For the gospel message to come as good news, one must first be convinced of some really bad news. This bad news is not obvious, and the devout must work hard to keep it vivid in the minds of their children, their neighbours and themselves. That each of us does a mix of good and bad things is uncontroversial. But to declare the bad and not the good fundamental to human nature, call it ‘sin’, nominalise all persons as ‘sinners’, declare that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ with ‘death’ understood as not only mortality but hell: such ideas require continual reinforcement. Hellfire sermons help, but their effects wear off. Church paintings of the Last Judgment, with anguished naked sinners snatched away by devils beneath Christ’s sentencing hand, grow familiar when seen every week. Religious revivals prove temporary. The people of Florence soon wearied of Savonarola. Jonathan Edwards, preaching God’s wrath in the 1730s in my home town of Northampton, Massachusetts, brought his congregation to paroxysms of weeping, despair and repentance, but after the ‘great awakening’ had spread through the region and made him internationally famous, he found that the people of Northampton gradually reverted to their old sinful selves. (In time they got rid of Edwards, though his exit was not as fiery as Savonarola’s.) The world, the flesh and the devil keep coming back, and must be rejected again and again.
George Herbert’s poems vividly describe the inner weather of Christian devotion. It’s all there: self-abasement before God; horror at his absence; meditation on the boundless enormity of sin; meditation on the boundless generosity of Christ’s sacrifice; outpourings of gratitude and love; self-excoriation for insufficient gratitude and love; laments in affliction; hymns of praise; wrestling with temptation; chafing under authority; the impulse to give up; the difficulty of staying in the right frame of mind; prayers to be made better; prayers for mercy. In one Herbertian pattern, the ‘I’ of the poem resists until suddenly brought into line by a supernatural presence at once overwhelming and benign. In another, accusations against God boomerang back against the speaker. Most of Herbert’s poems give the last word to a Christian message, so that taken individually they read as triumphs for piety. Taken cumulatively, they show that afflictions, anxieties and temptations keep coming back, as in an account of one hundred successful attempts to quit smoking. The problems are more durable than the solutions.
Herbert’s poems are varied and innovative in form, virtuosic in technique and full of surprises. They juxtapose biblical images with images from Herbert’s own world, making the former fresh and the latter spiritually resonant. They please when read aloud, and on close reading open up in unpredictable ways: some become clearer, others more mysterious and complex. Here is a more straightforward one, ‘The Quip’:
The merry world did on a day
With his train-bands and mates agree
To meet together, where I lay,
And all in sport to jeer at me.
First, Beauty crept into a rose,
Which when I plucked not, Sir, said she,
Tell me, I pray, Whose hands are those?
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.
Then Money came, and chinking still,
What tune is this, poor man? said he:
I heard in Music you had skill.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.
Then came brave Glory puffing by
In silks that whistled, who but he?
He scarce allowed me half an eye.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.
Then came quick Wit and Conversation,
And he would needs a comfort be,
And, to be short, make an oration.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.
Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.
A moral allegory in six neat tetrameter quatrains, like Everyman or Pilgrim’s Progress writ small. The familiar homiletic message – reject the world, trust in God – is made contemporary through the satirical mini-portraits of worldly types. It turns eschatological at the end, and its underlying emotional force is generated by the traditional Judeo-Christian hope for supernatural revenge upon one’s enemies.
The stings of the world are felt in turn. ‘Train-bands’ are the militia, and ‘mates’ are fellows or boon companions: a macho company has shown up at his house (‘where I lay’) to bait the lone misfit. In the next quatrain the group of males is replaced by a single alluring female. ‘Beauty crept into a rose’ miniaturises a traditional image of feminine sex appeal. Her mocking question ‘Whose hands are those?’ functions, I think, like ‘Cat got your tongue?’, save that impotence instead of silence is implied; ‘pluck’d not’ is a graceful euphemism for not having sex, involving the substitution of initial consonants. With Money, sound replaces touch. The chink of gold coins in my purse is my tune: what’s yours? I don’t hear anything. I thought you could play? The modern equivalent would be waving a roll of banknotes under a poor man’s nose. Glory, dressed in silks like a courtier, doesn’t bother to taunt. The sting here is indifference: the great ones barely notice you exist. Wit and Conversation (a single character, evidently) thinks to cheer up the by now dejected speaker. Like Job’s friends, he is loquacious but beside the point. And the protagonist stays patiently mute, his refrain evoking Psalm 38.15 in the Coverdale translation Herbert would have used in church: ‘For in thee, O Lord, have I put my trust; thou shalt answer for me, O Lord my God.’
