Author logo George Herbert - study guide

Introduction
About George Herbert
The Temple
Herbert's style
Discipline
The Collar
Jordan (I)
Church Monuments
The Pearl
The Flower

Introduction

This study guide has been written for students taking GCE Advanced level English literature. It is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in the study of poetry. This guide gives opinions about Herbert's work. If you want to find ideas for studying poems independently, then try my guide to the Metaphysical Poets. Click on the link below to open this.

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About George Herbert

Herbert was some fifteen years older than John Milton, the most celebrated of English poets to have treated religious subjects, but the work of the two poets could scarcely be more different: Milton's verse is public, rhetorical, bombastic and solemn; his aim is twofold - to prove God's justice in His dealings with His Creation, and to write the great English epic, to match the best works of the classical poetry of antiquity; Milton's work is massive, highly structured in twelve books, each prefaced by an outline or “argument”, and rejects the convention of rhyme, as “no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse”.

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Herbert's work is more private, subjective but modest in its aim. He creates an appearance of order by the arrangement of the poems that make up The Temple but there is no clear structure as in Milton's Paradise Lost. Herbert's tone is more conversational, his art directed to achieving a sense of naturalness and simplicity. Where Milton's God seems (to the modern reader) remote from real, lived experience, Herbert addresses his Maker with a kind of reverent familiarity; Milton may invoke the Holy Spirit as his Muse but God is too aweful to be approached so nearly; Herbert never ceases to address God. For Milton God is revealed in the Holy Scripture; for Herbert God is revealed in every part of daily life whether high or humble: even the “drudgery” of one “who sweeps a room” devoutly becomes “divine”.

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The Temple

The Temple is the title Herbert gave to a collection of devotional lyric poems (about a hundred and seventy in number. A small number of English poems not in the collection survives along with many Latin poems and a handful in Greek.) The Temple is in three parts: first is a brief Dedication followed by The Church Porch a kind of verse sermon in seventy-seven stanzas, filled with exhortations to virtue and wisdom; next comes The Church, which contains virtually all of the poems, the third and last part of the work being a long poem in rhyming couplets, The Church Militant and an Envoy as formal conclusion.

The title of The Church Porch refers metaphorically to entry into the life of Christian devotion. The exhortations are made as if to a young man with talent and ambition, in the hope that the poet may “ryme” him “to good”. What follows is advice, some of it echoing scripture, at once moral, earnest yet practical:

  • “Envie not greatnesse”
  • “Scorn no man's love”
  • “Restore to God his due in tithe and time”

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Among the many poems in The Church we find all those lyrics on which Herbert's reputation rests. In some, Herbert produces a discourse or a meditation upon some area of man's relation to his Maker; in others, Herbert dramatizes the whole spiritual life of man in parabolic manner. In the manner of The Church Porch many have titles which refer to some object in the church, or some common everyday object, metaphorically understood: The Altar, The Church-Floore, Church-monuments, The Bag, The Flower, The Pulley. Other titles allude, more or less intelligibly to scripture: The Pearl, Jordan, Joseph's Coat or Marie Magdalene. Herbert, the parson and writer of sermons, who takes a set subject or text and then discourses on it, to edify his flock, is often discernible in the argument of a poem.

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Herbert's style

What is striking about Herbert's style is its clarity and directness; Herbert regularly defends his plainness or commends a commonplace expression of praise, as in the two Antiphons or the first Jordan poem. He is not like the heathen who think to be heard of God because of their many words. Herbert is never needlessly obscure, for effect, say. He becomes obscure when he treats difficult matters, as in Jordan (I). The notion of restraint, temperance and self-discipline, as recommended in The Church Porch and in the argument of many of the poems is reflected in their structure. This is taken to its extreme in Discipline.

