Writing for God: The Life and Work of George Herbert

Toward the end of his thoughtful new critical biography of the great seventeenth-century English poet George Herbert,[1] John Drury considers the literary legacy of Herbert and the necessity of publication. During Herbert’s time, the attitude of some to prefer to keep their writings from being printed was considered “the snobbery of manuscript.” Herbert’s poetry, like that of his older friend John Donne, did not see publication until after he died. And Donne left specific instructions with regards to a manuscript of his own, Biathanatos, which may have been a defense of suicide, that when he died, it neither be burned nor printed, and was similarly anxious about the fate of his secular poems, many of which we know to be erotic. George Herbert, having nothing like Donne’s apprehensions about his remaining manuscripts, still kept them private throughout his career. But Drury infers, and I think correctly, that was because, in Herbert’s case, “he was writing for God.” Fortunately, for readers of both Donne and Herbert, publication did come shortly after they died, only a couple of years apart. The Temple, the collection that includes most of what we know and value of Herbert’s poetry, was published the year of his death in 1633 and went into several printings over the remaining century. Today we might say that Herbert was writing for himself, having chosen a much less public life than some of his Jacobean contemporaries, like Donne or Ben Jonson. Reading through The Temple, one does have the sense in poem after poem of being in the presence of a private conversation between the poet and his God.

But if Herbert can be considered guilty of any snobbery (an attitude no one who knew him ever saw), he was born into the aristocracy after all, unlike Donne and Jonson, and understood the difference between his rank and those below him. He was the seventh child of Lord Richard and Magdalen Herbert. His father died when George was only three, and, according to Drury, her husband’s death was the making of his mother Magdalen. She was from an even more prominent family than the Herberts and, after Lord Herbert’s death, moved herself and her children into her own family home, there to live with her widowed mother. Drury notes dryly that her family, the Newports, were not only richer than the Herberts but “owned much of Shropshire and were more civilized.” Magdalen herself seems highly adaptable and always interested in her children’s education. When her mother-in-law died, she moved the family again, this time to Oxford, where her oldest son Edward was in school. It is clear that George Herbert grew up in excellent circumstances for a future academic and priest. Whether these were also the best circumstances for a future poet is also answered when we learn that one of Magdalen’s close friends was John Donne, twenty years George’s senior. Donne was a frequent guest at her table and, when Magdalen died, preached her funeral at St. Paul’s. Her hospitality was so well known that Drury speculates that it could have been one of the sources for Herbert’s most famous and possibly greatest poem, “Love (III),” in which the reluctant sinner is invited to Love’s table to dine without conditions, but fully accepted as a guest, without the least bit of snobbery:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.

Magdalen (this wonderful woman really deserves a biography of her own) never stopped providing for herself and her family. When George was 16, she married Sir John Danvers, a wealthy man and twenty years her junior and, in fact, not much older than his stepson George. According to Drury, Sir John Danvers married Magdalen “for love of her wit.” Her wit was also attractive to John Donne, as well as her good looks, which were equally celebrated. A portrait of her in middle age, included as an illustration in the book, shows a handsome woman whose face is lit with kindness and intelligence. Donne also enjoyed her connections as he made his way out of his exile as a country lawyer to his eventual elevation as Dean of St. Paul’s.

Herbert was fortunate, then, in going to the best schools—Westminster and Cambridge—and being exposed to the best society, and further in having a rich stepfather who was as much an older brother or uncle as he was a stepfather. His trajectory from an early age was toward public prominence. His brother Edward became ambassador to France, and his brother Henry, next oldest, became master of the revels at court. Herbert’s own studious nature and his tremendous skill at Latin, along with his early ambition to rise like his brothers, led him to become Latin Orator at Cambridge by the time he was 30, a position that some saw as leading inevitably to a state office of the highest kind. It was the job of the Orator not only to oversee Latin instruction at Cambridge, but also, in the days before the poet laureateship, to provide verses in Latin to celebrate state occasions. But for all this good fortune, Herbert was unfortunate in his health, which seems to have been a long struggle with one of the many diseases collected under the name consumption, possibly tuberculosis, and which may have been linked to his career as a student, and a most pious one at that, given often to the mortifications of fasting and abstinence. And then there is another almost intangible misfortune that seems related somehow to his character. He appears to be a man who, having satisfied an ambition, found himself dissatisfied, in his particular case with the position of Orator. It is interesting to note the way in which Herbert’s career contrasts with Donne’s. Donne, exiled from court for marrying his patron’s niece in secret, takes holy orders to climb back into the good graces of King James, and keeps climbing until he reaches the deanship of St. Paul’s. Herbert, hardly one to be drawn to Donne’s sort of temptation, enjoys the steady rise through the academy that the brightest young Latinist of his day might expect, a chaste and pious and dutiful filler of obligations, writing Latin verses to celebrate a gift to the library from the King or the return of Prince Charles from the Continent where he had found a wife. Having achieved the pinnacle of an academic career, poised for a state appointment, Herbert takes holy orders and serves the rest of his short life in country parishes. Why? Donne’s energy and sexuality and ambition are more understandable. But one of the things Drury makes clear is that Herbert’s first love was poetry, and taking the humble position of country pastor gave him the exclusive time he sought for his own writing.

