February 27 – George Herbert

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

George Herbert, faithful servant

George Herbert (1593-1633) was an English priest and poet.  He was born in Wales, a younger son of a wealthy and well-connected family.  Although he excelled at Cambridge and won high preferment, he was disenchanted with his academic life, which did not suit his sickly constitution.  He also longed to move in the more exalted circles of state, and served briefly as a Member of Parliament, where he attracted the attention of noble patrons and King James I.  But these dreams came to nothing, and eventually he chose the path of ordination within the Church of England.  When he was counselled that this profession was socially beneath him, he replied, “I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them”.  Sadly he served only three years as a priest in a small rural parish before his death, aged forty.

Herbert is counted among the “metaphysical poets”, and his work is concerned with religious devotion.  It is characterized by a close intimacy with God, a deep humility and sense of indebtedness and joyful gratitude.  There is also much introspective wrestling with his own sin and persistent rebellion against God, which perhaps reflects his long struggle before accepting his priestly vocation.  Herbert was an accomplished musician, and that is reflected in his verse, in the intricate and varied metrical patterns and short lyrical forms suggesting song.

Some of Herbert’s poems have been adopted as hymns; in The Australian Hymn Book and Together in Song, these include “Let all the world in every corner sing”, “King of glory, King of peace”, “Come, my way, my truth, my life”, and “Teach me, my God and King”.

The man who emerges from the poems is humble, witty and wise, deeply in love with God and well acquainted with himself; his verse overflows with the profound joy he has found in the love of Christ, abundantly but not cheaply.

The favourite poem Love is an apt illustration:

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 any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

                   Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull?  Ah my deare,

                   I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                   Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them:  let my shame

                   Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

                   My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

                   So I did sit and eat.

by Martin Wright