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George Herbert: Priest and Poet

George Herbert: Priest and Poet

On February 27th each year, the Church of England remembers George Herbert. While Herbert does not quite make it into our series on saints—and may well have disapproved of our catholicism, given his Calvinism—the School would like to celebrate his life and work all the same. Fr Peter Groves reminds us of Herbert’s remarkable contributions to Christian literary and liturgical life, not least in revealing that God is beyond words.

When the great Tractarian leader John Keble died in 1866, he was best known as a poet. His volume, The Christian Year, received something like ninety printings in his own lifetime. The obituary published in The Times of London tackles his reputation head on, and concludes that he should probably be thought of as England’s greatest priest poet. Among those who are dismissed as less deserving of the accolade, the writer lists ‘the poet of Bemerton’, one George Herbert (1593-1633). Fortunately for us, Victorian literary taste is not decisive, and the Church of England rightly celebrates one of its greatest sons on 27th February each year.  

Herbert’s varied life saw him move from academic through court politics to priesthood and pastoral ministry. His reflections on the life of The Country Parson have become part of the canonical legend of Anglicanism. The alternative title, A Priest to the Temple encourages by its sacerdotal language those who would claim Herbert for Anglo-Catholicism (a claim which belongs with many others in the creative but entirely fantastical thought world which denies the Protestantism of the English Reformation), but the fact that Herbert’s thought reflects the mainstream Calvinism of his day is no barrier to his genius, and his reputation as a poet and theologian has never been higher. 

The volume of poems called The Temple, preserved and published after his death by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, presents an endlessly rich and beguiling exploration of its titular image: as the body of Christ; as the tripartite structure of ancient Judaism in which a Christian life, lived and celebrated within ‘The Church’, is  preceded by the porch of abstract virtue and culminates in the full glory of ‘The Church Militant’; as the physical building whose objects and aspects map on to the spiritual life of the believer; and as an object – a book – through which the reader, by the very act of reading, is drawn into the ecclesial community of readers (and hence of believers). 


Some of Herbert’s poems are sung as well as read. The hymn ‘Teach me my God and King’ is his verse ‘The Elixir’, a title which reminds us of the enormous importance of the science of alchemy in early modern Europe. The famous stone which turneth all to gold—recently popularised again in the first Harry Potter novel—was the quest of many of our greatest minds. Herbert's genius repeatedly takes existing commonplace ideas of practices and transforms them into the service of God, in prayer, praise and meditation on God's acts. He states, simply but powerfully, that it is the consciousness of God the creator, the awareness of his presence in everything that is made, which is truly transformative. ‘A man that looks on glass on it may stay his eye, or if he pleaseth through it pass, and there the heaven espy’: one can see only the worldly, only that which is mundane, in the objects and the people around one, or one can recognise each of these as an aspect of God's creation, and see one's idea of them completely changed. Alchemical imagery runs through much of Herbert's writing; he calls his verse a quiddity - an undefined essence which does not fall into any category we might expect, but exceeds them because it brings him prayerfully into the presence of God. A wonderful meditation on Easter gives us the image of being ground down into dust by our baptism into Christ's death, and reformed into gold by the new life of his resurrection.

Herbert knew, above all else, that the love of God was a transforming power. Much of his work takes secular, courtly and romantic forms and uses them for theological purposes. His sonnets form a fine example - the traditions of Surrey, Wyatt, Daniel, Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare presented him with as sophisticated and daunting a literary inheritance as one could imagine. But boldly he takes this most concentrated of forms and milks it for Christian teaching. 

This poem is simply called ‘Redemption:’ 

Having been tenant long to a rich lord, 
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold, 
And make a suit unto him, to afford 
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old. 

In heaven at his manor I him sought; 
They told me there that he was lately gone 
About some land, which he had dearly bought 
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn. 

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts; 
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts; 
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth 

Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied, 
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

Herbert's narrator owes much, and he cannot pay. He seeks not the end of all his debt, but a new contract, a realignment which releases him from the worst of the payment to enable him to have some chance of paying the lesser amount. But he has no chance, because he cannot find his creditor. He isn't dwelling in heavenly splendour, in fact he has already made the first move, taken the initiative, chosen to go and live among the very places and people from whom the narrator has come. But even there he is not in the palaces or the parks, not with the kings and queens, not we might say with the great and the good. Instead his home is with the ragged - thieves, murderers, the desperate on the margins of what we call society. So many early modern sonnets leave a final twist to the last couplet - Herbert takes it one step further: only in the final line do we learn of the enormity of the Lord's transforming love. It is not just that he grants the debtors suit, because in doing so he dies, hence leaving the debtor with nothing to pay at all, with a new life completely released from the burden under which he was struggling.  

