George Herbert was one of the most important figures in English literature, but had he not given his personal poems to a friend in the days before his death, we might never have heard of him. He was a quiet priest over a tiny congregation who otherwise left no documents other than the book of 167 poems that came to be known as The Temple.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:
Herbert referred to his poems as the record of his conflict with God, and they have an intimacy about them deriving from the fact that most of them are directly addressed to God and as such he was not shy about expressing the nature of his own struggles. In his poems we witness firsthand the battle of his will against God’s, and his struggle with his sense of unworthiness toward being God’s servant. His battle was a losing battle, as he was always bested by God and therefore had to make peace with him through surrender. Time and again, Herbert found his ultimate victory in being defeated, for the One who defeated him is the God of grace and love.
Although the poems recording his individual journey of faith are intensely personal, they are also deeply rooted in tradition and in a commitment to Christ and his church. Herbert saw the spiritual journey not as a solo excursion but as one undertaken together in community, as members together of the body of Christ, his church. The church, as Herbert saw it, was the proper context for living out the Christian life. Therefore, many of the poems reflect upon the church year, make use of snippets of the Anglican liturgy, or use church architecture as a metaphor.
A great deal of the religious poetry written through the centuries suffers from being overly sentimental and often feels insincere, as though it is expressing what the poet wished to be feeling, or thought he or she should be feeling, rather than what he or she was actually feeling. The strength of Herbert as a religious poet is that he was not afraid to tell the truth about his struggles and doubts, and about the difficulties of the spiritual path. But he always ended with affirmation and hope. It was hope hard won, but more transformative because of the struggle.
Do you keep a journal? How honestly do you record your thoughts and prayers?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
(1593–1633) English Poet
Herbert was born of a distinguished Welsh family and educated at Westminster and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was appointed Praelector in Rhetoric in 1618 and became Public Orator to the University in 1620. His career flourished until, in 1624 and 1625, a series of deaths deprived Herbert of influential patrons, including the king. In 1629 he married Joane Dauvers; in 1630 he resolved upon an ecclesiastical life when he accepted the offer as a priest of a village parish at Bemerton. His small book on the duties of his new life, A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Prison (1652), testifies to the earnestness and joy but also to the uneasiness with which he embraced his new role. In chronic bad health, Herbert spent his final three years at Bemerton performing pastoral duties, writing and revising his poems, and playing music.
Almost all of Herbert’s poetry is contained in The Temple (1633). Shortly before his death he sent the manuscript to Nicholas Ferrar, head of the Anglican community at Little Gidding, with instructions that “if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it, for I and it are the least of God’s mercies.”
The Temple is an architectural metaphor, which shows associations with the Old Testament temple, and with Greek and Roman temples, but the latter are now subsumed in the New Testament view of the human heart or the dwelling place of the Spirit of God.
In “The Church Porch,” where the classical allusions are most in evidence, the speaker delivers his didactic counsels regarding the behavior befitting the Christian life.
The second section, called “The Church,” explores the essence of the relationship between Christ and man. In these poems (except for “The Sacrifice,” which is spoken by Christ), the tone of the speaker ranges from the rebellious, colloquial language of “The Collar” to the highly formal praise of “Antiphon (I)” and “Antiphon (II)” to the meditations of “Church-Monuments.” The collection begins with poems that treat the basis of the man-God relationship, Christ’s sacrifice.
Many of the poems of the first half deal with such subjects as sacraments, rituals, feast days, and events of Christ’s life. The second part explores the aspirations and distresses attendant upon man’s relationship with God. The section concludes with a group of poems on the Last Things, culminating with “Love (III),” which draws together the threads of Eucharistic imagery that run throughout the body of the work.
“The Church Militant,” though it may have been written earlier, forms an organic part of the unity of The Temple. In contrast to the exploration of the inner dimension of the soul, this poem presents the movement of the Church as a corporate society throughout history.
George Herbert’s subject is single, the variety of poems is astounding, and the artistry is as admirable in its totality as in its detail.
E.B. Batson, “Herbert, George,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 316.
Herbert, George. The Country Parson, The Temple. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
Piper, John. Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014
Elizabeth Clarke, Theory and Theology in George Herbert’s Poetry: ‘Divinitie, and Poesie, Met’, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Arthur L. Clements, Poetry of Contemplation: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and the Modern Period, New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.
R. W. Cooley, Full of All Knowledge: George Herbert’s Country Parson and Early Modern Social Discourse, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
C. Hodgkin, Authority, Church and Society in George Herbert, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
B. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study of English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
J. H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies: Binghamton, New York: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1981.
S. Sykes, Unashamed Anglicanism, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1999, Chapter 3.
Rosamund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert, Chicago: University of Chicago Press , reprint 1982.
Gene E. Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert, London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1985.
George Herbert, Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings, ed. Philip Sheldrake, Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009), 173.
Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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