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Discipline

The thought of the poem is fairly clear: God is asked to use Love rather than punishment to remedy the poet's shortcomings; in spite of his failures he is always ready and willing to undergo the corrective of Love in which he has complete faith. The striving after God and the ready subjection of the self are mirrored in the restrained expression of the poem. The lines are brief: the longest has five syllables, the shortest three: “0 my God” or “I aspire”.

Necessarily, the verse relies heavily on monosyllabic words: there is a sense of enormous compression; the lines are blunt, austere because free of embellishment or exposition; digression is not possible:

“Who can scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
      Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.”

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The idea of the poet's subjection to, and humbling of himself before, God is embodied in the poem's terseness - any tendency the self may have to expansiveness or unrestrained expression is curbed. Man is nothing; God is not to pardon him for his own merits but to do justice to the Divine nature - Herbert, while barely daring to speak, almost audaciously reminds God of what He is. We see the self-humbling best in:

“Not a word or look
I affect to own,
      But by book,
And thy book alone.”

The entreaty to God to act according to His own unchanging mercy comes in the last stanza:

“Though man frailties bath,
      Thou art God:
Throw away they wrath.”

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The Collar

Perhaps the best treatment of the subject of submission to the Divine Will is to be found in The Collar, which is certainly among the most celebrated of Herbert's lyrics. Once again, the form closely mirrors the argument. The poem opens with an account of an exasperated outburst of rebellion by the poet:

“I struck the board, and cry'd, No more.
      I will abroad.”

What follows is a venting of spleen - an assertion of freedom, a complaint of grievances against the life of devotion out of which the poet intends to break, leading to a boastful challenge to the alleged morbid seriousness and paralysing timidity of the life the poet is renouncing. As the poet raves, growing “more fierce and wild/At every word”, he hears God calling him and, instantly, knows his place and admits God's authority.

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The poem is in the iambic metre, but the lines are of varied length and there are no divisions into stanzas. The apparent randomness of form serves a dual purpose: it exaggerates the conversational tone - we can imagine the poet really speaking these lines. From “No more” in the first line to: “He that forbears/To suit and serve his need,/Deserves his load” the poem reads like a very histrionic soliloquy. The second effect of this randomness is to suggest the indiscipline of the rebellious spirit, which is both cause and consequence of the rebellion. The argument is heated and passionate but unconvincing. As it proceeds, the reader has the sense that the reasoning has not been premeditated and pondered, but is impulsive, spoken in heat. It seems like boastful posturing even before the poem's conclusion. With the poem's conclusion it is made to look ridiculous. In justifying his rebellion against the Divine yoke Herbert talks of religious prescriptions as a “cage” or “rope of sands” which is only made to seem “good cable” by the poet's own “pettie thoughts”. Yet, as he admits God as Lord, Herbert makes it clear that it is the attempt to rebel which is like “sand” and that the true “pettie thoughts” are those he has just asserted so bombastically.

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The technical feature that most typifies this pretentious self-assertion is the redundant or “rhetorical” question, the answer to which is supposed to be self-evident and to support the greater argument in which it appears. Knowing where his poem will end, Herbert may be said to use this device ironically with a sense of its ridiculousness, especially when used with such predictable frequency (eight times in not many more than eight short lines). At the time he says these things, of course, the speaker is not being ironic but giving an aggrieved proof or demonstration of his self-inflicted loss:

“What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
...Shall I be still in suit?
...Is the year onely lost to me?”

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The questions, and the many short lines, give the poem a fitful and uneven quality; there is no fluency of movement until the final quatrain of the poem. In these lines the poet reflects, calmly, on the result of the outburst he has just repeated. The ranting and raving is instantly, easily, dispelled by the gentlest of reminders, from God, of the poet's subservience.

God speaks in a “still small voice” (as in 1 Kings 19.12, Revised Version) and the submission is instant. The silly boasting spoken to bolster the courage of the self could not convincingly repeated in the presence of God. God has no need to answer the arguments: His mere presence exposes their hollowness. So, in these lines, the poem is fluent, eloquent, calm and subdued everything the preceding lines are not. Each pair of lines can be read almost as a single line; in the penultimate pair the syntax requires it (as modern editors' punctuation shows). The pairs seem to be of equal length to the ear though counting syllables will show an extra iambic foot in the final line.

