Wallowing in Poetry
Today is the feast day of George Herbert, the 17th Century Anglican priest and poet. He is best known for his book The Country Parson, a handbook for priests that has been rather highly romanticized, although Herbert apparently wrote it for himself, to set the bar high so that he might make his best efforts on behalf of Our Lord in shepherding his flock. In the book, he suggests (among many, many other things) that preaching not extend past an hour so as not to induce loathing on his own part for the task; he advocates using weekday afternoons to visit parishioners in their homes, where "he shall find his flock most naturally as they are, wallowing in the midst of their affairs." On Sundays, you see, they are able to compose themselves before coming to church and then the parson cannot help them with their lives. The parson is generally sad, because he constantly thinks about the Cross of Christ, and yet must do what he can to be pleasant and even mirthful, since "nature will not bear everlasting droopings and pleasantness of disposition is a great key to do good... because all men shun the company of perpetual severity." Herbert's biographer, Izaak Walton, and his friend, Nicholas Farrer, described Herbert as a saint. He was a priest for only three years.
It is Herbert's poetry, however, that puts him on the English literary map. Many of his poems (the subjects of which included feast days, vices and virtues, and church furnishings) were collected and published posthumously in The Temple. Here are a three of my favorites of his poems. The first was set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams (Hymn 487 in the Hymnal 1982). The second is about stained glass windows in churches which tell the story of Christ better than the mere words of a preaching parson. And the third is about prayer - all the things that prayer is - the soul in paraphrase, an engine assaulting heaven, a thing of beauty, a thing understood.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
Lord, how can a man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preacher's; then the light and glory
More rev'rend grows, and more doth win:
Which else shows wat'rish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience ring.
Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels' 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, sinners' tower,
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, a bird of Paradise.
Church-bells beyond the stars unheard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.