George Herbert: Poems

George Herbert: Poems Themes

Priests' Role in Religious Life

One of the major themes which appears in many poems including "The Priesthood’’ is the importance of holy men and the role they played in the salvation of the human soul. Priests are given the same importance as kings because the fate of a person’s soul depends on the guidance offered by a priest. The priest is said to have direct contact with God, something which gives priests power in the eyes of normal people.

However, Herbert also suggests that priests should not mistake themselves for gods, and should maintain religious humility. In poems like "Affliction (I)," the speaker notes that the life of a priest may not be full of God's blessing, but instead may feature suffering and tests of faith. Because of priests' role in society, it is all the more important that they remain devout through moments of spiritual crisis.

The Pain of Love

In the poem entitled "The Search’’ the main theme centers around the pain caused by the absence of Love (especially God's love). The speaker addresses God, asking, "Whither O whither art Thou fled, / My Lord, my Love ?" This poem's conceit takes the form of address to a lover who has left. However, the topic here is God's absence in his life, and the speaker expresses firsthand the pain and longing he feels as a result. The speaker describes the process of searching for the loved one and compares it with other essential processes that sustain human life. This transmits the idea that for humanity, love is essential and cannot be replaced by any other feeling and emotion. This argument is also used to offer an excuse for those who behave irrationally, letting them claim it was all in the name of love.

In another poem, "Love (III)," Herbert describes an encounter between God and the speaker. The speaker believes he is unworthy of God's love, and suffers abundant shame as a result. God insists again and again that the speaker is worthy of love, ultimately convincing him to sit and receive God's rewards. Nonetheless, it is clear that the experience of divine love—the moments when one feels it, and the moments when once doubts it—can create a dialectic of pain and pleasure.

Religious Doubt

Poems including “The Collar” and “Affliction (I)” describe periods of doubt and rebellion against God. The speaker in The Temple thought that he would have a life full of blessing and joy after choosing to devote himself to God, but in both of these poems, he complains that he has been suffering wretchedly. In “The Collar” in particular, this leads him to rebel against God, claiming that he will set off to find freedom. However, in both poems, religious doubt is eventually resolved when the speaker remembers that true joy and pleasure—as well as freedom from doubt—are available only in heaven. His suffering is a test to his faith, and he is determined to overcome it.

God's Love

In Herbert's poetry, God’s love is infinite, and His tools for demonstrating that love are manifold. God uses tools including discipline and suffering, but only for mankind’s good. In “The Pulley,” for example, the speaker explains that without suffering and only pleasure, mankind would stray from God. However, to enter the kingdom of heaven and receive eternal peace, man must stay devout. “The Search” demonstrates another tool—God’s absence or silence—and “Love (III)” a third, encouragement and persuasion. The poems as a whole suggest that whatever the tool in use, life on earth is a reflection of God’s love for mankind.

Divine Union

In Christianity, the union of man and God is an important concept: Christ’s resurrection shows God become man, and when the faithful die, they ascend to heaven, becoming part of God’s kingdom. In many poems, the speaker describes such a union. In "Clasping of Hands," a poem with imagery reminiscent of wedding vows, he states, “Lord, I am Thine, and Thou art mine.” This short, two-stanza poem reflects the union of God and man in both its form and in its rhyming lines (which contain only two vowel sounds, and the end rhymes “mine” and “thine” over and over again). Images of the sacrament also appear throughout the book in poems like “The Collar” and “Love (III),” further strengthening this theme.

The Role of Prayer in Religous Life

Some of Herbert’s poems are about prayers, and others might be viewed as prayers themselves. “Prayer (I),” for example, is a sonnet that seeks to define prayer, noting that it has the power to soothe the soul, to create a reciprocal relationship between God and man, and to strike fear into the hearts of sinners. The multiple definitions presented in this poem reveal that prayer is central to the life of the church and to individuals’ relationships with God; nonetheless, it is difficult to define. Other poems in The Temple can thus be viewed as prayers: they are the medium through which the speaker attempts to communicate with God, beseeching Him to treat the speaker with kindness (as in “Discipline”) and to thank Him (as in “Easter Wings”). Prayer plays not just one role in The Temple, or in religious life; rather, it is the medium through which mankind keeps faith, addressing God whether or not an answer comes.

The Temple as a Place of Worship

The form of Herbert’s The Temple presents a central thematic concern: where and how one worships. The book is divided into three sections, “The Church-porch,” “The Church,” and “The Church-militant,” thus suggesting that the book as a whole covers the approach to a place of worship, the experience of worship, and the end result of that worship. The book itself, then, is a kind of church or temple: a place where the writer (and perhaps the reader) experiences all aspects of worship and communes with God. The book thus reemphasizes the importance of actual churches, as well as suggests that there are other places for private worship, including poetry itself.