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“But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wild
        At every word
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
        And I reply'd, My Lord.

That extra foot is, in effect, the conclusion to the poet's rebellion as to the poem: “My lord” truly shows the poet's acceptance of “The Collar”.

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Jordan (I)

In Jordan (I) we see once more how the form of the poem is a reflection on its argument. In commenting on the needless obscurity and riddling of other poets' work and the conventional embellishment and distortion of reality in such verse, Herbert, ironically, becomes almost equally obscure. The poem's title is a puzzle: why “Jordan”? Scholars have made various plausible suggestions and perhaps Herbert has intended that more than one interpretation should stand.

  • In the Old Testament the Jordan is associated with various moments of the sacred history of the Jews;
  • in the New Testament it is here that John baptises Jesus.

The title may signify both the crossing from the vanity and paganism of the rest of the world into the truth and holiness of the land of promise as the Jordan is crossed under Joshua's leadership, and purification or baptism into “truth” and renunciation of “fictions”.

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In the first stanza, as in The Collar, Herbert asks many rhetorical questions, but here (not as in The Collar) they are used without irony as a legitimate means of persuasion. “Who says,” asks Herbert, that imagined things only are appropriate to (or “become”) poetry? What is wrong with truth? He does not (as the third stanza proves) argue that writing of “fictions” is bad.

What is bad is the dictum that such poetry is the “onely” legitimate kind. Herbert does not so much attack the fashion, as a prevalent assumption about the fashion - that it is synonymous with the whole of poetry. He does not, of course, identify any single poet but the clues in this poem suggest the kind of verse known as pastoral: love lyrics in which the characters are given classical or archetypal rustic names, in which the landscape is idealised, and in which, perhaps, nymphs, satyrs and fauns appear. Herbert also challenges the style of such poets who address their subject in an indirect manner:

“Is all good structure in a winding stair?”

The metaphor suggests circumlocution: the subtlety and finesse of these poets is seen as a dislike or disdain of plain speaking as too blunt and prosaic.

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The “winding stair” may be interpreted as any kind of obscurity: over-complex reasoning, allegorical meanings, cryptic symbolism or recondite language: all conceal meaning, as the real “winding stair” prevents a swift ascent.

In his second stanza Herbert cites some of the clichés of the pastoral lyric (showing both the trite idea and the trite expression of it): “enchanted groves”, “sudden arbours”, and “purling streams”. Fathoming the meaning of this cryptic and stilted verse is reduced to guesswork, so that:

“...he that reades, divines/Catching the sense at two removes”.

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Moreover, where the work is not, say, that of Spenser, Raleigh or Sidney, but of their less gifted imitators, the specialised diction and stock landscapes are used as camouflage for the crudity of the “course-spunne lines”.

In the final stanza, Herbert makes it clear that he has no quarrel with the pastoral writers:

“Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:”

This is, of course, ambiguous: “shepherds are truthful” or “shepherds are people in the real world” (as well as people in pastoral verse). The modern reader may also miss a sense of “honest” as in Othello - where this description marks Iago as belonging to a lower social class than Othello or Cassio. The right of fictitious shepherds to behave as in the pastoral is thus, ironically, earned by the virtue of the real shepherd. The shepherds may also be understood (as by Gareth Reeves, in his edition of Herbert's poems) to be the authors of the pastorals.

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Herbert does not mind who should choose to “riddle” (write cryptically or in riddles) or “pull for Prime” (strive to excel in writing this kind of verse) nor does he envy them the stock images of their kind of lyric “nightingale”, “spring”, and so on - so long, that is, as they will allow him to write plainly and not accuse him of being unpoetic.

