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Sep 19 George Hebert - poet of the moderate centre

Today in 1630 the Welsh-born poet, George Herbert was ordained a priest in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as the rector of the rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter, just outside Salisbury. He had been a student at Trinity College, Cambridge and moved smoothly through the typical stages of academic success: earning a BA and then an MA; obtaining a Minor fellowship then a Major fellowship & increasing responsibility as a tutor and lecturer; until he was made university orator in 1620, a position of great prestige within the university that was often a stepping-stone to a successful career at court.

The orator was the spokesperson for the university on a variety of occasions, making speeches and writing letters, and he attracted the attention of King James I serving in the Parliament of England in 1624 and briefly in 1625. After the death of King James, Herbert renewed his interest in ordination. He gave up his secular ambitions in his mid-thirties and. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan called him "a most glorious saint and seer". He was never a healthy man and died of consumption at age 39.

Born into an aristocratic family, which was famous for its poets, George was 17 when he sent his mother two sonnets on New Year’s Day on the theme that the love of God is a fitter subject for verse than the love of woman. In a letter accompanying two sonnets he vowed "that my poor Abilities in Poetry, shall be all, and ever consecrated to God’s glory." This was a foreshadowing of his vocational life and poetry that would influence other poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. His poems were always passionate, searching, and elegant. Herbert described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.”

When King James had died Herbert’s sponsors at court were out of favour, and he resigned as orator. The death of his mother however led him to make decisive changes in his life. He separated himself finally from Cambridge and went to stay at Dauntesey House in the countryside, he married, consolidating his relationship with the Danvers family and easing his transition to life in Wiltshire, where he seemed to be gravitating. By the end of 1630, Herbert was an ordained priest settled in the small parish of Bemerton, where he spent the few remaining years of his life. His long-awaited ordination as a priest occurred today on September 19, 1630. He became friends with Nicholas Ferrar, who had founded a religious community at nearby Little Gidding, and devoted himself to his rural parish and the reconstruction of his church. He died young of tuberculosis, and from his deathbed he sent a manuscript volume to Ferrar, asking him to decide whether to publish or destroy them. Ferrar published them with the title The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations in 1633. The Temple includes doctrinal poems, notably “The Church Porch,” the first in the volume, and the last, “The Church Militant.” "The Church-porch" is intended as a kind of secular catechism instructing a young man in basic moral principles and manners to prepare him for life in society and, more important, entrance into the church, a place where he will encounter moral and spiritual problems of a different sort.

Much of his early popularity—there were at least 11 editions of The Temple in the 17th century—owes something to the carefully crafted persona of "holy Mr. Herbert" promoted by Ferrar. In a few short pages he sketches Herbert as one who exchanged the advantages of noble birth and worldly preferment for the strains of serving at "Gods Altar," one whose "obedience and conformity to the Church and the discipline thereof was singularly remarkable," and whose "faithful discharge" of the holy duties to which he was called "make him justly a companion to the primitive Saints, and a pattern or more for the age he lived in." Considering the religious strife of the time between Catholics, Anglicans and non-conformists in England, Ferrar helped establish Herbert as a model of harmonious, orderly, noncontroversial devotion for whom faith brought answers and commitment to the social establishment, not divisive questions and social fragmentation. The tensions would explode into civil war and Regicide (see pod of Jan 30)…. So this image of Herbert as a "primitive ... holy and heavenly soul" would become a subject for nostalgia, one who lived and died in peace. For some, Herbert was not only a "primitive Saint"— a throwback to the church of a simpler era—but a prefiguration of the ideal Restoration clergyman: wellborn but socially responsible, educated but devout, experienced in the ways of the world but fully committed to the ways of the church, and knowledgeable about both the pains and joys of spiritual life.

To give a sense of his intense devotion, the 21 poems of Passio Discerpta each focus on some aspect of Christ's Crucifixion. The poems are intensely, even grotesquely, visual, but, Herbert's prevailing emotion is calm wonderment rather than ecstatic excitement. The description of the Passion of Christ is remarkably dispassionate: the poetic witness is not cold or distant but is moved primarily by the redemptive purpose rather than the melodramatic circumstances of the Crucifixion. He is transfixed and indelibly marked by what he sees—"I, joyous, and my mouth wide open, / Am driven to the drenched cross"—and he is well aware that the death of Christ crushes the world and, as he imagines it, grinds the human heart to powder. But these poems, as baroque and intense as they may seem to be on the surface, are written from the secure perspective of one who feels at every moment that the inimitable sacrifice of Christ "lightens all losses."


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