Friday, January 16, 2015

The Church (Part 1) by George Herbert

Source of book: I own a hardback edition of the complete English works of George Herbert

This last year has been a mixed one when it comes to reading. I kept up with my usual pace in reading fiction and non-fiction, although I read a few fewer works of 500 or more pages. I continued to read to the kids, and we listened to a lot of books while driving for our various camping and other vacation trips. (We put on about 5000 miles together.) While I didn’t read as many plays, I saw more live plays than I think I ever have in a year.

Where I didn’t come close to keeping up was on my poetry reading. I really did terribly, hardly reading anything in comparison to the two years prior. I really need to remedy that this year, as I do miss my poetry.


Herbert’s English poetry is really one big collection without division. Technically, there is an introductory poem, “The Church Porch” and two closing poems, labeled “The Church Militant.” The rest are all grouped together as “The Church,” and comprise 163 pages in my edition. Since reading the complete works of any one poet in one swoop is a bit boring, I arbitrarily stopped after about 45 pages. I figure I can come back and finish the rest later, perhaps several years down the road.

My knowledge of Herbert stems primarily from my high school days. As part of my English Lit class in 12th grade, I read some of his better known stuff, including at least one of the “Easter Wings” poems, written to form a pattern on the page. I probably read one or two of his better sonnets as part of a collection sometime later as well.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, coming back to Herbert after another half-lifetime. My original impression was that he was okay, but not my favorite poet. However, time changes impressions, and a writer that may have seemed dull or difficult can turn out to be full of depth. On the other hand, a cherished favorite can age poorly.

For what it is worth, my prior impression of Herbert was partially confirmed, and partially disappointed. He was, once again, okay, but not my favorite kind of poet. I felt a little disappointed that his writing didn’t seem any deeper after I matured.

I was trying to figure out exactly why I was disappointed, and I think I finally figured it out. Many of his poems felt like reading a catechism rather than a poem. Perhaps this stemmed from his profession as an Anglican priest, and his youth (he died at age 39, barely 3 years after taking orders.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually do like some devotional poetry. Not the “hallmark Christianity” sort often found in church bulletins, but real, serious, genuine poetry from the depth of the heart of a skilled writer. John Donne, for example, wrote beautifully, as did Milton. Both of these are from (roughly) the same era as Herbert, so the style should be reasonably similar. However, Milton’s language is far superior, and his metaphors and allusions are creative. Donne has grown on me through the years, and the power of his emotion cuts through the often obscure language. Donne likewise is a master of the unexpected, and I feel like he surprises me every time. Another favorite who has aged well is Christina Rossetti. Even though, like Herbert, she tends to be pious and doctrinally focused, her poems always feel personal, almost as if one was eavesdropping on her private prayers. With some notable exceptions, I just didn’t feel the emotional or intellectual connection with Herbert that I had hoped.

That said, there were some poems that were worth remembering. Perhaps I should rephrase my impression. There were many poems which just felt uninspiring to me, like lesser efforts. There were others that were good, and a few that were excellent. Herbert is at his best when he worries less about getting the doctrine into the poem and when he lets his heart speak.

The Reprisal

      I have considered it, and find
There is no dealing with thy mighty passion:
For though I die for thee, I am behind;
       My sins deserve the condemnation.

       O make me innocent, that I
May give a disentangled state and free;
And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy,
       For by thy death I die for thee.

       Ah! was it not enough that thou
By thy eternal glory didst outgo me?
Could'st thou not grief's sad conquests me allow,
       But in all victories overthrow me?

       Yet by confession will I come
Into the conquest. Though I can do nought
Against thee, in thee I will overcome
       The man, who once against thee fought.

Herbert comes back often to the idea of the debt, and the utter inability he has to truly pay God back for what he has been given. For him personally, it means that all he can give is himself. When he turns to think of others, he is struck by the way that faith levels the man-made distinctions. I love these beautiful lines from “Faith”

If bliss had lien in art or strength,
None but the wise or strong had gained it:
Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;
One size doth all conditions fit.

A peasant may believe as much
As a great Clerk, and reach the highest stature.
Thus dost thou make proud knowledge bend and crouch
While grace fills up uneven nature.

Another poem that I really liked was “Prayer (1)” Herbert wrote numerous poems on the same topics, distinguished by their numbers only. This one is a sonnet wherein Herbert lays aside his love of doctrine and puts a startlingly modern stream of consciousness into the rigid sonnet form. (Technically, Herbert was a master, and this has to be one of his best.)

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
        God's breath in man returning to his birth,
        The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
        Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
        The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
        Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
        Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
        Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
        The land of spices; something understood.

“The soul in paraphrase” has to be one of the best analogies for prayer ever written. The communion of spirit and soul with the divine in a way that cannot be uttered. This poem comes close to catching the ecstasy of music and the wholeness found in a spiritual experience. I think this is my favorite poem (so far) in Herbert’s works.

Another one that I really liked for its imagery was “The Windows.” Despite his love for doctrine and his career as a preacher, Herbert recognized that the real preaching is done in real life.

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
Keith Green would use the same metaphor in one of my favorite songs when I was a kid. (Perhaps he borrowed it from Herbert?) Green doesn’t have quite the knack for poetry, and he mixes the metaphor a bit, but the song still brings back memories. 

Speaking of music, Herbert wrote a few poems that are still sung as hymns today. Probably the best known (and the one that happened to be in the first 45 pages) is “Antiphon (1),” better known as “Let All The World In Ev’ry Corner Sing.”

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing
'My God and King.'

Verse: The heav'ns are not too high,
His praise may thither fly:
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
'My God and King.'

Verse: The church with psalms must shout
No door can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing
'My God and King.'

I believe there are many settings of the text, but the one I knew best was the “Luckington” tune, by Basil Harwood. (I probably am forgetting other well known versions too.) 

Probably my favorite musical setting, though, is by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I love the dissonances, unexpected chords, and the way the ostinato is tossed between the choir and organ.


  1. Herbert at his best is one of the greats. And you're right: He's best when he lets his heart sing. One of my favorites by him is "The Collar."

    1. "The Collar" is good. I remember reading that one in high school, but didn't get far enough in my book this time to run across it.