George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Herbert’s poetry is associated with the writings of the metaphysical poets, and he is recognized as “a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist.”[ George Herbert as a Religious poet
George Herbert as a Religious poet
George Herbert is considered as a religious poet because of the subject matter of his poetry which is fully devotional and religious in nature. By his poetry, he completely surrenders himself to God and his master, Jesus. Although he was associated with the metaphysical group, he was exceptional for his treatment towards religion in his poetry. For his devotion to God, he is known as the saint of the metaphysical group. And his religious thought afterward influenced other metaphysical poets. However, his devotion to God reflects in his poems, and we find a great touch of religion in almost all of his poems.
He was a Churchman of the Anglican Church. And his religious faith had grown and developed in this Church. He was influenced by it right from his childhood under the benign guidance of his pious mother and seasoned family chaplains. And long after the complication of his University graduation, he was ordained and placed over the little church of Bemarton.
Herbert’s mind was moulded by religion and by the Anglican Church. As he was brought up in religious atmosphere and his religious faith is shaped by his pious mother, we see that his poems are the representations of his sacred mind and thought. His poems are nothing but the true expression of love towards God and Jesus. As Rose Macaulay says, “Herbert is, in a sense, the first of the Anglican poets; the first Anglican poet, that is, whose whole expression and art was coloured by and confined within the walls of his Church.”
Herbert finds and gets satisfaction writing religious poems. Even the two sonnets that he sent to his mother when he was only seventeen year’s old are the symbol of what kind of poet he wanted to be. In his after years, he writes divine poems and sees beauty only in God. He is all for God, his king, whose praise he will sing in a plain, homely language. Even just before his death he gave a manuscript to one of his friends and the message that he gave is worthy. He said, “Deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.”
However, Herbert is called the devotional or the religious poet because he deals with such subjects. The theme of most of his poems is religion. He deals with the soul, God, life after death, the relation between human spirits and senses and so on. He talks of man’s relation to God, of body to the soul, of the life here and to the life hereafter. In this relation, he often shows rebellion, reconciliation and the final submission.
Moreover, his poetry is a sequence of religious poems. His motive is always to make the divine seem original, the secular imitation. He sees the things of daily life in direct relation to a supernatural order. Heavenly truths are indeed what he looks for in all his poems. There are many poems in which Herbert devoutly offers his homage to God or Christ, and make surrender of himself to the Almighty. These are poems of untroubled faith in which the tone is throughly one of affirmation. “Easter-Wings” is one of such poems. The theme of his poems is that Paradise was lost through Adam’s sin but was regained by Christ’s sacrifice. The underlining idea is that the fall of man is the essential basis of his rise, or in other words if there is no fall, there can be no flight. Here he says, “Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
His another poem “The Altar”, shows his devotion to God and urges to take his broken heart into his own for his own satisfaction. He shows his devotion saying,
“A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart.
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.”
There are some other poems like DISCIPLINE, AFFLICTION, PRAYER etc. in which Herbert shows his extraordinary love towards God. He praises God in many styles in many of his poems. As for example “The Temple” is a collection of 169 religious poems out of which 140 have been composed in different patterns of stanza, and out of which 116 patterns have been used for only single time. It appears that Herbert wanted to employ his skill in God’s praise in as much different forms as possible. Other poets:
Herbert, John Donne and Vaughan are contemporary poets. Although they are associated with the metaphysical group, they have some similarities and dissimilarities among them. However, a comparative discussion with George Herbert and other poets is given below:– Donne and Herbert :
John Donne ( 1572-1631 ) established what has become known as the Metaphysical style of poetry which was taken up by later poets like Herbert and Vaughan. Donne developed his technique writing love poetry, and later adapted it to the writing of religious poetry. George Herbert’s poetry shows that to a large extent he followed the lead offered by Donne, but he also made contributions which were quite distinct.
But they have some similarities between them. Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Batter my Heart’ and Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ are both poems about the struggle to maintain faith in God. In the opening line of ‘Batter my Heart’ Donne writes,
“Batter my heart, three person’d God;”
Herbert, showing the influence of Donne, writes in his opening line of ‘The Collar’:
“I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.”
Both openings are abrupt and dramatic, evoking violent action, and both are delivered in a personal and colloquial manner. Herbert and Vaughan :
Henry Vaughan shares Herbert’s preoccupation with the relationship between humanity and God. Both see mankind as restless and constantly seeking a sense of harmony and fulfillment through contact with God. In
‘The Pulley’ Herbert writes,
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
Similarly, in ‘Man’ Vaughan writes,
“Man hath stil either toyes or Care,
He hath no root, nor to one place is ty’d,
But ever restless and Irregular.”
