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Poetry Week: ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and ‘Virtue’ by George Herbert.

It was singing in two contrasting choral pieces by Vaughan Williams recently that sent me back to the 17th century poet and divine George Herbert. I sang in the choir for his setting of Herbert’s Five Mystical Songs, and for ‘Toward the Unknown Region’, to words by Walt Whitman. The contrast between the two stood out for me – Whitman is so grandiloquent, questing and (to my taste) slightly overblown. He is also given to gusty flights of archaism, lending seriousness and grandeur to his theme (whatever it was) and a sentiment of vague but heartfelt aspiration.

“Darest thou now, O soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
Walt Whitman

I’m irresistibly tempted to reply to this ‘Sorry, I’m washing my hair’, which is unkind, because Vaughan Williams makes a magnificent attempt to interpret it in music that is suitably sincere and passionate.

Herbert’s poetry, on the other hand, for me has a profound clarity and simplicity. Compare these lines of his from the poem that Vaughan Williams set as ‘Five Mystical Songs’ no 3:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
George Herbert

George Herbert (1593-1633) is remembered not just for his poetry, but as the epitome of the Anglican parish priest. This is from his thinking and writing, as well as his contemporary and historic reputation. Indeed, if the Church of England had them, he is regarded as the nearest thing to an Anglican saint. Those who are thought to be saints can be difficult to love, they can be spiky and challenging, they can do things that are deeply annoying like ‘bear their afflictions with courage and fortitude’ – but in George Herbert’s case the sincerity and simplicity that make so many readers love his poems was true to him. Even crabby, gossipy John Aubrey in his Brief Lives describes him as ‘ingeniose’, an Aubrey-coined word covering a range of gifts of intellect and spirit.

He started a career in public life, gaining academic honours at Cambridge, becoming University Orator, noted for his skill in Latin oratory and verse. He served in Parliament briefly, and seemed destined for a life in politics and the Court. However, on the death of James I his natural allies were no longer in power, and he turned to the Church and took orders. He took up the living of Bemerton in Wiltshire, close to Salisbury in 1630. Even though he was priest there for a mere three years before his early death, it is a place of pilgrimage for those who revere Herbert as the setting for his deepest thoughts on priesthood and faith, and for his journey into poetry in English. He suffered poor health for most of his life, and died in 1633 of ‘consumption’. After his death, his close friend Nicholas Ferrar published his poems in English as The Temple, a collection inspired by the architecture of an English church, and containing a cycle that follows the Church’s year.

Herbert’s poems are mostly on spiritual themes. His most significant cycle ‘The Church’ follows the Church year from the passion of Christ to his birth. Some of his poems are known to us as hymns, of which The Elixir, ‘Teach me, my God and King, In all things thee to see’, and ‘Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King’ are probably the best known. The pleasure for the secular reader lies the combination of Herbert’s breathtaking poetic skill with the beauty and depth of his reflections and perceptions. Many of his poems turn on conceits, akin to the Metaphysical Poets (Donne was his great friend). He experiments with metre and structure and layout of the poem on the page (for a great example of the extreme of this, see his ‘pattern poem’ Easter Wings).

So, if you don’t share George Herbert’s faith and outlook on life, why read his poetry? I want to make the case to read him for the profundity of his insights, the beauty and simplicity of his language, and his uniquely wonderful poetic gift. Many of the poems start as reflections on affliction, or our mortal state, and turn on a note of hope or assurance. All can be read with pleasure for the beauty of his poetic voice. Many have meaning above and beyond the ostensible Christian intent.

Look, for instance, at the poem quoted above, Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back. This is a poem about Salvation – ‘Love’ is God’s love through Christ’s sacrifice. But it also describes with true beauty and eloquence what human love can be – generous, accepting, all-embracing. I love this poem, on both levels. Its final lines move me deeply:

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The poems of George Herbert I know and love best are those I’ve sung. Herbert was noted as a gifted musician, and used to sing his verses to the lute. So many of them seem to have been written with music in mind, and it is no wonder that so many are set to hymn tunes, or inspire composers such as Vaughan Williams. One of my favourites is a tiny piece (set by Vaughan Williams, but not one of the Five Mystical Songs) called Virtue:

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

On the face of it, three stanzas contemplating the certainty of death, with a fourth giving a note of hope of the soul’s survival. The conceits in all four are beautiful and ingenious (‘ingeniose’?), but hidden in each is the opposite of the sentiment it is expressing. In the first, we look at the day, that will inevitably end in night – but that image of ‘the bridal’ looks forward to new birth, and the certainty that a new day will come. In the second, the rose will die, but its root in its ‘grave’ (the earth) will regenerate. In the third, the final word ‘closes’ refers to a dying musical cadence – but music can always begin again at the will of any musician. However, in the final verse, the line ‘But though the whole word turn to coal’ inserts a terrifying thought into this stanza of hope – the prospect of the Last Judgement. (However, I also love the juxtaposition of ‘wood’ and ‘coal’, which also speaks to me of permanence, wood laid down in prehistory and surviving in the earth transformed as coal).

I hope I’ve given you here some reason to take a look at the work of this loveable, ingenious poet, and his truly beautiful work.

To read some of George Herbert’s poetry online, click here: Representative Poetry Online
And for an excellent online introduction to his life and work (including some musical settings), click here: Cambridge Authors: George Herbert


The beautiful image of a statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral has been taken from Wikimedia Commons, and has been put into the Public Domain by Richard Avery.

