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From the archive: George Herbert: The priest-poet and his friends

27 February 2018

The Common Worship calendar today commemorates George Herbert. This article by B.C. Boulter was published in the Church Times on 24 February 1933, to mark the tercentenary of Herbert’s death.

GEORGE Herbert of Bemerton, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, and Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding; there is a triad of names which make glorious the annals of our Church in the early seventeenth century; to whom we may add Izaak Walton, “that notable layman,” to whom we owe the biographies of the first two. In the life of each of the three friends there was a pause before they devoted themselves exclusively to the service of Christ; each of them seemed at one time to be destined for a brilliant public career, for their abilities were outstanding. Would diplomacy, claim them, their friends asked, or politics? In the world of books they were already known. But the sanctuary called them, and they answered the call.

George Herbert died at Bemerton Parsonage on February 24, 1638, after a short three years’ occupation of the house which he had built. As he lay there, wasted with consumption at the age of forty, there came to him the Rev. Edmond Duncon, who had ridden from Little Gidding at Nicholas Ferrar’s special request, to see how his “very, dear brother fared. . Eying on the, bed was a small, paper-covered book. This he gave to Duncon bidding him to deliver it to Nicholas: “He shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the Will of Jesus, my Master.” If Ferrar thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” he should publish it ; else, burn it.

So the Temple was added to the deathless treasures of English poesy; for Ferrar at once hailed it with ecstasy as a “rich jewel, most worthy to be in the hands and hearts of all true Christians that fear God and love the Church of England.” Published by the Cambridge Press, it passed through many editions in the seventeenth century, and in this twentieth there are many to whom Easter brings back the music of

I got me flowers to straw Thy way,
      I got me boughs off many a tree;
But Thou wast up by break of day,
      And broughtst Thy sweets along with

Tuning his lute for the last time with weary fingers, Herbert sang softly that song which he had made on “The Sundayes of man’s life”; in his last murmured prayer he quoted some words of John Donne: “I am sorry I have nothing to present to my merciful God but sin and misery,” adding, “but the first is pardoned, and a few hours will now put a period to the latter, for I shall suddenly go hence and be no more seen.” So he died.

As Donne’s life drew to an end, he had sent to each of his close friends a heliotrope ring engraved with the figure of Christ crucified on an anchor; they found Herbert’s by his deathbed, wrapped in paper thus inscribed:

When my deare friend could write no
He gave this seal, and so gave o’er;
When Winds and Waves rise highest, then
       I ’m sure
This Anchor keeps my Faith, and me,

By the altar of Bemerton Church he lies, says Walton in that biography which is as eloquent as devout, “under no large, nor yet very good, marble gravestone, without any inscription.” Two years before, John Donne had preached in extremis that last great sermon in St. Paul’s and gone home to die, leaving his strange funereal effigy as a legacy to the new Cathedral of Wren. Five years later, Nicholas Ferrar, dying at Little Gidding, was laid in the uninscribed tomb which stands by the west door of that memorable little church. The three friends were at rest before the Cromwellian fury on the Church which they so loved, but old Walton lived on until 1683, and in the person of Bishop Ken, whose brother-in-law and guardian he was, saw sound Church principles carried on into the succeeding darkness of the Revolution. Among his treasures was a copy of Herbert’s poems, given to him by Nicholas Ferrar, and bound by the maidens of Little Gidding.

Herbert’s mother, Dame Magdalen, and Dame Mary Ferrar, who so graciously presided over the household of Little Gidding, were indeed Mothers in Israel. Of the first, Donne wrote those lines –

No Spring nor Summer beautie hath such
As I have seen in an autumnal face.

Early in life, Herbert had sent his mother some sonnets, declaring to her his resolution that “my poor abilities in poetry, shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory”: -

Sure, Lord, there is enough in Thee to dry
Oceans of-ink; for as the deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth Thy Majesty.

