I found out about him thanks to Llew of Lleweton’s Blog, where you can read more about what our green and pleasant land is really like in the springtime. He brings Robert Browning’s ‘Oh, to be in England now that April’s there’ to life.
Llew sent me Herbert’s poem ‘Easter’, reproduced on The Spectator blog in 2012. It is from Herbert’s work The Temple.
This is Herbert’s ‘Easter’:
Rise heart: thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
The sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.
Herbert also published another poem for this day entitled ‘Easter Wings’. It was printed as intended:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
At the time, I knew very little about Herbert other than from Wikipedia and the George Herbert website.
Although Herbert’s mother was desperate for him to enter the priesthood, he did not do so for many years.
Recently, I ran across a December 2013 copy of The Oldie, a British monthly which is perfect for anyone over the age of 40. It’s everything one would want from a print magazine.
On pages 69 and 70 was a review of a book called Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury (Allen Lane, £25).
So I looked the book up to see if there were any online reviews. The Guardian has one from August 15, 2013. There are several more online.
The Very Revd Dr John Drury is the chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford. His book, The Guardian says, gets:
inside not only Herbert’s mind but his craftsmanship, to introduce his readers to the work as well as the man.
Although his father died when Herbert was three years old, young George had a privileged upbringing. His branch of the family was a minor one of the greater aristocratic Herbert line. When George was still a boy:
his mother moved to London, where she ran a household distinguished for its hospitality towards intellectuals. John Donne addressed some poems to her, and was to preach her funeral sermon. George was sent to Westminster School at the time when the great preacher and linguist Lancelot Andrewes was in charge. One of the translators of the King James Bible, Andrewes was a master of style, especially of the “terse and urgent” short clause. TS Eliot was an admirer (“A cold coming [they] had of it … ” is lifted from one of his sermons); Drury demonstrates too how much Herbert could have learned from him.
The Oldie tells us that he also knew Francis Bacon well (p. 70). Bacon, we discover:
died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the interests of scientific investigation.
The Oldie describes his upbringing (p. 70):
Herbert, in his youth, was a bit of a dandy, intent on wearing what was immediately fashionable. He was born into the aristocracy, but not of the unthinking kind. His mother, Magdalen [pron. ‘Maudlin’], was immensely cultivated and attractive, maintaining a welcoming salon in Chelsea and giving money and aid to the poor. The family was connected to the Pembrokes and could therefore move in the highest of high society. Magdalen’s second husband, Sir John Danvers, was the best surrogate father any son could have, being a ready source of cash whenever George needed to buy books.
Herbert had a distinguished career at Trinity College, Cambridge, and wanted to be appointed Orator at Cambridge University. He achieved his ambition in 1620. However, The Guardian says, not everything went as expected:
The post required him to be the public face of the university, in charge of its formal Latin correspondence and orations. It was a role that could have led to a good position in royal service. Instead, he allowed his deputy to take over much of the work, while he himself withdrew, perhaps because of his recurrent ill health, perhaps to try to resolve his increasingly urgent personal dilemma as to whether to pursue a career that would satisfy his worldly ambitions, or to enter the priesthood.
He married Jane Danvers in 1629, a union which The Oldie (p. 70) describes as:
brief but contented.
Shortly after his wedding, Herbert went into ministry full time. He became the parish priest in Bemerton, Wiltshire, in the West Country. The village is close to Salisbury and the city’s cathedral. Herbert loved cathedral music, so that was a positive point, however, The Guardian says that he lived much too far away from Cambridgeshire — in East Anglia — to enjoy:
the Anglican community that his friend Nicholas Ferrar had founded at Little Gidding.
Herbert spent only four years in Bemerton. He died there at the age of 39. However, The Oldie assures us (p. 69):
His last years were devoted to the welfare of his parishoners, with a steady round of baptisms, weddings and funerals. He was never happier, because his allotted time on earth was now making fruitful sense to him.
Although as a youth, he described death as:
an uncouth hideous thing —
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing
when his time came, his faith was much increased and he accepted death with a sanguine pragmatism.
Both publications looked at words Herbert used most often in his poetry. The Guardian honed in on ‘bright’ and The Oldie ‘love’.
I particularly enjoyed this observation from The Guardian:
Herbert … can positively look forward to the Day of Judgment as a time for the reuniting of friends.
That is the best outlook to have.