Both poets are conscious of the sinfulness of mankind, but in other respects their attitudes towards mankind seem to differ. From the above discussions, it can be said that George Herbert devoted his poetic genius for the praise of God and the theme of most of his poems is religion that leads us towards spiritual and moral ideas. And his poems find expressions only in God’s praise. So undoubtedly we can consider George Herbert is a devotional or
religious poet George Herbert chose at Cambridge to devote his poetry to God and seemed to adjust easily to a religious life after leaving a court life. His poetry expresses the notion that one feels God’s presence or one doesn’t, propounding the theologically arguable concept that one cannot reason with God. His poetry is an extension of his sermons and seeks to instruct by example rather than by precept. He writes about his personal struggles in order that others may follow his example and thus overcome their struggles. His struggles are not on the same order of Donne’s, his fellow religious poet, however, being less desperate and less personal. Herbert’s approach to poetry writing is a more commonplace approach than an intellectual one. He uses common everyday domestic metaphors and imagery along with conceits (elaborate, intellectually original metaphors, short or extended), which are important in his poetry. The questions that Herbert explores, which constitute an extension to his sermons, are often resolved with a device he innovated: two quiet lines that convey a resolution founded in emotion and that may or may not answer the question(s) raised in the poem. The function of extending his sermons determines the his poetic style, in large part. Critics
Herbert’s style, then, is “popular” as well as courtly and Metaphysical, and his leaning towards the manner of common Elizabethan speech is further emphasized by his well-known liking for homely illustrations, analogies and metaphors. His poems contain plenty of learned allusions (especially, as was natural in that age, to astronomy), but he certainly “goes less far afield for his analogies than Donne and finds most that will serve his purpose from common life,”–from carpentry, gardening and everyday domestic activity: Redemption “spreads the plaister equal to the crime,” after the refreshment of sleep, day will “give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks”, and so on. But although this feature of Herbert’s style is so commonly recognized that further illustration is unnecessary, its function is sometimes misinterpreted, as though Herbert’s experience were somehow limited by his interest in the commonplace. Even Professor Grierson, after listing some of Herbert’s comparisons, remarks [in Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century]: These are the “mean” similes which in Dr.Johnson’s view were fatal to poetic effect even in Shakespeare. We have learned not to
be so fastidious, yet when they are not purified by the passionate heat of the poet’s dramatic imagination the effect is a little stuffy, for the analogies and symbols are more fanciful or traditional than natural and imaginative. Dr. Hutchinson rightly insists that Herbert’s conflict of mind was not simply about the priesthood, that his spiritual struggle “was over the more general issue of his submission to the Divine will” For George Herbert poetry is religion and religion poetry. He believed that a man should dedicate all his gifts to God’s service, that a poet should make the altar blossom with his poetry. Accordingly his most famous poem included in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633), The Temple as well as his other poems like Virtue and The Pulley are full of faith and fervor. In the poem Elixir the poet declares that his only desire is ‘In all things Thee to see’ and that the only true elixir is God. Yet not all of Herbert’s poems are of placid piety, for he himself declared that in many of his poems he presented ‘a picture of the many spiritual conflicts which have passed between God and my soul’. The Collar which is included in the said volume exemplifies such a spiritual conflict, the difficult, lifelong struggles of the Christian faith presented in terms of metaphysical wit and conceits.
The poem has a fervid beginning and is as sticking as any other metaphysical poem: “I struck the board, and cry’d. No more.” Here the board stands both for the dining table and for alter. Being a priest, Herbert has the duty of giving the sacrament of Holy Communion. But he obviously wants to give up his religious and priestly duty because the feels that he has to sacrifice all his personal pleasures. Indeed, his religious vocation is the ‘Collar’ which is keeping him tied to his job. Again, it is the French choler (anger) and is a reference to Christ’s own yoke or burden. Collar also implied a relation between the human master and his dog tied o a leash. The word Collar is also a pun on ‘Choler’, for the bondage imposed by God results in irritation on the part of the priest. The poet laments the fact that for him there is no ripe harvest of sensual pleasures but only the thorn of pain. If he had ever known wine, it was much before his becoming a priest, for the sighs of the priest have dried the wine up. If there was golden corn, it too has been drowned by tears of the suffering priest. He wonders if the ‘year’ which is also a pun on an ear of corn is lost only to
the priest. For him there is no crowning glorious, and not does he have any garland or flowers of gaiety for they have all been laid a waste by his self-sacrificing vocation.
But the poet seems to realize all of that there still is ‘fruit’ and that if he only uses his hands in the sense of sensual instincts, he would be able to avail of it. Therefore he would try to recover all that his period of priesthood has deprived hi of. He would live the ‘cold dispute’ of theology for much greater pleasure. Using a series of metaphysical conceits as in The Pulley, the poet declares that his present religious vocation is no more than a ‘cage’. The bond between man and God which he had thought to be exceptionally strong ‘coble’ to draw him from the earth to heaven was actually nothing but a ‘rope of sands’. He feels that it is because of his weakness that he has been so firmly enslaved by God. Even the message of death, the Biblical remainder that man must one day turn to dust and then face the wrath of God was only an illusion. Therefore he would abandon his priestly ways for ‘double pleasures’. He believed that then his life would be ‘free’ and not only would it be free as the road or loose as the wind, but also as large as store.
It is at this juncture when the poet has almost decided upon releasing himself from God’s bondage and when he has grown ‘fierce and wild’ that he receives a hearing God call out to him ‘child’. Under the experience of such a divine intervention the poet can do nothing else except make his humble reply: ‘My Lord’. Although this resolution of Herbert’s spiritual conflict would appear almost perplexing. The poet certainly wants to emphasize that God’s purpose and functioning transcends the logical of man’s limited rational mind. The conclusion is certainly the most and the most satisfying possible. So moved was Aldous Huxley by this poem that he called it one of the most moving poems in all literature. – See more at