Herbert could not have made the choice for the sake of his health. One of his first tasks was to renovate the dilapidated church at his first parish in Leighton Bromswold. Though he had plenty of financial assistance from family and friends in the enterprise, still his mother warned him about overexerting himself. Being a country parson, he learned, was a 24/7 job and included not only being the spiritual leader of the community, but arbitrator, herbalist and physician, educator, librarian, philanthropist, and host. One of the most valuable services Drury provides in his biography is to reference Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple or, The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. This was a manuscript that did not see print until nearly twenty years after Herbert’s death. It is a kind of key to the scriptures, if The Temple, the collection of poems by which we know Herbert, can be considered the scriptures. Lovers of Herbert usually know the poems in the The Temple inside and out (Elizabeth Bishop surely did), or at least they know the most famous ones: “The Collar,” popular for the pun of its title and for its apparent rebellion against the calling of Christ; “Love (III)” (the poem Simone Weil claimed had led her to Christianity); “Prayer (I),” a sonnet in one long dependent clause with an enduring freshness that still seems contemporary; “Redemption,” an allegorical sonnet which dramatizes the central precept of Christian faith; and the concrete poem “Easter Wings.” For anyone with a sentimental sense of Herbert as a poet available to our modern, post-Christian sensibilities, as Dante is, for example, and Milton is, too, then reading The Country Parson ought to make them think again. Drury refers to many passages in this remarkable book, whereas Herbert’s contemporary biographer Izaak Walton forebears for the sake of space to quote much from it. And yet Drury owes just about every fact he repeats about Herbert’s life both to Walton’s biography and to his own inferences that The Country Parson is an autobiographical work, based on Herbert’s experience in Leighton Bromswold, Bemerton, et al., the parishes he served. Consider this long, illuminating passage from Chapter 30 of The Country Parson, “The Parson’s Consideration of Providence,” about the pastor’s role in catechizing farmers about the will of God:

The country parson, considering the great aptness country people have to think that all things come by a kind of natural course, and that if they sow and soil their grounds they must have corn; if they keep and fodder well their cattle they must have milk and calves, labours to reduce them to see God’s hand in all things and to believe that things are not set in such an inevitable order, but that God often changeth it according as he sees fit, either for reward or punishment.

The process of thought from this premise leads to some high seventeenth-century logic that might give pause today, even to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

So that if a farmer should depend upon God all the year, and being ready to put hand to sickle shall then secure himself and think all cock-sure, then God sends such weather as lays the corn, and destroys it: or if he depend on God further, even till he imbarn his corn, and then think all sure, God sends a fire, and consumes all that he hath: for that he ought not to break off, but to continue his dependence on God, not only before the corn is inned, but after also; and indeed to depend and fear continually.

That Herbert saw the country pastor’s role as one in which he was constantly warning his parish of overweening pride makes sense. But that he was also ready to attribute any disaster that befell the farmers in his flock to the will of God, in fact, to the spite of God when feeling neglected, has to remind his contemporary readers, and the lovers of his poetry, that we are looking at someone whose beliefs may seem jarring, even alien and at odds with our own, just as Dante’s Ptolemaic universe is at odds with what we know to be the facts.

Though Drury calls this thinking in Herbert “mystical,” he does remind us that Herbert’s poem “Discipline” reasons with the omnipotent, angry God:

Throw away thy rod:
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.

The writer of The Country Parson is describing the practical means by which the pastor reminds the flock of its dependency on and necessary fear of the God of judgment. The poet, however, reminds this God with hopeful cajolery that he is a God of mercy, too, isn’t he? Poetry draws something from Herbert that transcends the practical application of orthodox belief. Through his own ambivalence and humanity, the poet finds the humanity in God. Here is another reason why, though we may not altogether share Herbert’s beliefs, we read his poetry.