11 comments on “Poetry Week: ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and ‘Virtue’ by George Herbert.

  1. Anne Brooke
    May 19, 2011

    Lovely to have a piece on George Herbert, one of my favourite poets. I believe his special day in the church’s calendar is 27 Feb – we certainly note it in our church when we can. 🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Ela
    May 19, 2011

    I remember singing ‘Sweet Day’ in our university madrigal group – it’s a beautiful setting. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for music that it brings us to poets whom we might not usually read – Britten, for example, set poetry by a huge variety of people (such that I actually have an anthology of ‘Britten’s poetry’). I’d not realised that Herbert had written much more than the Five Mystical Songs – thanks for the summary.

  3. Jackie
    May 19, 2011

    Was really looking forward to this piece & it exceeded my expectations. I’ve read some of Herbert’s work without realizing it, but I should really read more of his poems, especially now that I know more of his background. He seems like a very humble man, there’s a tentative quality to some of the quotes you have here and what an interesting contrast with Whitman. As I was reading your post, I was comparing the quotes to Donne & am pleased to learn they were friends.
    “Virtue” also reminds me of a song by modern pop star James Blunt, “I’ll Take Everything” which conveys the same sort of thoughts.
    Thanks for this piece, it’s well done & provides a lot of food for thought!

  4. Trilby
    May 20, 2011

    Lovely piece, Hilary. Shall definitely pass it on to a friend who’s doing his PhD on George Herbert – he’ll no doubt enjoy it, too!

  5. rosyb
    May 21, 2011

    I had to read Herbert at college and admit I struggled as it is so overtly religious. I agree the writing is very beautiful though and I really enjoyed the way you dissected the last for us. Maybe I should take a look again now I’m a bit older and see if I can see my way past whether I relate to his religious sensibility and whether I get something else from these poems.

    I do like the way you bring music into your posts, Hilary. Makes me think we should do an audio link to some of these things at some point. Poetry and music together can be a whole other experience.

  6. kirstyjane
    May 22, 2011

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Thank you, comrade Hilary!

  7. Hilary
    May 22, 2011

    Thank you for your lovely comments. I really do think that George Herbert’s poetry, although Christian in inspiration and intent, can be read and enjoyed for their human and humane qualities and insights, and not just as some sort of Christian polemic. Some of the poems are capable of being read only at that level, the familiar hymns in particular. But others have something to say to anyone who reads them.

    I wonder if anyone with literary interests of my age avoided buying or being given Helen Gardner’s Penguin collection of The Metaphysical Poets. I’ve just reached mine down, to check that George Herbert is there, alongside Donne, Marvell, Crashaw, Wotton, and, heaven help us, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. He’s there because he is doing something similar – holding ideas up to the light and looking for words to describe the profundity and the extraordinary in them.

    I’ve just re-found in there The Pearl, and kicked myself that I didn’t bring that into my piece. Its inspiration is the parable from the Gospel of St Matthew about the merchant who sold all he possessed to purchase the pearl of great price. But it’s not an overt commentary on this – it can stand for any symbol of what is most important, what one might die for. And it is so passionate and full of life and the human condition:

    I know the ways of Pleasure, the sweet strains,
    The lullings and the relishes of it;
    The propositions of hot bloud and brains;
    What mirth and musicke mean; what love and wit
    Have done these twentie hundred yeares, and more
    I know the projects of unbridled store;
    My stuff is flesh, not brasse; my senses live,
    And grumble oft, that they have more in me
    Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
    Yet I love thee.
    Stanza 3

    Now, this could be a person, or a home, or a homeland, or an ideal or principle – or Peace.

    (And try singing these words at Matins and see where it gets you …).

    So George Herbert is a poet for everyone. What I did discover in my reading round for this piece is that he is a lot more problematical as a pattern for priesthood. It seems his three short years of exemplary parish ministry, the hagiography of Izaak Walton’s ‘Life’ and his own work ‘A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson’ cast a long shadow over present day Anglican priests. This to the extent that I came across a book with the title If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, by Justin Lewis-Anthony – a title to stop you in your tracks, even after finding out that there is a Zen proverb regarding self-discovery and fulfilment ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him’. Anyhow, with a title like that, I just HAVE to read it (especially as one commenter on the Kindle edition says with an air of puzzlement ‘Not much about George Herbert?). I wonder what the audience would be a for a VL review, though?

    Re the music, Rosy, if you click on the Cambridge Authors link at the end of the post, there’s a link in the sidebar to ‘Musical settings’, including RVW’s setting of Virtue. Here’s a Youtube link to Love Bade Me Welcome, sung by the best:

    And in case you think my point is not well enough made, a friend of mine has just informed me that Madonna borrowed from ‘Love bade me welcome’ for her track ‘Love tried to welcome me’ on her album ‘Bedtime stories’. There now, does that convince you? No? Oh.

  8. rosyb
    May 26, 2011

    Very much enjoyed listening to that link. Thank you for posting Hilary.

  9. M Crabb
    March 3, 2017

    Seasoned timber in the last verse of Virtue refers to pit props. In a world made coal (adversity) they come into their own.

  10. Hilary
    March 3, 2017

    Thank you! There’s always another layer to discover with Herbert, isn’t there.

  11. Anthony Mwangi
    April 19, 2018

    Very informative. Working on this piece, cureently.
    Thanks.

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This entry was posted on May 19, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary, Poetry, Poetry Week, Poetry:literary and tagged , , , , .

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