Hearken Unto a Verser
Last year was the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation and so we were all busy celebrating the major figures, reconsidering their key doctrines, and evaluating their legacies. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others took center stage at conferences, on blogs, and in journals. Meanwhile we heard far less about the cultural, and especially literary, fruit of the Reformation. That is why we ought to consider a figure who deserves to be better known in Evangelical circles: the early seventeenth-century Anglican poet, George Herbert.
Though he belongs more to the age of Perkins and Hooker, Herbert deserves to be better known both as a great Protestant and a great poet. He was a pastor firmly dedicated to sacrificial ministry in his local congregation. Much of his poetry relates to the church and the spiritual life. His influence extends from John Milton to Emily Dickinson, Tim Keller, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Calvinist author, Marilynne Robinson. C. S. Lewis wrote of Herbert, "Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment."
Born in 1593 and thus a later contemporary of Shakespeare, Herbert came from an aristocratic family and went to Cambridge, where he excelled in classical languages and rhetoric. Elected to the post of University Orator, he gave a ceremonial address to King James in 1623. A political office seemed likely for the talented young man, but then his friends in high places began to die off and his career stalled. Poems like "Affliction" (I) and "The Collar" vividly record his wrestling with God over his disappointment and pastoral calling--eventually to a little country church near Salisbury.
Some Protestants today may be put off Herbert's Anglicanism; and there were Pelagian, Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England during Herbert's ministry. But there is nothing formalistic and empty about either his poetry or his ministry. He took pains to preach the clear, profound truth of the Gospel and to explain the "high church" service to his simple parishioners--what the Creed, congregational responses, and various steps in the liturgy all meant.
His poetry, though complex and witty, always returns to simple metaphors borrowed from work and home, from nature and Scripture. His poetry is filled with profound and sometimes painfully honest reflections on the Church and its liturgy, on the Gospel story, and on the Christian life. And his poetry is deeply Protestant in three other ways: its reliance on Scripture, it's focus on salvation by grace, and its emphasis on personal holiness.
Focus on Scripture
The Reformation largely centered on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the teaching that the very words of Scripture should be the basis for coming to new life in Christ and then living it. As Chana Bloch has written, "Herbert doesn't simply read the Bible, he believes in it; and it marks his poetry so distinctively because it first molds his life." In one poem, "The H. Scriptures", Herbert describes the Davidic longing we should have for biblical truth.
Celebrating the wisdom of Holy Scriptures, Herbert contrasts Bible-reading with astrology and tea-leaves. He is saying that the constellations--the networks of meaning in the Bible--are the true guiding lights of life, and that the leaves of the Book are the true tea-leaves. I don't know about you, but these metaphors rattle me. I can affirm abstract attributes about Scripture all day (infallible, sufficient, profitable) but Herbert's images can awaken those meanings to life. By inverting the Davidic image of the heavenly book that speaks God's glory (Ps. 19: 1-3), Herbert is suggesting we read the Bible imaginatively and holistically. "The H. Scriptures" might offer a gentle criticism to a tradition of hermeneutics that has sometimes overused the grammatical-historical method.
Herbert's poetry is saturated with Scripture-- sometimes in the form of direct or slightly altered quotations, but more often with images of Scripture that Herbert expands or meditates on poetically. For example, here's his poem "The Altar":
Here we have Herbert's poetic reflection on Ps. 51:16 - "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart O God, thou wilt not despise" and similar texts. Herbert is saying that the sinful, stony-dead heart has to be softened by being cut and then rebuilt. We find the dead and resurrected contrite heart in the tears of ln. 2. We find the typically Herbertian and, I think, Reformation paradox in the last lines where the poet asks God to 'make his sacrifice mine and my altar-self yours.' Salvation is all God's sacrifice and sanctification is his craftsmanship. Once again Herbert has taken the biblical imagery and expanded it, nicely illustrating Chana Bloch's point that "the poems . . . owe their distinctive character to Herbert's immersion in Scripture [ . . . and] to his sense of personal identification with the text."
We sometimes take familiar verses for granted and grow cold to them; I know I do. But poetry in general, and Herbert's in particular, can brings us closer to Scripture, can re-awaken us to the profundity of Grace. In this vein, take a few lines from Herbert's crucifixion poem, "The Sacrifice":
What these lines--especially the last two--illustrate is the power of poetry to release striking paradoxes from familiar doctrines and images. Here the poetry stings us with images revealing spit-back distortion of sin, whereby sinners turn the very gifts of God against his Son. The full sequence of twelve Easter poems in The Temple is a bracing, profound set of reflections on the saving work of Christ. I highly recommend them to you for next Holy Week. But in any case, it is once again a poetic meditation on the biblical words and details that uncovers new connections and provokes new awe.
*This is the first in a two part series on the theological poetry of George Herbert.
Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities John Witherspoon College.