27 February 2013
With the Saints in Lent (15): George Herbert, 27 February
“George Herbert 1593-1633) at Bemerton” (William Dyce, 1860)
George Herbert (1593-1633) a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest, is celebrated in the Calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England and in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church today [27 February]. The poet Henry Vaughan described him as “a most glorious saint and seer,” while the Puritan Richard Baxter was moved to say: “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”
George Herbert was a skilled priest, poet and teacher, and an accomplished musician, who in his poems brings together poetry, music and architecture. His spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence. His poetry is constantly evident of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ.
Herbert stands alongside John Jewel, Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes for his profound influence on the Caroline Divines, including John Cosin and Jeremy Taylor, and he is ranked with John Donne as one of the great metaphysical poets.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Herbert’s diction that “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected.” The poet laureate WH Auden wrote of him: “His poetry is the counterpart of Jeremy Taylor’s prose: together they are the finest expressions of Anglican piety at its best.”
George Herbert’s life
The Dean’s Yard at Westminster Abbey ... as Dean, Lancelot Andrewes, took a particular interest in the school and was one of George Herbert’s teachers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
George Herbert was born on 3 April 1593 in Montgomery Castle, Wales, the seventh of 10 children in an eminent, intellectual artistic and wealthy Welsh landed family. His mother Magdalene (nee Newport) was a patron and friend of many poets, including John Donne, who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her. His older brother, Edward Herbert, later Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was an important poet and philosopher, often referred to as “the father of English deism.”
Herbert’s father, Richard Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, died in 1596, when George was three, leaving a widow and 10 children. The family moved first to Oxford in 1599 and then to London in 1601, and George Herbert was tutored at home before entering Westminster School in 1604 at the age of 10.
At Westminster School, he was tutored by Lancelot Andrewes, then the Dean of Westminster Abbey. As early as 1604, he penned Musae Responsoriae, later published in 1620, a collection of lightly satirical verses directed at the Presbyterian controversialist Andrew Melville.
In 1606, Herbert’s widowed mother, Magdalene, married Sir John Danvers, who was then only 20 but proved to be a benign and generous stepfather.
Trinity Lane, Cambridge, in the snow, with the walls of Trinity College on the right ... George Herbert was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In 1609, Herbert was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music, and there he first considered becoming a priest. There too he began to write devotional poetry and his first two sonnets, sent to his mother in 1610, maintained that the love of God is a worthier subject for verse than the love of a woman. His first verses, published, in 1612, were two memorial poems in Latin on the death of the heir apparent, Prince Henry.
Herbert graduated with the degree BA (Bachelor of Arts) in 1613. He became a minor Fellow of Trinity College in 1614 before proceeding MA (Master of Arts) in 1616. He was elected a major fellow of Trinity in 1618, and was appointed Praelector or Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge.
In 1619, he was elected the Public Orator of Cambridge University. In this post, Herbert represented Cambridge at public occasions, writing and addressing formal official speeches in Latin to king and court and to visiting dignitaries and ambassadors. He described the post as “the finest place in the university,” and he continued to hold that post until 1628.
He spent some time away from Cambridge when he was MP for Montgomery in King James I’s last parliament in 1623-1624. A fellow MP was Nicholas Ferrar, who was a contemporary at Cambridge as an undergraduate at Clare Hall. However, a potentially promising parliamentary career was short and Herbert was ordained deacon in 1625 or 1626. By this time, John Donne was a close family friend.
Trinity College Cambridge … George Herbert was elected a major fellow in 1618 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In 1626, while still a deacon, Herbert was appointed Prebendary of Leighton or a canon in Lincoln Cathedral and became Rector of Leighton Bromswold, a small village in Huntingdonshire. Herbert was not even present at his installation as a prebendary, and it appears he never resided in Leighton Bromswold, appointing two vicars to take charge of the parish. However, with the help of Nicholas Ferrar, he raised funds to refurbish the church, which had not been in use for 20 years. Ever since then, Saint Mary’s Church has two pulpits dating from 1626, attributed to Herbert’s emphasis that a parson should both pray and preach.
Herbert’s mother died in 1627, and John Donne preached at her funeral in Chelsea. Herbert resigned as university orator in 1627, and later he moved to Wiltshire. On 5 March 1629, he married Jane Danvers, a cousin of his step-father.
He became Rector of Fugglestone with Bemerton on 26 April 1630, and nine months later, on 19 September, he was ordained priest in Salisbury Cathedral. He spent the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, a Wiltshire rural parish near Salisbury and about 75 miles south-west of London.
In Bemerton, he preached and wrote poetry and helped to rebuild the church, drawing on his own funds. He was known too for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for needy parishioners.
In those three years, he came to be known as “Holy Mr Herbert” around the countryside. His practical manual offering practical pastoral advice to country clergy, A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) (1652), exhibits the devotion he showed to his parishioners. He tells them, for example, that “things of ordinary use,” such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to “serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”
On his deathbed, he sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, who had founded the semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding – a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by TS Eliot. In his letter, Herbert said of his writings: “They are a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master.” He asked Ferrar to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but otherwise he should burn them.
Suffering from poor health, Herbert died of tuberculosis on 1 March 1633 at the age of 40, less than three years after being ordained priest. An inscription found in the Rectory at Bemerton after his death reads:
To My Successor:
If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy cost;
Be good to the Poor
As God gives thee store,
And then my Labour’s not lost.
Another version reads:
If thou dost find
An house built to thy mind,
Without thy cost;
Serve thou the more
God and the poor;
My labour is not lost.
His first biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his deathbed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.”
The Temple was edited by Nicholas Ferrar and was published in Cambridge later that year as The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations. It met with such popular acclaim that it had been reprinted 20 times by 1680, and went through eight editions by 1690.
Lent by George Herbert
‘That ev’ry man may revel at his door’ (George Herbert, ‘Lent’) … the Classical Gate in the Jesus Lane wall of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Staying in Sidney Sussex College each year since 2008 has brought the privilege of being within strolling distance of most if not all of the major churches, chapels and colleges in Cambridge.
The Classical Gate in Sidney Sussex College was originally erected in Hall Court to replace the first main gate. During James Wyattville’s alterations in 1832, the gate was moved to the north-east corner of the gardens, where it remains an eye-catching feature. But the gate must be closed permanently, for I have never seen it open into Jesus Lane, which forms the northern boundary of the grounds of Sidney Sussex.
On the same side as the Classical Gate is All Saints’ Church. The ‘Saintly Cambridge Anglicans’ window, installed in the church in 1923 by Kempe & Co, has three panels of stained-glass designed by John Lisle honouring three Cambridge saints: the priest poet George Herbert (1593-1633); Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901); and the missionary Henry Martyn (1781-1812). Herbert and Westcott were fellows of Trinity College Cambridge, while Martyn was a Fellow of Saint John’s College, which explains why the coat-of-arms of each college is also depicted in the window.
Below the panel depicting George Herbert is an image of Saint Andrew’s Church, Bemerton, and the words: “Here George Herbert ministered and beneath the Altar of Bemerton Church was buried A.D. 1632.” Of course, Herbert never ministered in All Saints’ Church, and he died in 1633, not in 1632. But as I pass by the Classical Gate in at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I am reminded of George Herbert’s words in his poem ‘Lent’: ‘That ev’ry man may revel at his door …’
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.
The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.
Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.
Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.
It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s forti’eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity;
Yet we are bid, ‘Be holy ev’n as he,’
In both let’s do our best.
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.
Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Exodus 28: 29–30; Philippians 4: 4–9; Psalm 23; Matthew 5: 1–10.
Tomorrow (28 February): Saint John Cassian.