Once I reread The Temple, The Country Parson, and Izaak Walton’s The Life of Mr. George Herbert, I wondered which part of the Drury biography we actually needed. In fact, John Drury gives us the needed critical context for Herbert’s poetry, and he has added his analytical speculation about the relevance of the poems to the life. He also strongly suggests that The Country Parson could serve as a key not only to the poems but to the life. Those who would ignore the piety of the poems—and the modern success of the poems is based on our ability to consider their piety, like their verse forms, as a relic—might be made uncomfortable by the practical, class-conscious religiosity of The Country Parson, in which so much is assumed about the “slow and thick” (Herbert’s description) country parishioners. Granted, Herbert believed the gentry too need catechizing, even as they are lighter and quicker on the uptake. He was especially displeased with them when they insisted on entering the Sunday service after the farmers had already taken their places.

I read The Country Parson recognizing many of my father’s own techniques in acting as a pastor to a congregation mainly of suburban blue collar and middle-class professionals. His tendency to join their clubs, take up their hobbies, help them in extremity, visit regularly when they were sick or in distress or needed comforting, loan them money and books from his ample library, makes Herbert’s book seem what it is—a practical record and guide. Still, I wonder if John Donne, installed at St. Paul’s, one of the greatest parishes in England, needed to remember how to condescend—and when Herbert recommends the attitude he means it as a form of humility and self-abasement. Again and again, I recognized practices of my father and his father, also a clergyman, in the lists of duties and necessities of the country parson. I don’t think we can ignore this dimension of George Herbert’s career, even as it seems to be the mirror opposite of John Donne’s. Where Herbert forsook the aspiration of a career at court for a life in the country, Donne extricated himself from his country exile and got himself installed in a big urban church. Let me hasten to add, that a big urban church was an ultimate aspiration of both my father and grandfather. They both learned, however, to talk to and deal with men and women with less religious education than they had, though frequently these men and women, their parishioners, were worldlier than either of them. Herbert got his taste of worldliness at Cambridge, and as the son of his remarkable mother, and the rest from observing and living among and serving the good country people of his parishes. Increasingly, I think it is helpful to understand how George Herbert lived and believed in order to appreciate fully the beauty of his poetry. So much of the poetry acknowledges an ordinary human ambivalence with regard to faith. With John Donne, I recognize something else, something more dramatic, especially in his religious poetry—and that is the lineaments of ambition thrown into relief by apprehension and anxiety about the grace of God and the fear both that he may not be worthy of it and that he may not believe in it. I do not mean to imply that Herbert by contrast is more complacent, but he is more aware of the subtlety of belief, especially in its daily practices and encounters with God.

As I have suggested, there are few new facts in Music at Midnight which are not either gleaned from The Country Parson or included in Izaak Walton’s life of Herbert, though minus Walton’s pious expostulations, thankfully. But halfway through Drury’s book, which proceeds from Herbert’s childhood, adolescence, and career as a grown man rising ever higher at Cambridge, we come to a chapter entitled “Lost in a Humble Way” and subtitled “Disillusionment.” The chapter makes clear that, according to Drury, Herbert felt he had been tricked into the academic life with its worldly entanglements by God, without “reflecting on his own frantic efforts to become University Orator.” This is not the kind of ironic psychological insight that Walton would even have recognized. Whatever Herbert felt, and Drury’s biography includes many subjunctive speculations, 1623 was the watershed year. He stood for Parliament, was elected and served briefly, but was not recorded as being an MP in 1624 or at any later date. That year Cambridge also gave him six months leave as Orator, and the next thing for certain is that he was made a deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln, with the special dispensation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, left his post at Cambridge, and spent the final nine years of his life serving small churches in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. If as it appears the arc of his trajectory toward prominence at court broke off, there is every reason to believe that Herbert himself broke it off. Was he dissatisfied by the life that he perceived ahead? Was he worried about his own health? No one, including his present biographer, knows for sure.

The most curious event in George Herbert’s short life, after its abrupt change of direction, may be his marriage in 1629 to Jane Danvers, a cousin of his stepfather. Her father, Charles Danvers, had, as Drury notes, “a particular fondness for George Herbert,” and the marriage itself seems to have been urged on Jane and George by Danvers. It seems to have been little more than the sanctification of a platonic relationship. As a teenager Herbert had told his mother he would dedicate his life to chastity. In a chapter entitled “The Parson’s State of Life,” in The Country Parson, he claims explicitly “virginity is a higher state than matrimony,” and therefore, the parson is “rather unmarried than married.” This seems to be a Pauline view, but even St. Paul admitted that it was better to marry than to burn. In Herbert’s case, though, not being married presented an impediment to his success as a parson. He notes in the same chapter that, for an unmarried country parson, ministering to women alone, without an audience, can lead to all kinds of rumor and gossip. So, in these circumstances, he concludes, it is probably better for a parson to marry, as long as “the choice of his wife [is] made rather by his ear than by his eye” and that he choose her for “humble and liberal disposition . . . before beauty, riches, or honour.” Jane Danvers and George Herbert were married for only four years, until he died, during which time there were no children. The role he expected of her is clearly laid out in The Country Parson. Six years after Herbert died, Jane Danvers remarried, had a daughter with her second husband, outlived him, too, and died some fifteen years after Herbert’s death. I find it notable that she had a child with her second husband. Though she grieved for her first husband for six years before marrying again, it may have been a welcome change to enter into a conjugal relationship with a willing man.