Quip means ‘retort’, not ‘witticism’. When the quip arrives in the final stanza, it is entirely serious. ‘Speak not at large’ – come straight to the point, unlike those long-winded orators – ‘say I am thine’: the point of the retort is that the rest of you are not. The imagined future in which God will answer on his behalf is the Last Judgment, the ‘hour of thy design’; Herbert signals it without elaboration because he takes for granted that his readers will get the message. When Jesus comes back to destroy the world and gather his own, I trust that I will be among them, and the merry, the beautiful, the rich, the glorious and the witty conversationalists will all be going to hell. That’ll answer them.
Herbert has influenced poets from Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw to Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. And not only poets; reading Herbert has made converts, even in modern times. While reciting ‘Love (III)’, the famous last poem in The Temple, Simone Weil felt that ‘Christ himself descended and took possession of me.’ A recent series of Guardian columns in praise of Herbert by an Anglican minister called Miranda Threlfall-Holmes credits his poems with leading her from teenage atheism towards Christianity. ‘They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.’
Herbert is still commonly thought of as an Anglican saint, selfless country priest and poet of divine love. The saintly image was established by Herbert’s early biographers, most fully by Izaak Walton, whose Life of Herbert (1670) devotes half its length to the first 37 years of Herbert’s life, in which he was not a country priest, and half to the last three, in which he was. Scholars have been pointing out inaccuracies in Walton for decades, and there is no way of verifying some of his most memorable anecdotes. There is also no doing without Walton if you are writing a Herbert biography, so deciding when and how far to trust his account is one of the challenges of the task.
Herbert was born in 1593 into a branch line of an aristocratic family of Welsh origin, kindred to the earls of Pembroke. His father died when George was three, and the ten children were raised by their impressive mother, Magdalen Herbert, celebrated by her contemporaries for both beauty and wit. Donne dedicated ‘La Corona’ to her, and years later preached at her funeral. In 1609 she was remarried, to Sir John Danvers, a cultured and attractive gentleman half her age; the marriage was evidently a happy one, and George Herbert enjoyed a close relationship with his young stepfather. Walton depicts Magdalen as a helicopter parent, at least in the case of her eldest son, Edward; when he went up to Oxford she moved the whole family along with him, and
continued there with him, and still kept him in a moderate awe of herself, and so much under her own eye as to see and converse with him daily; but she managed this power over him without any such rigid sourness as might make her company a torment to her child, but with such a sweetness and compliance with the recreations and pleasures of youth, as did incline him willingly to spend much of his time in the company of his dear and careful mother, which was to her great content.
George, her fifth son, attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and there he thrived. After getting his MA in 1615 he stayed on as a teacher of rhetoric, and in 1620 was named university orator. This was a high-profile position which gave opportunities to impress powerful visitors: as Herbert wrote to his stepfather, ‘the Orator writes all the University letters, makes all the Orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University.’ It required great skill as a Latinist and the willingness to apply that skill to the occasion at hand. Herbert hoped it would prove a stepping-stone to a position at court, as it had for the two previous incumbents. He received signs of favour from James I, though after James died in 1625 no preferment followed.
