parables Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). Herbert sold learning, honor, and pleasure to achieve intimacy with the Lord.
When Herbert starts the poem “I know the ways of learning,” he is simply stating biographical fact. As a boy he had studied Latin and Hebrew under Lancelot Andrewes, the Master of Westminster School at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Andrewes is reported by one of Herbert’s classmates to have said that he thought his teaching would be praised by their teachers at Cambridge or he “would never hope for it afterwards by any while he lived” (Hacket qtd by Plume qtd by Charles 54). The longest period of Herbert’s life spent in one location was 1609-1623 at Trinity College, Cambridge. After receiving a B.A.(as salutatorian) and M.A., Herbert worked his way up to the position of University Orator, i.e. their spokesperson. As one who knew how to “feed the press” (2), he was a published author. He knew “what reason hath from nature barrowed” and “what nature willing speaks” from his friend and correspondent Francis Bacon the proponent of rational empiricism and scientific method in natural philosophy. He had discovered “new-found seas” (he writes explicitly about America in “The Church Militant”) in books and from people like his sea captain brother Thomas or member of the Virginia Company friend Nicholas Ferrer. But he concludes the first stanza,
All these stand open, or I have the keys:
Yet I love thee. (9-10)
Knowing the ways of honor in the second stanza includes cognizance of the “quick returns of courtesy and wit” (12). Could this be applause to which he refers? World-conquering ambition seems to be the way of honor in lines 14-17. As a member of parliament, Herbert must have known about “party gains.” He was granted a royal benefice worth three thousand pounds in 1628. As public orator, he spoke directly to King James. When, after having been spurned by a Spanish princess, Prince Charles sought approval for invading Spain, Herbert in a public address told the Prince that his proposed invasion was unjust. Herbert learned how many “drams of spirit” it takes to sell one’s soul for honor in the rumors of civil war which his eldest brother and step father waged at home from opposite sides. He and his family had gained honor in the political arena. Yet Herbert wanted God’s love.
The last bartering chip by which we might purchase the pearl of great price, pleasure, is advertised in the third stanza. The persona begins with the vocabulary of musical pleasure, which he clearly loved. As a musician, Herbert cherished the “sweet strains,” “lullings,” and “relishes” of musical expression. Perhaps the greatest musicians of the time, William Byrd and Dr. John Bull were known visitors to and performers at the Herbert household. George is known to have walked hours to Salisbury Cathedral and back on a regular basis to play his viol at evensong. Not a despised thing, but an enriching art, he will sell musical pleasure for the kingdom of heaven.
The next two lines connote allusions to Herbert’s father and mother respectively. As a local authority, his father is recorded as having died in “propositions of hot blood and brains” from a skull wound through to the brain. Although fatal, there was nevertheless something admirably heroic in the elder Herbert’s sense of community service. A generous hostess, Herbert’s mother’s stewart records a household continually filled with “mirth and music” including dance parties. “[W]hat love and wit / Have done these twenty thousand years” may allude to any number of entities, but literary pleasure, which George Herbert seems to have known and enjoyed, must be seen as one of the possibilities. In seeking to obtain the pearl of great price, he is willing to sell those things dear.
Herbert rarely writes of sexual temptations, In “Sonnets I” & “(II)” and in “Love (I)” & “(II),” he decries romantic love as the ungodly usurper of poetic praise. But in “The Pearl” his persona sounds like a man who has faced unchasted desires.
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five. (26-29)
May be reason or spirit is the one ganged up on by his five senses; however, extending the equestrian diction, this person is hot to trot. But he is willing to sell the satisfaction of “unbridled” pleasure to secure the kingdom of heaven.
In the end of the poem, knowing and possessing all the above described wealth, the persona seeks a better buy. He does so not as the falcon who was hooded to prohibit flight, but soaring into “the main sale” “with open eyes.” He knows the trade value of what he has tendered and at what “price” he may have God’s love. Herein lies a maze. We have been bought with a great price paid by Christ’s sacrifice (1 Cor. 6:20 & 7:23). Even with the exchange of our learning, honor, and pleasure, it is God himself who provides us access to his presence.
