Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    still life painting of bread, cheese, bottle and glass of beer

    How to Lose: Lessons from George Herbert

    Even the English language’s greatest poet of praise and contrition finds that words fall short when Love bids us welcome.

    By Zane Johnson

    October 10, 2023

    There is a popular story about George Herbert, seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman and poet. A skilled and genteel lutist, he set off one evening from the parish of Bemerton to play music with friends near the Salisbury Cathedral. On the way he encountered “a poor man with a poorer horse,” as his biographer Izaak Walton editorializes, that had collapsed under the weight of the load it carried. Herbert helped the man unload and reload the horse, even giving him money for lodgings and refreshment, admonishing the man “that if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast.”

    But in the course of his charitable work, he had soiled his canonical cloak, which his friends were quick to point out. Responding to the accusation that “he had disparaged himself in so dirty an employment,” he told his friends that the memory of the event would be “as music to me at midnight.” He is reported to have added, “For if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practice what I pray for.”

    I love this George Herbert, the doting, ever-present country parson who is always condescending to meet his earthy parishioners where they are. But I don’t think this is the most useful or compelling Herbert. This is certainly not the George Herbert who brought me back to Christ. That Herbert, recorded chiefly in his posthumous collection of poems, The Temple, struggled greatly with the joys and agonies of discipleship, but in the end cast all into the simple fire of his love for Christ. He writes in “Love (II)”:

    Immortal Heat, O let Thy greater flame
    Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
    Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
    And kindle in our hearts such true desires.

    That Herbert persevered in losing his life for the gospel against his violent longings for a life of earthly comforts. That Herbert is often a sore loser, and that’s OK.

    The Herbert of “Affliction (I)” has nothing but qualms about the direction his life has taken:

    Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
    The way that takes the town;
    Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
    And wrap me in a gown.
    I was entangled in the world of strife,
    Before I had the power to change my life.

    Yet, for I threaten’d oft the siege to raise,
    Not simp’ring all mine age,
    Thou often didst with academic praise
    Melt and dissolve my rage.
    I took thy sweet’ned pill, till I came where
    I could not go away, nor persevere.

    Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
    In my unhappiness,
    Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
    Into more sicknesses.
    Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making
    Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

    This verse from one of the greatest poets of the religious life is exemplary of the passionate intensity, the neediness, with which he paints his “picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul,” as he writes in the preface to The Temple. Born to a noble family with important political connections to the English court, Herbert forsook his positions in government and as public orator of Trinity College – owing to both external and internal pressures – to devote the remainder of his life to the ministry. “He lost himself in an humble way,” writes another of his first biographers.

    Here, he laments even the apparently dignified labor of being a scholar at Cambridge University, instead preferring the “way that takes the town” in the beginning of the poem and by the end envying the useful employment of a mere tree:

    Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
    None of my books will show;
    I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
    For sure then I should grow
    To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
    Her household to me, and I should be just.

    By contrast, Herbert’s Latin poetry and prose, much of which was written during his tenure at Cambridge, are brimming with the language of one trying to make a good impression. His Greek and Latin meter is perfect, so much so that his brother remarked that he is a better poet in these languages than in the English poems he is remembered for. Obscure classical characters abound in these Latin poems, which he often included in letters to people in high places like King James, Prince Charles, and his friend Francis Bacon.

    still life painting of bread, cheese, bottle and glass of beer

    Timothy Jones, Stilton and Porter, oil on panel. Used by permission.

    But this all fell apart. “Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot, / Let me not love thee if I love thee not!” Herbert exclaims at the end of “Affliction (I).” In 1630, just three years before his death, a 37-year-old George Herbert took holy orders and retired to become a country parson. But that didn’t end his troubles. “The Collar” (a pun on “choler,” a source of bad temper; “caller,” that is, the One who calls; and the priest’s “collar”) is one of the earliest examples of free verse in the English language. In it, the form of his poem becomes a metaphor for his resistance to embracing his vocation:  

    I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
          I will abroad!
    What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
    My lines and life are free, free as the road,
    Loose as the wind, as large as store.

    But at the end of the poem, he is reminded of the simple love between him and his “Caller”:

    But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
         At every word,
    Methought I heard one calling, Child!
         And I replied My Lord.

    I think Herbert’s genius for self-undoing is one of the primary spiritual values of his life and work. He is cognizant of his knots, even exuberant about them. His bravado, whether in his full-blown rebellion or in his breast-beating contrition, ultimately resolves in the simple realization that he is being a child, but in a serious and life-giving way. He cannot make himself good or obedient or valiant. All he can do is give up.

    There is a penitential impulse to these poems; Herbert is confessing. “Lord, I confess my sin is great; great is my sin,” he writes in “Repentance,” heavily influenced by Psalm 51. Herbert’s displays of renunciation are dramatic and at times not very convincing. Others have written about how even as he renounces the courtly life, the tone of his verse betrays his entrenchment in the conventions of the English court. There’s not much we can do to outwit ourselves, and that seems to be the point. Herbert acknowledges this in the concluding poem of “The Church,” the middle section of The Temple that forms the bulk of the collection, titled “Love (III).” Simone Weil famously thought this the most beautiful poem in the world. It is worth quoting in full:

    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 any thing.

     A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
         Love said, You shall be he.
    I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
         I cannot look on thee.
    Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
         Who made the eyes but I?

    Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
         Go where it doth deserve.
    And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
         My dear, then I will serve.
    You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
         So I did sit and eat.

    The poem is a courtly match of courtesy between a self-abasing Herbert and a courteous “host,” an imagined dialogue with the Lord of Love at his very own banquet table. Unable to outdo himself in contrition or to convince his Beloved that he is unworthy, Herbert finally “did sit and eat.” Try as he might to find excuses for his unworthiness to sit at the Lord’s table, he is reminded that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14). Even displays of humility are of no use here; Love bids us welcome.

    I find great comfort in Herbert’s sincerity. At some point, we have to cast aside even our shame and accept the invitation to the Lord’s table. To do so we are going to have to lose, and we can’t expect to do so valiantly. I think Herbert senses the irony that all his praise and all his contrition only lands him in the lap of the Love that was there all along, leaving him looking rather silly, eating the good food that has been set before him.

    Contributed By ZaneJohnson Zane Johnson

    Zane Johnson is a doctoral student in religion at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now