The reference to “losse of rime” seems to be a pun: on “rime” in its archaic sense of “poetry” and in its weak, sense of the poetic technique of rhyming. Of course, in the modern, second sense: “My God, My King” does rhyme (with “spring”). The modern reader might miss the former meaning of “being unpoetic”. Though Herbert's concern in this poem is to vindicate his own writing: poetry which is not cryptic and which addresses the real God rather than the idols of a dead civilisation - yet he anticipates later critical debate. What is proper and improper in poetry is a question that has had a long and interesting history since Herbert wrote Jordan (I).

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To be bathetic one might almost say that Jordan (I) is a roundabout way of asking: “Why write only of passionate shepherds and nymphs? Why not write about man's real spiritual life?” What might seem odd to the modern reader is that the case should need to be argued. It seems obvious to us that to write about one's real, lived spiritual experience is as legitimate as to write about idyllic fantasy, but we have the benefit of living long after Wordsworth, in poetry, and innumerable novelists (all of whom come much later than Herbert) have won this particular argument.

There is some irony that the poem, which argues for plainness, is, in itself, far from plain. The rhetorical questions leave too little room for positive assertion or elucidation; general notions have to be inferred from particular examples, and some of the metaphors (to say nothing of the title) are not at all easy to understand with any certainty (such as the “winding stair”, the “shepherds” with their singing, or pulling “for Prime”). Herbert, obviously, takes a perverse delight in ridiculing by imitation the obscurity he denounces. His playfulness here is regretted in a later poem. Jordan (II) in which the argument for simplicity is stated in plain and sober terms. Jordan (II) might almost be an apology for the earlier lyric; it is certainly an apology for the general tendency to indirectness.

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Church Monuments

In Church Monuments we see Herbert's sermonizing tendency at work again. While his “soul repairs to her devotion” (as he prays), Herbert imagines himself to “intombe” his “flesh” in the church, where he is surrounded by gravestones and memorials (the modern reader might be surprised to find that these are inside the church). From these, Herbert learns the lessons of his own mortality, of the folly of keeping the mortal remains in separate tombs (“To sever the good fellowship of dust”), that the memorial stones will, in time, also fall to the earth (and then “What shall point out them...?”) but the most important lesson is the first of these, amplified in a magnificent final stanza in which, not only man's mortality, but the fact that time, too, will eventually pass away, is stated.

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The dust on the monuments and the dust (the mortal remains) they cover (which may be the same dust) suggest to Herbert the image of the “flesh” as an hourglass full of the dust that determines the span of man's life, an image which suggests life's brevity. This is to be borne in mind at such times as the body is aroused by unruly passions. At such times, Herbert tells his “flesh”,

“...thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.”

The familiar message is stated in an arresting image and with steadily mounting force, as the syntax forces the enjambement of the lines. The cadence of the lines reinforces the measuring of the lives. The entombment of the flesh that appears, in the opening lines, to be subordinated to the soul's devotions, has, in fact, become the starting point for the process of those devotions.

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The Pearl

In The Pearl, Herbert addresses God and attempts to demonstrate his love for Him by showing the powerful attractions of those things that he has renounced for God's sake. These three great worldly goods each form the subject of a stanza. They are: “Learning”; “Honour”; (i.e. the special pleasure to be gained from achieving prestige and glory in the service of the court and “Pleasure” (broadly understood, but expressed by the figure of music). In each stanza Herbert states and demonstrates his knowledge of each of these three goods (at length) but concludes (briefly):

“Yet I love thee.”

Thus, in the final stanza, he can tell God that his choice is not an ignorant one, but one made with eyes open to the desirability of these other things.

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This seems to be leading to the arrogant conclusion that, as he has renounced all this for God, so God should return the sacrifice. Instead, Herbert dismisses his own contribution (in renouncing the world) to achieving a true intercourse with God as of little value - it is mere “groveling wit”. It is not this but God's “silk twist let down from heav'n” to the poet which has conducted and taught him “how by it/To climbe” to God.