Yet through the labyrinths, not my grovelling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee. (37-40)
Perhaps more striking in his post-reformation milieu than his elevated employment of scripture in his poems was Herbert’s insistence on personal faith. His contemporaries were not writing in this fashion. Shakespeare (1564-1616) was decidedly mute on matters of faith. (I’ve come to favor explanations of this that say the great playwright was a Catholic so he feared reprisals for any declaration of his faith.) Milton (1609-1674), a late contemporary of Herbert, presents Christianity more as a system of thought than a way of living. We can only trace how Milton embraced faith occasionally in spite of the dictates of epic form. Although many in Herbert’s time were addressing issues of Christian doctrine, few did so with the attachment of George Herbert. Family friend and, it would seem at times, something of a mentor, John Donne had explored personal faith struggles in some of his Holy Sonnets, but these coterie poems were only published posthumously. Personal faith was more the province of earlier fringe writers like the mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Herbert, then, engendered the next generation of devotional poets such as Henry Vaughan who explicitly calls himself a “son of Herbert.”
One way Herbert generates expressions of personal faith is by his use of narration in his lyrical poems. Poems like the quasi-allegorical “Love Unknown” and mini beast fable “Humility” entertain us with stories. The latter culminates in a general melee between the virtues over which of them should be honored with the peacock’s feather. A rhyming “plume/fume” ensues. In the end, “Humility” triumphs by throwing down the feather gauntlet like “saying, Here it is / For which ye wrangle”(26-27), it would seem shaming them back into virtuous conduct.
The sonnet “Redemption” tells the story of a tenant seeking his landlord out for a new, less demanding lease. Tellingly the poem is sequenced between “Good Friday” and “Sepulchre” which is immediately followed by “Easter.” After “measure[ing] out” Christ’s blood in “Good Friday,” “redemption” is naturally “sought,” but that it is “granted” espouses Herbert’s belief in the salvific necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death. In “Redemption[‘s]” story, the tenant moves to “cancel th’ old” covenant of law and enter into a new relationship of grace. When he seeks the landlord out in heaven, he is told that the Lord is out on a business call to earth about some land “that he had dearly bought.” Returning to earth, knowing the landlord’s “great birth,” the tenant seeks him “in great resorts;/ In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts” (10-11). Although these are all places where God is present, it is not till the seeker turns to the “ragged noise /Of thieves and murderers” that he finds his Lord, who before the supplicant even speaks, “Your suit is granted, [says], and die[s]” (14). The impact of the cross on Herbert’s “sudden soul” is accented by the rapid plot twist of that last line.
The use of first person point of view contributes greatly to personal nature of faith reflected in Herbert’s poems. This is not, however, exclusively the case in Herbert. At times other voices break into his poems effectively, particularly God’s. In “The Pulley,” Herbert writes a creation day monologue in God’s voice (Trialogue? “Let us (said he).” The one God speaking to himself in three persons?). Wanting to endow humankind with all the blessings he can, God describes pouring strength and beauty, “then wisdom, honour, pleasure” (7) onto human beings. Realizing that the “Rest” “of all his treasure” only remains in his gift bag, God stops to ponder:
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore his gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature.
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast. (11-20)
While perhaps reflecting an untoward worrisomeness to omniscience and omnipotence, there is a reassuring playfulness in God’s voice punning on the “rest” that remains and that which replenishes. Such playfulness mitigates the arch rationality of God’s syntax and resounding ars and esses. The physical logic of God using human “weariness” as a pulley levering us to his breast encapsulates the monergism of divine love.
God’s is not the only other voice heard aiding Herbert’s usual first person persona. When Herbert considers the quandary of writing worthy praise to God in “Jordan (2),” in the end “a friend” pipes in
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d:
Copy out only that, and save expense. (17-18)
Furthermore, not all the other voices Herbert creates are positive. In “Misery” as to prove “Man is a foolish thing,” sarcastically parodying a living for the day philosophy, a voice drunkenly sings,
Man is but grass,
He knows it, fill the glass. (5-6)
But the dominant voice in Herbert’s poems is “I.”