Besides his writing, the concrete monument, indeed church monument, which Herbert left was the renovated parish church at Leighton Bromswold. Though no Puritan, he established a plain interior, with oak woodwork by local craftsmen, clear windows, a level floor between pulpit and lectern, and a sense that the congregation itself was on a level with the priest and his associates. Herbert’s friend Nicholas Ferrar, made famous by his community at Little Gidding and the esteem of T. S. Eliot, was helpful, especially in the radical design, as was Arthur Woodnoth, Herbert’s literary executor, a successful businessman who served as a kind of building contractor. Leighton Bromswold stands today as a model of Anglican parish church architecture. Though it anticipated the Puritan purging of all that was fancy, decorative, and irrelevant, at the same time it subtly reinforced, through its clear windows, a connection between the country congregation and the country from which it arose. Though there are times in The Country Parson when Herbert’s orthodoxy makes one wonder—and I cannot say in a good way—still, his sensitivity to the ancient customs of his parishes had to make him beloved, and so he was. This was a conventional Anglican priest and highly original poet—they don’t need to be contradictory—who was also a good man.

The last valuable aspect of Drury’s book is that he takes up the matter of Herbert’s literary reputation. He explores the Herbert imitators who came along in the decades after Herbert’s death, often titling their books to echo Herbert’s The Temple. Most were insignificant, except for Henry Vaughan and Thomas Crashaw, who were anything but. He also notes that with the eighteenth century there was a turning away from Herbert’s style of poetry— not necessarily from the beliefs expressed, but from what Samuel Johnson disparaged as its metaphysical conceits, its elaborations of metaphor at an intellectual level, and, in a kind of Puritan delayed reaction, its apparently overwrought wit and fancy. It is a curious charge, but every century has its blind spots. It was not, apparently, until Coleridge expressed his enthusiasm for Herbert’s work that the great poet enjoyed a renewal of interest. And over a hundred years after Coleridge, when T. S. Eliot dismissed Herbert as minor, because he was only a devotional poet, by that time, independent readers had discovered Herbert for themselves. As is so often the case when critics and poets set themselves up as lawgivers, nothing is more exciting than to prove them wrong. Currently, it is clear that among the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, that is, Donne and Herbert, Herbert is preeminent. I would argue that, currently, among all English Renaissance poets, Herbert holds a position of the highest regard. He is loved, as few are besides Shakespeare.

The anecdote that gives Drury the title of his book is one that Walton also relates. Herbert loved music and the making of music, so much so that he asked to be given his lute on his deathbed and is said to have sung a composition of his own shortly before he died. The apparent ease with which he departed this life is a bit hard to believe, though one thinks of Donne’s “as virtuous men pass mildly away” in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Other accounts of those dying of tuberculosis—one thinks of Keats—suggest more of a painful struggle. Nearing his end, Herbert did ask his wife and other grieving family members to leave him, so he could die in peace. The story is that one night on his way to a gathering of musicians like himself, he stopped to assist a man who was exasperated with his horse, who had fallen under its load. Herbert, after providing the man with help in getting the horse loaded again, and giving him some money to refresh himself and his animal—a typical gesture of his—proceeded to his rehearsal. Herbert, who was known for the care he took with his clothing and his cleanliness and neatness of dress, arrived soiled and in disarray. Asked about the reason, he shrugged it off and explained what had transpired and said that helping the man as he had—and advising him against beating his horse—would provide a solace for his own conscience that would be “music at midnight” in the future. He also noted that he was not only bound to pray for those in distress, but if possible to practice what he prayed for. So, here is a recognition of the practical nature of reconciliation and atonement. And it is this that Herbert provides both in what we know of his life and in his poetry. He knew what it was like to enjoy the best sort of neighborliness and hospitality. He knew how both to accept them and to offer them. He understood the dailiness of faith, as a priest, a poet, and a common believer.

[1] MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT: The Life & Poetry of George Herbert, by John Drury. The University of Chicago Press. $35.00.