The next few years, Herbert’s early thirties, were a period of drift, marked by career disappointment, personal loss, illness and spiritual unease. He left Cambridge, and lived with a succession of friends and relations. In 1627 his mother died. He wrote her 19 elegies, 14 in Latin and five in Greek; they were printed together with Donne’s funeral sermon. Having for several years delegated his duties as orator, he resigned the post when he came into some money in 1628. The following year he married Jane Danvers, a cousin of his stepfather’s. His kinsman the earl of Pembroke procured him the church living of Fugglestone and Bemerton, two villages on the edge of Salisbury, near Wilton House, the Pembroke seat. Herbert was ordained in Salisbury Cathedral in September 1630, and spent the remaining three years of his life as rector at Bemerton. When he died at forty, probably of tuberculosis, he left his manuscript of English poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, leader of the spiritual community at Little Gidding, to publish or destroy as he saw fit. Ferrar found it worth publishing.
What was George Herbert like? ‘Saintly’ is a misleading adjective: saints often have difficult personalities. The biographical record suggests a man neither meek nor mild, but cerebral, intense, scrupulous, restless and physically fragile. Walton describes him in his student years as standoffish and over-fond of fine dress: ‘if during this time he expressed any error, it was that he kept himself too much retired and at too great a distance with all his inferiors; and his clothes seemed to prove that he put too great a value on his parts and parentage.’ It seems that he never had a youthful wild-oats phase. He was musical. John Aubrey reports that ‘he had a very good hand on the lute, and that he sett his own lyricks or sacred poems.’ Chronic illness was an important part of the picture. So was lack of money. Like many other well-born younger brothers, Herbert was raised and educated as a gentleman but in adulthood lacked the means to live like one. His family income consisted of a £30 annuity from his brother Edward, who tended to pay it late. Finances must have figured in the timing of his marriage, and in his movements in the 1620s: it was expensive to establish a household, and through his connections he had fine places to stay. He comes across as a devoted son and brother, and would later look after his three orphaned nieces, who eventually moved in with him and Jane at Bemerton Rectory.
Against the saint’s-life narrative of a brilliant young aristocrat who gave up the world to serve God, a devil’s advocate might respond that Herbert went into the church only after his worldly career had stalled. That too may be an overstatement, since Herbert seems to have been moving toward the ministry for some years before he took orders in 1630. He was ordained deacon in 1624, and in 1626 received non-residential church appointments as canon of Lincoln Cathedral and prebendary of Leighton Bromswold in Cambridgeshire, near Little Gidding. These were basically sinecures, though Herbert applied himself to rebuilding the half-ruined Leighton church, which still stands as he restored it. His family helped with fundraising for the project. We need not assume that when he took orders he gave up all hopes of worldly preferment; he may instead have placed his bets on a career in the church. Since he died at forty, his life story seems to tend towards the parish ministry, but he never stayed in a single employment for long; who knows whether he would have remained content for decades as a country priest.
He seems, however, to have been a good priest, painstaking and conscientious. Our best evidence here is neither the early Lives nor the poems but Herbert’s manual of pastoral care, first printed in 1652 as A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. A ‘character’ is a sketch of an ideal type. Herbert describes the book as ‘a mark to aim at: which also I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the moon than he that aims at a tree.’ Its 37 chapters outline the skills he wanted his parson to possess: how to catechise, how to preach, how to keep his house, how to keep his church, how to manage his churchwardens, how to comfort parishioners in spiritual distress, how to argue with papists and schismatics, how to rebuke vice and promote virtue. Herbert may not have lived up to his own demanding ideal in three years of declining health, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t try.
Threlfall-Holmes, despite her admiration for Herbert’s poems, has little use for The Country Parson, calling it ‘a symbol of an outdated “father knows best” view of the church’. For the updated view, she links to a recent book by another vicar, Justin Lewis-Anthony, with the unbeatable title If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Rethinking Priestly Ministry. Both these ministers are products of a Church of England that has adapted to an England in which religious freedom is a given. Churches must compete not only with one another but with anything else people might choose to do on a Sunday morning. They must attract and keep customers. In Herbert’s day, you were legally required to attend your parish church, and to pay tithes towards its and its minister’s maintenance. A broad spectrum of people disliked this system: Roman Catholics and nonconformist Protestants, who viewed the English church as illegitimate; the less devout, who would rather not be bothered; and otherwise conforming persons who would rather go to worship a parish or two over from the one where they lived. In the early 1630s, when Herbert wrote, the longstanding religious tensions present in English society since the Reformation were coming to a head; The Country Parson defends a status quo that would survive for only a decade before it was upended by civil war. Herbert, who did not live to see the war, understood the tithe-supported parish ministry as a fundamental public good. He had a detailed sense of the challenges it faced, and knew that a minister had to be prudent in exercising his authority. Among the most interesting sections of The Country Parson are those on handling recalcitrant parishioners.
