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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?
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 (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.