Dear Church Family,
While in seminary, I stumbled across the poetry and writings of George Herbert. I think I read something about him in a footnote in something else that I was reading. So, I went and looked him up, found and purchased a copy of his complete works in English at the local bookstore (the book was much cheaper than its present listing on Amazon), and I began being enriched by him. I wish that I had learned of him sooner, but am glad for the providential 'stumbling' way in which I did come to know him.
George Herbert lived his relatively short life from 1593 to 1633. He was the fifth of ten children, his father dying when he was just three years old. His mother became a patron of John Donne, who preached her funeral sermon in 1627. There are several published biographical books about Herbert, or you can read some brief biographies online here and here.
One of the most fascinating things about George Herbert – in my mind, anyway – is that he was a man of many talents and great intellect which would have most likely allowed him to become a man of great power and influence in the academy and in politics; however, at thirty-seven years of age, he decided to leave that world behind to become a pastor of a small country church.
Herbert learned his Bachelors degree from Trinity College, Cambridge when he was seventeen, and his Masters from that same institution at twenty. When he was 25, he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge and at 27, he elected as the orator of Cambridge University. In 1623, he delivered the farewell to King James I and also, subsequently, the oration to Prince Charles. At the age of 31 (in 1624), he became a member of Parliament. But it would seem that though he saw much success, Herbert was not satisfied with these academic and political pursuits.
According to one biography, “Herbert could have used his post of orator to reach high political office, but instead gave up his secular ambitions. Herbert took holy orders in the Church of England in 1630 and spent the rest of his life as rector in Bemerton near Salisbury.”
George Herbert’s Works
I am certainly no George Herbert scholar or expert in English and poetry. So, let me just share a couple of things that Herbert has written by way of introduction to his works – some things that I have read, appreciate, and have been enriched by. [Even though I’m no expert in English, yes, I know that I just ended that sentence with a preposition, but ‘by which I have been enriched’ sounded weird to me.] While Herbert did put together a collection of proverbs, which he entitled Outlandish Proverbs (i.e. foreign proverbs) [they’re just fun to read], but the rest of his works are original – creative and yet grounded in truth.
Herbert wrote much devotional and ecclesial poetry. I guess that’s one of the reasons that I like his works: his piety, as reflected in his writings, is rooted in the Scriptures and church life. Two of George Herbert’s works, which probably make up the majority of this works in English, are two collections of writings and poetry. As a minister, he wrote about and gave instruction concerning the life of the pastor in The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. He also wrote a wonderful series of poems about the Christian’s life in the church. These poems are published under the title The Church or sometimes, The Temple.
Of the poems that make up The Temple, here are four of my favorites:
As you can read (and see) when you read these poems, Herbert often creatively used space as well as words – you can’t just hear the poems, you have to actually see them to get the full effect.
In the Tradition of George Herbert
I’ve written some poetry and short stories in the past, but George Herbert’s influence has caused me to try my hand at some more devotional poems. I’ve tried my hand at writing some poetry in the tradition of George Herbert – or at least, inspired by his poems. So, I thought I might share one with you. Here’s one that I wrote as an Easter meditation, in the shape of a cross called The End of Love.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch