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The Soul in Paraphrase

Bijan Omrani introduces the work of George Herbert, Westminster School’s greatest poet


Should one ask any Westminster student to name the School’s most renowned poet, they are likely to say John Dryden. It is little wonder. Not only does he have the benefit of a House named after him here, but in the history of literature his achievements cannot be denied. Court poet, playwright, collaborator with Henry Purcell, essayist, satirist and master translator of the classical authors, he set the tone and moulded the very language of the post-Restoration age.

            Yet for me his predecessor, George Herbert, should hold the laurels as the School’s finest poet. To be sure, his work was nowhere near as voluminous as Dryden’s. He lived little in the public eye, and after his death in 1633 his verse fell into near obscurity for almost two centuries. Dryden himself disdainfully wrote that Herbert should be confined to “some peaceful Province in Acrostic Land” where he could “torture one poor word Ten thousand ways.” But if the work of a poet, as Shakespeare put it, was to “glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven... and [give] to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name,” then in this endeavour Herbert is without doubt the most successful. He refreshes the parts that other poets can scarcely reach.

            George Herbert was born in 1593. His family had come over with the Conqueror, and are still prominent in the aristocracy today. In the 16th century, many of them had served in high office. Herbert, conscious of his ancestry and background, expected to follow them. Early in his life, he gave every sign of following this path to worldly success. He was elected a scholar of Westminster in 1605, and then passed on to Trinity College Cambridge in 1609, where he gave every sign of brilliance. He was elected a fellow of the College in 1616 at the age of 23, and Public Orator of the University of Cambridge in 1620. In this role, which required a mastery of Latin and great rhetorical skill, he was responsible for addressing visitors and dignitaries on behalf of the University. It brought him into the spheres of church, government and royalty, and he became well acquainted with luminaries of the age such as Sir Francis Bacon and the scholar Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester. In 1624, he entered the House of Commons as MP for Montgomeryshire, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would soon rise to be a Secretary of State.

            However, fortune turned against him, and he was denied of his hopes. The death of James I in 1625 along with some of Herbert’s other supporters at court made his advancement unlikely. His health also began to decline. He had never had the strongest constitution, and now the early signs of tuberculosis began to appear. He withdrew from politics and public life, and instead took humble employment with the church. In 1629, he became Rector of Bemerton, an agricultural hamlet a mile outside Salisbury, where he devoted himself to the life of the parish priest. He presided at Bemerton’s tiny church, ministered conscientiously to the small congregation (he wrote the Church of England’s first ever manual for parish priests, A Priest to the Temple) and composed verse in his spare hours. He died in 1633, leaving behind around 190 poems in English that were soon published in a volume entitled The Temple.

            Herbert’s English verse is entirely religious, a fact which might put off new readers in this more secular age. A number of past critics, thanks to a superficial reading of his work, have set Herbert at low value, thinking him to be saccharin and smacking of “the village green,” as one scholar put it. Such a view, however, could not be further from the mark. He has every quality which should appeal to an audience of modern sensibilities. He is a virtuosic master of language, verse and musicality. His work deals with profundities and is highly intellectual, yet at the same time intimate and original, witty and clear. Most important of all, it reflects the qualities of its questioning age – the early 17th century – where science “and new philosophy [called] all in doubt,” in the words of Herbert’s friend and older contemporary John Donne. Herbert is not particularly interested in the doctrinal controversies which wracked the wider Christian church in his time. For example, he pointedly belittled the arguments over the transubstantiation of the host in a poem on Holy Communion. His concerns are far deeper. Like other mystics, he desires to comprehend the infinity and timelessness of God in a finite and temporal world. His poetry is a record of a constant mental and emotional striving after glimpses of the divine in the human and sublunary sphere. No difficult question is avoided, no agony of mind is shirked, and his work documents with full honesty every turn of thought and feeling, from exaltation and a sense of union, to anxiety, doubt, abandonment, despair, revival and eventual resurrection.

            One of the best places to start with Herbert’s verse is his sonnet Prayer (I):

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.


Herbert’s friend, the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, outlined in his Novum Organum (1620) a new method for scientific enquiry – the Baconian Method – which demanded the collection of data by observation and the development of hypotheses based on that data in order to unearth the underlying cause of any phenomenon. Bacon’s work was crucial for the development of modern science, yet it also had its effect on Herbert’s poetry. This sonnet investigates the nature of prayer in a Baconian and scientific spirit, meditatively listing his observations of prayer and making hypotheses on its essence. By the same token, prayer also for Herbert is scarcely submission or simple thanks, but rather a scientific quest and a demand for answers: “The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.” Although scientific in spirit, it is hardly cool and detached, but wracked with passionate desire. His imagery turns to warfare and baroque violence: “Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,/ Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,” as if, like the centurion Longinus who wounded Christ on the cross, Herbert had to commit suchlike brutality to get through to God. In the short round of the sonnet, Herbert cycles through the contemplative, the furious, and finally an ecstatic and blissful revelation, but even then still tainted with doubt; it is only “something” understood.

Despite the poem’s complexity and its examination of the profoundly abstract, it possesses a memorable directness and clarity. In accordance with Shakespeare’s dictum quoted above, Herbert gives to his abstract thought a garment of vigorous, strongly physical imagery – “a local habitation and a name” – allowing us to apprehend his ideas not only through mind, but equally by the senses.

            Herbert’s striving for God takes on all the intimacy of a passionate plea from a lover to a beloved. “Whither, O, whither art thou fled,/ My Lord, my Love?” he begins The Search, a poem which desperately grapples to embrace an infinite God who is of such grandeur that He cannot be bounded in any mortal or transitory thing. Herbert, in a scientific spirit, demands proof, to lay his hands on concrete evidence of God’s presence: “Let rather brass,/ Or steel, or mountains be thy ring,/ And I will pass.” Yet, God’s infinity can only be manifested by absence, by refusing to appear in the bounds of the finite. Herbert does not shun the difficulty of the agonising paradox, but rather confronts it with zeal. The whole of creation seems to bask in God’s presence, almost unconsciously and without effort: “Yet can I mark how herbs below/ Grow green and gay,/ As if to meet thee they did know…” But Herbert himself, as if cut out from that unconscious knowledge of God’s presence, must suffer the “hateful siege of contraries” as Milton put it, even to have a glimpse: “my grief must be as large,/ As is thy space…” The search for God breaks all the certainties of human existence and the everyday order of life: “Thy will such a strange distance is,/ As that to it/ East and West touch, the poles do kiss,/ And parallels meet.” Yet, for all the pain of being crucified on the paradox, there is a deep resolution and intimacy in the absence: “For as thy absence doth excel,/ All distance known:/ So doth thy nearness bear the bell,/ Making two one.”

            Herbert does not hold himself from despair. The difficulty of the search drives him almost to lose his mind, wishing to merge back into nature which seems without thinking to possess the truth: “Oh that I were an Orange-tree,/ That busy plant! Then should I ever laden be,/ And never want/ Some fruit for him that dressed me,” he writes in Employment (II). At times, he grows furious with a pursuit which has turned into an infuriating rigmarole: “I struck the board, and cry’d, No more,/ I will abroad./ What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?... Is the year only lost to me?” he says in The Collar.

            Yet again, Herbert manages to pass through the midst of the paradox to a resurrection and form of anxious resolution: “But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild/ At every word,/ Methought I heard one calling, Child:/ And I reply’d, My Lord.” The submissive acceptance of the agony and its transfiguration into a serene intimacy is redolent of mysticism and the religions of the East. One of the most perfect examples of this submission to paradox in Herbert and simplicity in the heart of complexity is the little poem Bitter-Sweet, which was almost certainly inspired by Catullus’ epigram “odi et amo”:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,

Since thou dost love, yet strike;

Cast down, yet help afford;

Sure I will do the like.


I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve;

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament and love.


Herbert might have given himself over to the depths of religious contemplation, but one of the glories of his verse is his capacity to clothe difficult ideas in everyday speech, and to use his command of the English language and wit to explore his struggle with God. He expressed this joy in linguistic cleverness – which I feel is the mark of his Westminster education – no more clearly than in his Sonnet The Son:

Let foreign nations of their language boast,

What fine variety each tongue affords:

I like our language, as our men and coast;

Who cannot dress it well, want wit, not words.


Herbert delighted in using puns and wordplay to illustrate his ideas. In The Pulley, he plays on the word “rest” as he justifies the need for mankind ever to be struggling in his quest for God:

When God at first made man,

Having a glass of blessings standing by ;

Let us (said he) pour on him all we can :

Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,

            Contract into a span.


            So strength first made a way ;

Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure :

When almost all was out, God made a stay,

Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,

            Rest in the bottom lay.


            For if I should (said he)

Bestow this jewel also on my creature,

He would adore my gifts instead of me,

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature :

            So both should losers be.


            Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlessness :

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

            May toss him to my breast.


In Heaven, Herbert’s wordplay becomes even more brilliant. He asks questions of Heaven, and is met with an echo, seemingly supplying the answer:

O who will show me those delights on high?

                            Echo.         I.

Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.

                            Echo.         No.


Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?

                            Echo.         Light.

Light to the mind : what shall the will enjoy?

                            Echo.         Joy.

But are there cares and business with the pleasure?

                            Echo.         Leisure.

Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?

                            Echo.         Ever.


The wit displays the paradox with razor-like clarity. Herbert receives a response from Heaven, but if it is a true response or merely an echo, we cannot tell. Presence and absence again meet and become impossible to distinguish.

            T.S. Eliot, who did much to revive interest in Herbert earlier in the 20th century, wrote that it would “be a gross error to assume that Herbert’s poems are of value only for Christians… These poems form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling, and enlarge the understanding of those readers who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion.” Fifty years after Eliot made this statement, we are in a position to go further. In a time where engagement with organised religion is in decline, Herbert rescues from its wreckage and irrelevant accretions its vital quintessence – the universal human desire to experience the infinite and timeless – and presents it in a dress which still speaks to us clearly. For those who desire an access to the world of the spirit but cannot find it in the preaching of conventional doctrine, Herbert, by means of poetry, provides a way to the light.


This article was published in Camden Magazine (2012)