Herbert , with his aristocratic background and elite education, encountered his poorer parishioners across a vast social distance. Walton tells that Herbert preached his first sermon at Bemerton
after a most florid manner, both with great learning and eloquence. But at the close of this sermon told them that should not be his constant way of preaching, for, since Almighty God does not intend to lead men to Heaven by hard questions, he would not therefore fill their heads with unnecessary notions; but that for their sakes his language and his expressions should be more plain and practical in his future sermons.
It sounds as if Herbert led off with a learned sermon, saw that it went down like a lead balloon, and adjusted accordingly. The elegant Latin rhetoric with which he had, a decade earlier, impressed his Cambridge colleagues and James I would be of little use in his parish. But Herbert’s rhetorical training also taught him something more fundamental: you fit your words to your audience, and reach them any way you can.
When [the parson] preacheth, he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestness of speech, it being natural to men to think that where is much earnestness there is somewhat worth hearing; and by a diligent and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know that he observes who marks and who not; with particularising of his speech now to the younger sort, then to the elder, now to the poor, and now to the rich. This is for you, and this is for you; for particulars ever touch and awake more than generals.
The early Lives promoted a High-Church Herbert; modern scholarship, as Ilona Bell observed in her essay on Herbert in English Literary Renaissance (1987), has described him as everything from Anglo-Catholic to radical Puritan, with evidence on all sides. The first moral to draw from this non-consensus concerns the provisional nature of such categories: the more closely one looks at an early modern author, the less likely he will fit within a single one. That said, if we want to situate Herbert in the religious landscape of his day, the label that seems to fit most comfortably most often is ‘conforming Calvinist’: Calvinist in theology, conforming to the liturgical practices and ecclesiastical structure of the Church of England. (Milton was the opposite: anti-Calvinist or Arminian in theology, nonconformist in relation to the established church.) Herbert’s poems are full of Calvinist themes: the sovereignty of God, the unworthiness of man, the free gift of grace, the ground of assurance in God’s love expressed through Christ’s sacrifice. Richard Strier has argued in his book, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (1983), that the most fundamental idea in Herbert’s poetry is the core doctrine Luther and Calvin shared: justification by faith alone. In ‘The Quip’ we may discern a Reformed emphasis in the poem’s location of agency entirely with God. The speaker does not answer his tormentors by declaring that he is God’s; he prays that God may, at God’s appointed hour, answer on his behalf. Herbert’s ecclesiastic conformity runs as deep as his Calvinism. At Cambridge he wrote a set of Latin epigrams, Musae Responsoriae, in response to attacks on the English church by a Scottish Presbyterian, Andrew Melville. In these epigrams, Cristina Malcolmson notes in Heartwork: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic (2000), ‘Puritanism is approached not as a theological issue, since all the significant parties are Calvinist, but as disobedience to state and church authority.’ Herbert’s poem ‘The British Church’ celebrates a via media between Geneva and Rome:
A fine aspect in fit array
Neither too mean, nor yet too gay,
Shows who is best.
Outlandish looks may not compare:
For all they either painted are,
Or else undressed.
The description ‘conforming Calvinist’ most likely applied, more or less, to a plurality of ministers in the Jacobean church in which Herbert grew up. By the late 1620s, when Herbert took orders, conforming Calvinists found themselves out of step both with an increasingly vocal Puritan movement, which emphasised preaching over set liturgical forms and wanted the church purged of superstition and popery, and also with the Laudian party promoted by Charles I, which tended to Arminianism in theology and stressed ceremony and sacraments in worship. The Country Parson presents an ideal neither Puritan nor Laudian. It defends traditional practices Puritans disliked, such as the sign of the cross at baptism, and stresses the dignity of the priesthood, as opposed to the radical Protestant tendency to reduce the distance between clergy and laity in favour of a ‘priesthood of all believers’. Herbert’s parson is traditionalist for pastoral reasons:
The country parson is a lover of old customs if they be good, and harmless, and the rather, because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them. If there be any ill in the custom that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple and gives them the clean to feed on.