To his mother he was devoted. His grief at her death found expression in his Parentalia, that collection of classical verse, displaying — so it seems to me — rather the artificial verbiage of one who had been Public Orator of Cambridge University, than that eager trust in Christ Jesus, which, urged on him by her whom he bewailed, had not yet won the victory. Yet her influence prevailed. “Twice mother,” he calls her, “who bare me first, and whose example gave me new birth.” For six years her love worked in silence — for he never once speaks her name in his later writings; then, as he lay dying, he murmured: “These eyes shall see my Master and Saviour Jesus ; and, with Him , see my dear mother.”

More eloquent than the Parentalia was the funeral sermon preached by Donne to a vast throng at Chelsea Parish Church, where she was laid to rest. Poor Donne, she had been a true friend to him and to poor little Anne, his wife. Indeed, both her poet-son and the poet-Dean owed much to that strong, sincere Christian intelligence in the shaping of their ends: —

Wake her not! But if you will wake
her, wake her and keep her awake with
an active imitation of her holy virtues,
that so her example working on you, and
the number of God’s saints being the
sooner, by this blessed example, fulfilled,
we may all meet, and meet quickly, in
that kingdom which our Saviour and hers
hath purchased for us.

In A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson, His Character and Rule of Holy Life, Herbert wrote down “his mark to aim at.” He aimed so high that for long he hesitated, like Donne, to undertake a work which he rated as the highest: —

I was entangled in a world of strife
Before I had the power to change my life.

The influence of Donne, who himself had refused “to take any sudden determination,” had much to do in deciding Herbert; and it was at Herbert’s “invitation” that Ferrar finally resolved to found his Community, himself receiving deacon’s orders, but remaining “a Levite in his own house.” So the three were linked together.

Herbert’s descent from the noble family of Pembroke, and his abilities which attracted the interest of James I. and Francis Bacon, for a while “entangled ” him. He awaited some appointment at Court, even as Donne had. He was urged not to bury himself in the Church. Yet he had already enlisted himself in her service, for his Epigrammata Apostolica had defended the Church against the Calvinists as effectively as young Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr had against the Papists. To both men the way was made clear.

“I can now,” said Herbert, “behold the Court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of Fraud, Titles, and Flattery. . . I will always contemn my birth, or any title or dignity that can be conferr’d upon me, when I shall compare them with serving at the Altar of Jesus my Master.” He looked back with regret even on the “content he had taken in beauty, in wit and musick and pleasant conversation. . . They are now all past by me like a dream or as a shadow that returns not.” We are reminded of Donne’s abandonment of secular verse, “I do inter my muse ”; of Ferrar’s holocaust of his youthful writings.

So he made his great choice. Among his astonished friends there were some who attributed it to disappointed ambition. We, who know him better, accept his own words : —

Oriely, since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter for high uses meet,
       I throw me-at His feet.
There will I lie, until my Master seek
For some mean stuffe whereon to show His
      Then is my time.


At his induction, he “threw himself at His feet,” and lay before the altar of Bemerton Church, “being left there alone to Toll the Bell, as the Law requires.” Prostrate there, he vowed himself to God, and faithfully he performed his vow. Ferrar, too, as a boy had lain one midnight in the garden, begging God to accept his life-long service.

It is curious that Herbert and Ferrar hardly once met in person; not even at Cambridge did they know one another. Herbert passed from Westminster to Trinity, where, at the age of twenty-one, he became Fellow. Ferrar, son of a City merchant, was elected Fellow of Clare when but seventeen, and was doubtless in a different set from Herbert, with his “genteel humour for clothes and courtly company.” “Yet,” says Barnabas Oley, another Fellow of Clare, in his Life of Herbert, “they loved each other entirely, and drove together, a large stock of Christian intelligence long before their deaths.”

Young Herbert had been presented to the Lincoln Prebend, of Layton, and found himself patron of the ruined church of Leighton Ecclesia, a few miles from Gidding. He tried to prevail on Nicholas Ferrar to accept the incumbency, but in vain. Ferrar, however, urged Herbert to be active in restoring the church, as the Ferrars were doing at Gidding, old Mother Ferrar vigorously supervising. Gidding sent him, too, money and prayers. And Herbert, not vet at Bemerton, set to work, though his mother doubted the wisdom of it. “George,” she said, “ it is not for your weak body and empty purse to build churches.” But the work was done, and Herbert wrote, “from his parsonage of Bemerton,” to thank his “ exceeding dear brother ” for “ his care, his counsel, and his cost.”

