George Herbert: Poems


Herbert wrote poetry in English, Latin and Greek. Shortly before his death, he sent a literary manuscript to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of a semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding, reportedly telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", otherwise to burn them. In 1633 all of his English poems were published in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, with a preface by Ferrar.[20] The book went through eight editions by 1690.[21] According to Isaac Walton, when Herbert sent the manuscript to Ferrar, he said that "he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master".[17] In this Herbert used the format of the poems to reinforce the theme he was trying to portray. Beginning with "The Church Porch", they proceed via "The Altar" to "The Sacrifice", and so onwards through the collection.

All of Herbert's surviving English poems are on religious themes and are characterised by directness of expression enlivened by original but apt conceits in which, in the Metaphysical manner, the likeness is of function rather than visual. In "The Windows", for example, he compares a righteous preacher to glass through which God's light shines more effectively than in his words.[22] Commenting on his religious poetry later in the 17th century, Richard Baxter said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books".[23] Helen Gardner later added "head-work" to this characterisation in acknowledgement of his "intellectual vivacity". It has also been pointed out how Herbert uses puns and wordplay to "convey the relationships between the world of daily reality and the world of transcendent reality that gives it meaning. The kind of word that functions on two or more planes is his device for making his poem an expression of that relationship."[24]

Visually too the poems are varied in such a way as to enhance their meaning, with intricate rhyme schemes, stanzas combining different line lengths and other ingenious formal devices. The most obvious examples are pattern poems like "The Altar,"[25] in which the shorter and longer lines are arranged on the page in the shape of an altar. The visual appeal is reinforced by the conceit of its construction from a broken, stony heart, representing the personal offering of himself as a sacrifice upon it. Built into this is an allusion to Psalm 51:17: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart."[26] In the case of "Easter Wings" (illustrated here), the words were printed sideways on two facing pages so that the lines there suggest outspread wings. The words of the poem are paralleled between stanzas and mimic the opening and closing of the wings. In Herbert's poems formal ingenuity is not an end in itself but is employed only as an auxiliary to its meaning.

The formal devices employed to convey that meaning are wide in range. In his meditation on the passage "Our life is hid with Christ in God",[27] the capitalised words 'My life is hid in him that is my treasure' move across successive lines and demonstrate what is spoken of in the text. Opposites are brought together in "Bitter-Sweet" for the same purpose.[28] Echo and variation are also common. The exclamations at the head and foot of each stanza in "Sighs and Grones" are one example.[29] The diminishing truncated rhymes in "Paradise" are another.[30] There is also an echo-dialogue after each line in "Heaven",[31] other examples of which are found in the poetry of his brother Lord Herbert of Cherbury.[32] Alternative rhymes are offered at the end of the stanzas in "The Water-Course",[33] while the "Mary/Army Anagram" is represented in its title.[34] In "The Collar", Joseph Summers argues, Herbert goes so far as to use apparent formlessness as a formal and thematic device: "the poem contains all the elements of order in violent disorder" until the end, when the final four lines' regularity restores the reader's sense of "the necessity of order".[35]

Once the taste for this display of Baroque wit had passed, the satirist John Dryden was to dismiss it as so many means to "torture one poor word ten thousand ways".[36] Though Herbert remained esteemed for his piety, the poetic skill with which he expressed his thought had to wait centuries to be admired again.

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