Even when man thinks he has done much to earn the kingdom of heaven, Herbert argues, he has done little. Without God's initiative, that communion would never be realised.

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The Flower

The Flower is considered by many critics (and by me) to be Herbert's finest lyric. It is an exuberant, joyful poem in which a single image of the spiritual life is expanded with naturalness and elegance that appear effortless. The poem's clarity would be impressive in the work of a modern writer; in its historical context it is even more so. In some of Herbert's predecessors and contemporaries the faults alluded to in Jordan (I) prevail. Donne breaks free of this tradition and tries to write more honestly or directly from experience, though his paradoxical cleverness still nay lead to obscurity, albeit of a new kind. Herbert continues and refines this style: his imagery is more homely and accessible than Donne's outlandish conceits: if nothing is too exotic for inclusion in Donne's verse, nothing is too ordinary for inclusion in Herbert's. But this has the result that Herbert's images are, generally, more intelligible to the modern reader. After Herbert, Vaughan writes with comparable clarity, but Milton begins a movement in a quite different direction. We have to wait for many years before Wordsworth restates the case for plainness convincingly. (Cowper, perhaps, anticipates this movement away from specialised poetic language).

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In The Flower, Herbert celebrates the joy that accompanies the spiritual renewal which follows the times of trial. Though he has experienced this many times, yet each time it happens the joy is as boundless as ever. In the second line of the poem he likens this to the regeneration of “the flowers in spring” and thereafter writes of himself as if he were such a flower. (Strictly, as modern horticulture understands it, the subject of this poem is a flowering plant, of the hardy perennial kind). This clear statement of the simile makes it plain to the reader that everything written about the flower is to be understood as a picture of man's life in relation to God.

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Yet we can also delight in the idea of the flower's expressing its feelings about the killing frosts and the “sweet...clean...returns”. The flower, loving the return of spring, but fearful of a late frost, and certain that winter will eventually come again, longs for the perpetual spring of “...Paradise where no flower can wither”. By its selfishness and sinfulness it is watered and tries to seize heaven by its own growth; such arrogance must then be punished by God's anger, more severe than any frost. Yet God's severity is remedial not malicious; when the lesson is learned, the flower may be allowed to put out new growth. This is its nature, its proper function in the eyes of God, and its delight. Man's joy is to be found in doing the proper, appointed duty, however high or humble, which he has received from God. This delight is asserted in the penultimate stanza of the poem:

“   And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
   I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: 0 my onely light,
      It cannot be
      That I am he
   On whom thy tempests fell all night”

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A modern critic (A. Alvarez in The School of Donne) writes thus:

“This is, I suppose, the most perfect and most vivid stanza in the whole of Herbert's work. But it is, in every sense, so natural that its originality is easily missed. To speak of the love of God as a whole delight, of the senses as much as of the spirit, had to my knowledge never been done before. To do it there was needed a combination of realism and personal tact that was Herbert's special gift.”

The Flower concludes simply: God's purpose is to show us “we are but flowers that glide”, to let us acknowledge our limitation and inconsequence; yet, paradoxically, if we can see this, the reward is great: God “has a garden for us, where to hide”. It is those who want more than this, swollen by their arrogance or eminence, who will “Forfeit their paradise by their pride”.

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Herbert's technical skill is not in doubt: his poetry is at once elegant and clear; profound without being bombastic or pretentious; vivid and direct. His mastery of metre and syntax are supreme. the variety of stanza forms he uses is unsurpassed by any English poet. He does not, however, address the whole range of human experience but makes his subject (a large one, admittedly) God's communion with man.

Of this he writes comprehensively and truthfully. His verse reflects his own relationship with God - often troubled (but never tortured as Donne's seems to have been), often joyful; not thinking of himself or his own importance overmuch, yet never doubting God's majesty, justice and power.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me

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