To follow the course of Herbert’s life at Bemerton, one must turn to his Countrey Parson, admirable alike as precept and as prose. No doubt, Jane, his “handsome and generose” wife, and the three nieces whom he housed, fell in with the rules for the Parson’s House, “curing and healing all wounds and sores”; no doubt the influence of Bemerton Parsonage reflected the fidelity with which the parson carried out his induction vow. We hear, indeed, that, at his daily services, “he was joined by most of his parishioners and many gentlemen in the neighbourhood, while some of the meaner sort would let their plough rest when Mr. Herbert’s saint’s-bell rang to prayers.” He used incense, recommended Confession and Fasting, advised first Communion at an early age, “presented ” parishioners who refused to reform their lives, and — unlike his non-resident predecessor, who had allowed his two churches of Foulstone and Bemerton to fall into decay — repaired both churches, and even maintained a curate.

His deep reverence for our Lady is shown in the lines: —

                I would addresse
My vows to thee most gladly, blessed Maid
And Mother of my God, in my distresse:
Thou art the holy mine whence came the
The great restorative for all decay
             In young and old ;
Thou art the cabinet where the jewell lay;
Chiefly to thee I would my soul unfold.

But he “dared not” directly invoke her. That would be to “steal a flower from God’s own garland.” For the full wealth of our Catholic privilege was not yet known. When, for instance, we find a monthly celebration of the Holy Communion regarded as a counsel of perfection, we realize the passage of time. There are certain passages which suggest a lack of experience, possibly a lack of humour, to our latter-day cars ; but, as a whole, the book gives a picture of an earnest, devout, and energetic parish priest, entirely devoted to God and to the souls and bodies of his folk. It must have startled the parsonages of the England of that day.

Herbert’s face, “lean to an extremity,” is the face of a man of culture and breeding, of a visionary and an artist. He was a practised musician, walking regularly across the meadows to hear the choir in Salisbury Cathedral, and to sing madrigals with them. When he lay for the ultimate time before the altar of Bemerton, that choir came to sing the last sad chants. So the Parson was laid to rest,

until the graves againe restore
theire dead, and time shal be no more.

Throughout the ages the Temple has attracted to Herbert religious people of all persuasions. Two noted poets of his own day hailed him. “The blessed man Mr. George Herbert’s holy life and verse gained many converts,” said Henry Vaughan, “of whom I am the least.” Richard Crashaw, a friend of Little Gidding, in sending a copy of the Temple to a lady, wrote:

Know you., Faire, on what you looke?
Divinest love lyes in this booke.

In later days, George Macdonald said of him : “Churchman himself of a severe standard, he has yet drawn to him millions of those who love the Lord Jesus. He is present in English homes as a living man, venerated as a saintly companion and friend, leading us into the very shrine and presence of God.”

“Herbert,” wrote Coleridge, “is a true poet, but a poet sui generis, the merits of whose poems will never be felt without a sympathy with the mind and character of the man. It is not enough that the reader possess a cultivated judgment and a classical taste, unless he be likewise a Christian, a zealous and orthodox, a devout and devotional Christian. But even this will not suffice. He must be an affectionate and dutiful son of the Church.”

In our own day, interest in Herbert lives again, not merely on account of our revived concern with mystical religion, but because his use of diction sometimes violently “non-poetical ” and of the vocabulary of everyday life falls in with the tendency of modern verse.

Herbert, Donne and Ferrar not only added to the permanent literary inheritance of our land, but gave our Church some of that vitality and earnest devotion which enabled her to survive the storms of the seventeenth century, to pass through the gloom of the eighteenth, and so to arise with renewed life in the nineteenth to the full enjoyment of her Catholic heritage.

B. C. Boulter.


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