The Feast of George Herbert, Priest, 1633.
The Collect: O God, who broughtest thy servant George Herbert through the disappointment of his worldly aspirations to become a priest to thy Temple, a poet of thy praise, and an instrument of thy undivided love in a contentious time: guide us also by thy inner light so that we might worship thee together in the beauty of holiness.
The 1630s—the decade of George Herbert’s death—were a tense period in the history of the English church. William Laud, bishop of London since 1628, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He came to office with an ambitious program of reform designed to bring unity to a fracturing polity. The fault lines had begun to show in 1625 when Puritans began to turn the methods honed in the anti-Catholic pamphlet wars on the bishops of their own church. Laud hoped to bring unity by simmering down the conflict with Rome, but this of course only fostered further accusations that he was a crypto-papist. Instead of bringing peace, Laud’s program culminated in two disastrous wars with Scotland—events that helped precipitate the civil wars of the 1640s.
Meanwhile, in 1630, in the quiet Wiltshire village of Bemerton a few miles outside Salisbury, the son of a prominent family took up a post as a country parson. George Herbert had once looked forward to a promising court career. Having been the Public Orator for the University of Cambridge, responsible for speaking to the court on behalf of the university, and briefly a Member of Parliament, Herbert had watched his fortunes dwindle with the death of James I in 1625. After finding some satisfaction in using family funds to restore a decrepit church, he decided to enter holy orders.
By this time he had been writing poetry for several years. (His mother was among the patronesses of John Donne.) This he continued to do amidst serving his parishioners and taking a weekly walk in to Salisbury to hear the service and to play lute with the cathedral musicians. On his deathbed, the story goes, Herbert handed a manuscript of his poems to Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the nearby quasi-monastic community of Little Gidding, with the instruction to burn them unless Ferrar thought they might do some good. Ferrar had his community make a fair copy (the beautiful Bodleian manuscript) and had the poems printed by the Cambridge University printer.
Herbert’s collection, The Temple, proved remarkably popular: there were four printings in 1633 and 1634, with many more running into the early 18th century. Still more remarkable, though, was the breadth of their appeal, for both Laudians and Puritans found that Herbert could speak to their spirituality. High Church writers like Henry Vaughan and Izaak Walton loved his verse alongside Low Churchmen like Richard Baxter. Of Herbert it might well be said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
In a time of rampant discord, then, George Herbert was a shepherd. He chose to feed God’s sheep, not, as Peter says, “for filthy lucre,” but “willingly” and “of a ready mind.” In this he was like Alma, who, when “he saw great inequality among the people,” resigned his prominent position to preach the word of God.
People often choose to be shepherds after they have been well-shepherded themselves. Although Herbert’s verse frequently alludes to the scriptures, he only versified one psalm, the twenty-third—perhaps in testament to the solicitous care of his Lord:
THe God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?
He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe:
In both I have the best.
Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.
Yea, in death’s shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.
Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev’n in my enemies sight:
My head with oyl, my cup with wine
Runnes over day and night.
Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my dayes;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.
Yet notwithstanding the evident care of a loving God, Herbert experienced enough inner turmoil to produce five poems with the title “Affliction.” His life could be restless; perhaps at times he lay down to find, with the speaker of “Love Unknown,” “that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts, / I would say thorns.” Part of his gift as a shepherd was to show us God working even in the unrest of life. He writes of this tension in a poem called “The Pulley”:
WHEN God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by ;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can :
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way ;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure :
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature :
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse :
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
Let us give thanks to God on this day for the life of his servant, George Herbert! And may we, like Herbert, find in our worldly cares occasions to shepherd others, to comfort those that mourn, and to be peacemakers amidst the strife.
Ralph Vaughan William’s “Five Mystical Songs” sets four poems by Herbert: “Easter” (divided in two), “Love (III),” “The Call,” and “Antiphon (I).” This performance (in two parts) is by the BBC Singers, with Thomas Allen, baritone.