Interestingly, unlike our post-romantic poetic tastes, Herbert’s persons seem only rarely, if at all, explicitly autobiographical. Although Arnold Stein has made an interesting case for “The Forerunners” being one such exception, it remains hazardous to read the details of Herbert’s life back into his poems. For instance, upon seeing Herbert’s portrait, we might observe some self referencing in these lines from “The Size:”
A Christian’s state and case
Is not a corpulent, but a thin and spare,
Yet active strength: whose long and bony face
Content and care
Doth seem to equally divide,
Like a pretender, not a bride. (31-36)
The drawn face, sunken cheeks, Roman nose, deep eyes, relatively straight hair covering the ears and boxing the head, and the tightly trussed up collar of the portrait may have modeled the thin, spare, long, bony face described in the poem, but if Herbert is referring to his own visage, then he does so in a highly uncharacteristically self-aggrandizing fashion presenting himself as the Christian prototype. This seems unlikely, for, although he would never think so, Herbert was good at humility.
Proceeding with caution then, reading Herbert’s great poem “Affliction (1)” autobiographically can nevertheless enhance its power.
Affliction is Herbert’s most repeated title: he writes five poems with this title. In them the persona is afflicted. Number two starts “Kill me not ev’ry day,/ Thou Lord of life.” “My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!” (“Affliction (3)” 1). What afflicts this person is his desire to reciprocate God’s love for him while remaining simultaneously aware of his own inability to do so. “My thoughts are all a case of knives;” “Nothing performs the task of life” (“Affliction (4)” 7 and 16). “Affliction then is ours” (“Affliction (5)” 19). Reading the five poems together with the rest of The Temple, “working out his own salvation with fear and trembling,” the sanctification quest, afflicted him.
Then for thy passion—I will for that—
Alas, my God, I know not what. (“The Thanksgiving” 49-50)
The first affliction poem in The Temple gains emotional strength by arguably autobiographical references. It builds to the marvelous concluding couplet:
Ah my dear God! Though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
The play on love as an emotion he feels versus an action he performs emanates from a pattern of life events in the poem, how he reacts to them emotionally, and what he has been able to do in reciprocation.
“At first” through most of the first four stanzas the supernatural “joys” of knowing God “augmented” his “stock of natural delight” so as to be “wages.” Implying some change, conversion-like, the natural stock of his birth blessing was so enriched by his spiritual development that he comprised “No place for grief or fear” (16). “Milk,” “sweetness,” “flow’rs,” “happiness”: “There was no month but May” (22). The quaintness of the lines and thought intimate an untested faith.
But in the fifth stanza trouble starts with much more specific biographical allusions.
My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave unto my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived. (25-30)
Herbert seemed a sickly man. He refers to his ill health in extant letters, particularly that attached to perhaps his earliest known poems (Sonnet I & II). Referring to his “late ague,” he writes “For myself, dear Mother, I always fear’d sickness more than death, because sickness hath made me unable to perform those offices for which I came into the world, and must yet be kept in it” (qtd by Walton qtd by Charles 73). From his ghostly appearance depicted above, the features of perpetual ill health (literally “consuming agues”) may be deciphered. His earliest biographer Izaak Walton records an extended period of illness preceding his death at age forty. He is referred to as being “at death’s door” as early as 1622, over a decade prior to his death. Most telling perhaps are the records of how often Herbert took meals in his room instead in the dining commons at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he spent most of his adult life (1609-1624). Dining in rooms was commonly practiced only by those suffering from disease. Whatever Herbert’s particular disease was, it seems to have been a lifelong affliction. Notice how in lines 26-28 he awkwardly changes the verb tenses from past to present to suggest that illness is still with him. The last two lines of the stanza are nearly existential; his pain, sensory experience, convinced him he was alive. Yet it is in the midst of physical and emotional suffering that his belief deepens. The first four stanzas were “scarce[-ly]” believing.