A minister of more puritan temper would not suppose the apple worth paring. But such pragmatic traditionalism might cut against Laudian as well as Puritan programmes of change. One main objection to Laud was that he was tone-deaf to the disturbances his policies caused, and it wasn’t only Puritans who thought so: James I, unlike his son Charles, had declined to advance Laud, observing that he ‘cannot see when matters are well but loves to toss and change, and to bring things to a pitch of reformation floating in his own brain’. Herbert’s conservative instincts tended in the opposite direction.
John Drury’s Music at Midnight provides a lucid, sympathetic introduction to Herbert’s life and poems. It will not replace Amy Charles’s meticulously researched Life of George Herbert (1977) as the standard scholarly biography, nor does it aim to. It aims ‘to bring together life and poetry, history and literary criticism as closely as possible’, and this it does. Biography makes up about half the book; the rest consists of background, reception history, sketches of famous people Herbert knew and readings of the poems. Drury’s prose style is welcoming to a general audience, and he fills in background with skilled efficiency, even when explaining learned matters such as Latinate metrical effects in the English poem ‘Virtue’. There is an illuminating chapter on the Williams Manuscript, which contains early versions of some of Herbert’s poems, with revisions in his own hand. There are evocative descriptions, such as that of the church in Leighton Bromswold. Like other modern Herbert biographers, Drury takes the early Lives with a grain of salt, and qualifies the saint’s-life narrative. He describes the undergraduate Herbert as a ‘withdrawn young fogey’ and allows that ‘there was a moral cost as well as moral benefit to being the rector of Bemerton.’ His readings of the poems are attentive to prosody, to biblical allusion, to topical details, to differences between Herbert’s English and ours: ‘the word “sweet” … was a stronger and busier word then, spanning a range of pleasure and purity beyond the palate and not tainted by its patronising modern usage.’ His deep understanding of Herbert’s poetry is manifest throughout.
The relation between an author’s life and work is the central problem in a literary biography. You care about the life because of the work; the hope is that learning about the life will shed new light on the work. It may shed more, it may shed less. You have to go case by case. Sometimes most striking is the disjunction between them, as with Wallace Stevens – though it’s useful to remember that a major poet can be an insurance executive as easily as anything else. A biographer can minimise the problem by focusing on the facts of the life and leaving readers to make connections to the work: this is what Amy Charles’s Life of George Herbert does, analysing the documentary record in depth while saying little about the poems. It’s an intellectually defensible approach, though it won’t win new readers. You won’t become interested in Herbert by reading Amy Charles; you read her because you have already become interested in Herbert. Drury is looking to win new readers.
Attempts to bring together life and work must avoid, if they can, the pitfall of the biographical fallacy. Colin Burrow thinks this can’t be done: ‘even the best examples [of literary biography] can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom – epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins’ (LRB, October 2006). But ‘potentially’ is not ‘inevitably’. Drury reads Herbert’s poems as poems, at the cost of repeatedly interrupting his narrative; and his readings incorporate biographical context without treating the poems as puzzles to which the biographical facts come as solutions. On ‘The Quip’, for instance, he observes:
The poem is full of London imagery: the train-bands or City militia; the pretty woman figured as a rose from the town garden, perhaps the Privy Garden at Whitehall; the City financier; the magnificently dressed courtier of the sort Herbert saw flocking around the Banqueting House on great days; the witty party talk, tending to the monologues which made Herbert famous as university orator in Cambridge.
It enriches our sense of the poem to know that Herbert was a skilled musician; that he was often short of money; that he had been the Cambridge orator. The last fact shades the poem towards a disavowal of his earlier self (or his present self, if he wrote it while still orator). Biographical resonances do not provide a ‘key’ to the poem: there is no such thing. Nor do they substitute for the effort, and the pleasure, of reading it. They are one source of meaning among others.