Despite the beautiful closure which a well-constructed sonnet provides, the poem remains to an extent open ended. The final act of transformation is one of release, and the consequence of release is freedom. The work has been done: ‘your suit is granted’ is Herbert’s reimagining of Christ’s ‘it is finished.’ The Lord has acted to change the lives of all who owe him service and their response is what must follow. Consider another famous example:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin
Buy quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answerd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he. 
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I? 

Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? 
My dear, then I will serve. 
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert gives this poem of divine initiative a Trinitarian name; ‘Love: III’, and it is the final poem in the section called The Church. Love welcomes the writer, who instinctively backs away, knowing that he is, as he puts it, ‘guilty of dust and sin’. These two nouns are telling. Dust is the biblical word for humanity – the name ‘Adam’ means both ‘man’ and ‘dust’ - and set alongside the less surprising word sin, it indicates that he, as any Christian, is in need of the grace of God not only because he is guilty of particular sins, but because as a human being he cannot survive without God, a notion theologians call original sin. 

In the poem the reversion of the Christian soul is contrasted strongly but gently with the swift persistence of grace. As often as the poet draws back, the God of love reaches further and further towards him in order to draw him into fellowship. The structure of each line displays this interaction. With each mention of the activity of love, there is a lengthening of that activity. To begin with, love is given only half a line – ‘Love bade me welcome’; this half line is then contrasted with the backsliding of the soul which is guilty. But love’s next mention goes further, beyond the half line, as far as the end of the word ‘observing’ and finally, responding to the limp and lifeless soul, love fills an entire line ‘Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning’. This is theological word-painting at its best – with every attempt of ours to back away from the love of God, that love reaches further and further so as to complete the embrace which is its goal.

That threefold reaching reminds us of Father, Son and Spirit, but this is likewise underlined by the poem’s structuring into three verses. The first verse, is the verse of divine initiative.  From nothing God brings something, an invitation to relationship, an enticement to love.  The second verse enunciates human unwillingness to accept that love, and the earthly complaint that we do not belong in the arms of the creator, having marred his image and spurned his love.  But that love, according to the Christian gospel, is personified for us as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, and hence the transformation which we resist is already anticipated and achieved in the perfect representative of humanity to the Father. Our seeming inability to accept and respond to this great truth is the subject of the third verse, the verse in which the work of God within us, the breath of life which is the Holy Spirit, allows us to enjoy genuine fellowship with the divine. 

When that fellowship is achieved, we observe that the conversation between love and its reluctant guest has come to an end of its questioning. Throughout the poem, love answers the guest notwith answers but with questions, seducing him into recognising the truth which is leading him. When the enquiries of love come to an end, the poet suggests he has come to the realisation of the true order of things: ‘my dear, then I will serve’ only to be told by love—told at last and not asked—that he must sit down and partake of love’s feast.  As readers, our inclination, our half-recognition, is to acknowledge God by falling down on our faces and offering service.  But the God we acknowledge is the one already serving us at table.  The poet only finally enjoys love’s welcome when he is enabled to understand that which makes no sense to him—that the God who is his maker is also his servant—and then can sit and be nourished by that which is spread before him where the host, who has invited him to table, becomes the Host which sustains him.

That poetic dance between love and his invited guest is just one example. No precis or analysis can substitute for poring over the gold dust which is the poetry Herbert has left us. Whether we are weeping through Good Friday with ‘The Sacrifice,’ pleading intercession with ‘The Bag,’ confronting our vocation with ‘The Collar’ or approaching the Lord’s table with ‘The Agonie,’ we will feel, as Herbert did himself, drawn to God in ways far beyond literary expression. This is Christian creativity at its deepest, knowing as it does its reliance upon the ultimate creativity which underlies all human making. Nowhere is this better shown than in the sonnet ‘Prayer:’ 

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. 

 This poem is a theological marvel, a concatenation of images and ideas as important for what it doesn’t say as what it does. Like the rich young man, it lacks one thing. It lacks a verb, and not just any verb, it lacks the verb ‘to be’, for it is trying to tell us what prayer is. It lacks the verb ‘to be’, because that verb is not expressed in prayer, it is presupposed. The God who is being itself is the verb without which there is no human language. The Word gives life to the word. 

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