The sixth stanza alludes to a still worse time for Herbert when his “health” was restored but his “life” was lost. Such an odd juxtapositioning stems from the harshest cruelty of life, as Herbert starkly puts it “my friends die.” Rather than the simple, jealous death wish of a sickly man, this, as Amy Charles has argued, may be the angst of a loving brother. The most discernable, immediate biographical reference could be the deaths of his two older brothers, William and Charles, as soldiers on the continent in 1617. Familial bereavement was a profound, early experience for Herbert as his father had died leaving he, his mother and nine siblings when he was only three years old. His existent letters reflect great grief over the ill health and death of his mother and sisters, one of whom’s three daughters George took in to raise. Walton thought the reference alluded to the death of Herbert’s “courthopes” at the loss of key political allies. Herbert’s famous friends Francis Bacon and Lancelot Andrewes both died in 1626. Any or all of these deaths may be the affliction Herbert suffered from in the death of his friends. Line thirty-five reiterates that he is “without a fence or friend.”
Being fenceless may be seen as an allusion to the afflictions homelessness and poverty. At the death of his father, George’s mother took the children to live with Lady Newport, their grandmother, at Eyton-upon-Severn. After a couple of years there, the family is found living in Oxford. Next they live in the vicinity of Charing Cross, London from whence George probably walks up to St Paul’s Cathedral as a Westminster School day student. His mother doesn’t remarry until 1609, thirteen years after the death of his father, then relocating in Chelsea. Herbert’s oldest Brother, Edward, Lord Cherbury, inherited the family estate including Montgomery Castle. In one year, 1624, George is on six-month leave from his job as Orator of Cambridge, elected to parliament from Montgomeryshire (Wales), attends sessions from February to May in London, is ordained a deacon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and named to a minor clerical position back in Wales. These are geographically widespread places. He doesn’t settle into the rectory at Bemerton, the only “home” he knows as an adult, until 1630, three years before his death.
Not only was being “without a fence” homelessness in Herbert’s life, it was also being impoverished. His letters are often appeals for funds. Interestingly, late in his life monies are sought for the rebuilding of the church at Bemerton. He suggests that lack of funds for books keeps him from “setting foot into Divinity,” i.e. he’s too poor to be a minister.
It is difficult to see the reference at the beginning of the seventh stanza to “my birth” which “took / The way that took the town” as anything other than an explicitly biographical reference. Herbert was born into the privileged class, to an influencial English family in a Welsh border town. His mother was from the Powys line perhaps the most important family of Welch ancestry in the region. His grandfather and father were members of parliament, bailiffs (a cross between a modern day sheriff and mayor), and justices of the peace.
Yet his complaint is that in spite of his high birth God has “betray[ed]” him to “a lingring book” and “gown” (39 and 40). While these references may be taken as referring to either Herbert’s career as minister or as a scholar at Cambridge, the “Academic praise” which sweetened the confining affliction from God makes them seem appeals to his scholarly calling. At this point in his life, as in the poem, even his vocation, which Herbert would have understood as a religious call to service, inhibits his sanctification quest.
Then he falls into “more sicknesses” (52).
In the end of the poem, the vicissitudes of Herbert’s life “cross-bias” him. The stark antipathy of this pun, where he is angered by favoring Christ while not being able to effectually show it, reflect the manic nature of his affliction. In the last two stanzas, he bounces between his desires to complete God’s work in him or to quit trying altogether. The conflict of the poem, as unresolved as his life quest, culminates in the anguished plea, “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.”
Where “Affliction (1)” presents direct autobiographical vim, “The Collar” receives empowerment from only the general connection between the persona and Herbert. Both seem to have experienced frustration in ministry.
The title begins these associations. In the seventeenth century, ministers would have usually been identifiable by wearing a clerical collar in public. Homophonically, the palpable anger of the person, “choler,” also echoes in the title. Because civil and ecclesiastical law were not fully compartmentalized, if someone had broken the law, like the requirement to take communion at least once a year, she might be seen in the back of the sanctuary with a wooden or iron collar clasped around her neck as punishment. In spite of or because of these associations, the poem is a vigorous complaint to God by the persona, i.e. “the caller.”