The greatest difficulty for the biographer of an early modern author is not methodological but practical: the available evidence will be thin by modern standards and, for well-known authors, mostly familiar. Since Herbert came from a prominent family, and became famous as a poet shortly after his death, his life is relatively well documented. We know more about him than we do about Spenser or Shakespeare, but much less than we do about Dickens or Henry James. My father tells an anecdote about James’s biographer Leon Edel: when asked what James would have been doing at this hour on this date in 1895, Edel stroked his chin and constructed an answer. The digital footprints that we now generate daily will give the biographers of the future a potential knowledge of their subjects that dwarfs what Edel knew about James – that is, if tomorrow’s biographers have access to the sources to which today’s spy agencies help themselves. The relatively thin evidence base for 17th-century lives induces their biographers to leave large gaps, to fill them with conjecture, or to make too much of evidentiary scraps like Shakespeare’s bequest to his wife of his ‘second-best bed’, which may tell us nothing at all about their marriage, but which we latch onto because we know little else about it. An honest biographer will acknowledge the gaps and work with what’s there. Drury has a chapter entitled ‘1618’, because ‘We happen to know a good deal more about Herbert’s life in this year than in the preceding five … It is not that 1618 was a particularly critical year in his life: rather that it was a time when he was just getting on with things.’
Drury stresses the universality of Herbert’s appeal. ‘The primacy of love over theology and everything else is a major reason for the hold Herbert’s Christian poetry has on modern readers – secular or even atheist as they may be.’ The sentiment is generous, but ‘love over theology’ is a false opposition. Herbert’s sense of divine love does not trump his theology. It is an essential part of it. A non-Christian reader can come to understand it as well as a Christian reader, but will not share it. It assumes and requires the narrative of Christ’s self-sacrifice for sinful man, otherwise doomed to death and hell. Herbert’s Reformed understanding of this narrative rests on the principle of man’s absolute unworthiness of salvation. You know that you deserve to be damned, and you know that God knows. Yet he saves you anyway, and does so, moreover, by taking an especially gruesome human death upon himself. The heartfelt internalisation of these basic ideas drives Herbert’s poetry. His literary achievement is to make them fresh in dozens of unexpected ways. His outpourings of love and gratitude to God are those of one who has been granted what he knows to be an undeserved reprieve from the pit of hell; if you can’t see the pit, you can’t understand the gratitude and love. The good news is so good because the bad news is so bad. Consciousness of sin is always there: ‘Canst be idle? canst thou play,/Foolish soul who sinn’d today?’ Fears of hell are a torment: ‘O spiteful bitter thought!/Bitterly spiteful thought! Couldst thou invent/So high a torture? Is such poison bought?’ In ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Love (III)’ the speaker starts out too guilt-ridden to accept Christ’s mercy, arguing that he ought just to give up and go to hell until Christ talks him around. Drury’s account minimises all this. It cannot be due to lack of understanding: Drury is an Anglican priest and New Testament scholar, and I have no doubt that he understands the theological basis of Herbert’s poetry. He leaves out its more rebarbative aspects, I imagine, because he is presenting his favourite Christian poet to a general audience he assumes to be largely secular or religiously mixed, and wants to create common ground.
Drury rejects Coleridge’s view that one must be Christian to appreciate Herbert. He is right about this. Anyone can enjoy the poems as poems; anyone can deepen that enjoyment by learning more about Herbert’s world, his language and his religion. Christian readers have a head start in that some of the pertinent knowledge – the Bible, for instance – may be familiar to them already. Non-Christian readers can catch up, and many have; some of Herbert’s most perceptive modern critics have been non-Christians. While Herbert’s poems belong to anyone who reads them with attention, not everyone will read them in the same way. If you believe what Herbert believed, his poems will seem to be personal, creative expressions of fundamental truths about God, man and the relation between them. If you don’t, the knowledge to be gained from his poems will look human rather than supernatural, like the knowledge gained from reading a novel set in an unfamiliar place: a vicarious experience of one way to live.