The poem commences in aggressive action. “I struck the board:” pounding the communion table, the very spot where the country parson administers “the excitings of grace,” and shouts his intent to quit: “No more!”
Out for a calming walk, he airs his complaint in a volley of questions focused on the fruitlessness of his ministry. “Have I no harvest?”
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
All wasted? (13-16)
It is not consummate with his talent and effort that he should go so unaccomplished. He is “free” to “forsake” the “cage” and “law” that bind him to anonymity. He need only take a little initiative into other fields to yield a worthy harvest. The turgid prosody of both rhythm and rhyme through most of the poem reveal his angry, addled state of mind.
However, in the last four lines the rhythm and rhyme are regularized as God calls back placating all callers/collars/cholers.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:
And I reply’d, My Lord. (33-36)
God only speaks one word in the poem, but he addresses a load of anxiety. “Child” is at once diminishing and endearing. The parent knows more than the child and corrects judiciously, but not without love. The response acknowledges authority while proclaiming an intimate relationship. Therein lies the beauty and depth of the divine-human relationship: taking our concerns to God, being heard, graciously responded to and even embraced.
The ultimate expression of such communion with God for Herbert was “Love (3).” He insists on its strategic placement at the close of the central section of The Temple.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who dore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Interestingly, the poem apes some of the earmarks of the lyrical subgenre the seduction poem so popular in Herbert’s time. Poems like Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” and “Corinna”s Going A-Maying,” Waller’s “Go, lovely rose!” Donne’s “The Flea,” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” serve as a necessary backdrop to understanding the full impact of Herbert’s conception of love. Agape love is at least as emotionally enthralling as sexual intimacy.
“Love,” the declared “Lord” (13) of this poem’s “I,” pursues the liaison. There is a catty give and take to the movement. Love asks “If I lack’d any thing” as a bartender today might ask “what can I get you?” Love smiles and takes the reluctant one’s hand. The persona is shy to have eyes meet but sighs endearment. At the persona’s feigned unworthiness Love graciously imputes “you shall be” my guest and creatively puns on the I/eyes entitlement. Love makes three inquiries, one in each stanza, each becoming more pointed in its allusiveness. Lines 13-16 define God’s grace to us as not what we “deserve” but rather, because of “who bore the blame,” a love relationship.
My dear, then I will serve.
From the context of the poem there is no way to definitely determine who speaks this line. The two manuscripts we take Herbert’s poems from include no quotation marks. Both characters have previously referred to themselves in the first person singular. Theologically, service is a mirrored manifestation of divine initiative: we love because he first loved us. Love says I will serve you by bearing the blame; the persona responses, I will serve you for bearing the blame. This simultaneous expression is a model of communion: the two voices have become one.
Stanley Fish has asserted that in the last line of the poem the persona obeys as an automaton: God tells him that he “must” sit, so he sits. He can do no other. What Fish seems to miss is that obedience to God, even to his commandments, is not a guaranteed response. In “Love,” God invites us to the table to commune with him, “taste [his] meat.” It is up to us to accept the offer, and “sit and eat.”
The poems of George Herbert can be reasonably purchased in hardback as George Herbert: The Complete English Works, editor Ann Pasternak Slater, Everyman’s Library 204, London: David Campbell Publishers, 1995. In addition to the poems discussed in this essay, I would recommend as starters the following list of favorites: The Call, The Church-floor, Church Monuments, The Dedication, Denial, The Flower, The Holdfast, A True Hymn, JESU, Life, Love-joy, Man, Man’s Medley, Mortification, The Posy, The Quiddity, Sin’s Round, Virtue, and A Wreath.
Amy Charles, A Life of George Herbert ( Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977) is commendable as a biography and Chana Bloch, Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (Berkeley: UCBP, 1985) reads well as a discussion of the use of the Bible in his poems.