On the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, February 27 is the day which commemorates George Herbert, 17th century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet.
Ambiguity, some would argue, is at the heart of Anglicanism, and it is also the essence of George Herbert’s poetry. Writing in 1928, T.S. Eliot, suggested that Herbert (1593-1633) appeared on the scene at a crucial moment in Anglican history. It was a time of circumnavigation as well as circumspection, a time when people showed a remarkable willingness to question the world around them, along with an increased understanding that Christian life requires both an interior spirituality and the outward and visible signs of music, stained glass, liturgy, and sacraments. Herbert’s faith was private and public, a both/and kind of faith rather than an either/or one.
It occurs to me that, though our world is largely explainable by science now, and God is, for most Episcopalians, not a terrifying, controlling presence in our lives, we still have questions for God, and we’re still uncomfortable with the ambiguous answers we’re given. The intimacy which Herbert established in the conversational tone of his poetry is, I believe, at the root of his appeal to our modern ears. Herbert’s God is approachable and loving.
“a soul composed of harmonies“
That’s how a contemporary described Herbert, who played the lute and set some of his own poems to music, as did Purcell and the Wesley brothers in over forty hymns for the early Methodist hymnal. I would suggest, however, that Herbert’s poetry, for all its ties to the 17th century, in terms of vocabulary and assumptions about God’s place in everyone’s daily life, takes us into mystical, magical places that require a wider harmonic language than would have been used by composers of the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic periods of music history, and so it’s no surprise to me that it is 20th and 21st century composers who have so often found inspiration in Herbert’s texts. His words suggest a firm tonal center, but one that allows for sudden and unexpected excursions into far-flung tonalities. His poems require richly atmospheric qualities that have been explored by composers, such as Randall Thompson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Tavener and many composers dedicated to writing for the Episcopal Church, including the former music director at General Theological Seminary, composer and organist David Hurd in his setting of Love Bade Me Welcome.
In this poem, God (Love) welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, but the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem is a dialogue, but at one moment it is unclear who speaks next: following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness, the answer is “My dear, then I will serve”, at which point Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God?
Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the pop singer Madonna quoted George Herbert in her song “Love Tried to Welcome Me.” Love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, so goes the refrain. Strange bedfellows or a sign of the value that Herbert’s 400 year old insights still carry? Feelings of unworthiness have sadly not gone out of fashion.
One of the things we know of Herbert’s life is that he was loved as a child by a vivacious and learned mother in a house filled with music and ideas, and that when he married at age 36, it was a happy union, all too soon followed by his death, at which he was surrounded by loving friends and family. Love, as a elemental name for God, is so often the subject of Herbert’s poetry. His own love for God was anguished, it never seemed to him to be enough.
At the end of Herbert’s exuberant poem A True Hymn he writes that though our words be scant and “our heart sayes, (sighing to be approved); O, could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.” For all his wondering whether or not his love for God was sufficient, Herbert’s faith assured him that God’s love in return was unhesitating. One musical setting: A True Hymn by Craig Phillips
Herbert’s 1633 poem, The Call, is from his collection called The Temple. It seems to be a calling out to God, rather than a listening for God’s instructions, as we so often define “call.” These are words of invitation, not command. Please come my way, my truth, my life, my light, my feast, my strength, my joy, my love, my heart. Like any good conversation, perhaps “call” involves listening and talking.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
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 joyes in love.
Could a poem be any more simple and direct? Made almost exclusively out of single-syllable words, it has a clear structure that repeats the three introductory words of each stanza, in case there is any confusion about what God really represents in our lives. Truth, A (Eucharistic) Feast, Love. As much as listening for a call, we might also issue an invitation for these things to come more deeply into our lives. And the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13:13). Is that our call?
As I understand it, the “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them. They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar – one made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touched the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.
If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him must be one of the more unforgettable book titles I’ve ever come across (playing off the title of a pop psychology book that has Buddha in place of George Herbert). Though I haven’t read it, I believe the basic premise is that George Herbert set the bar pretty high for clergy. He gave tirelessly to his parish of his time and treasure – contributing his own money for the repair and enlargement of the church where he served and ceaselessly riding about his parish on horseback to visit parishioners, conducting several services every day. He became a parish priest during the last three years of his life, previously serving in Parliament, and by eschewing worldly advancement and becoming instead a country parson he demonstrated a level of humility that few are called to. But he also wore himself out, dying at age 39 in 1633.
Within his poems, George Herbert wrestled publicly with his self-doubts and difficulties, but his faith in a loving God never seemed to waver. The first part of The Windows , heard here in a musical setting by Alan Lewis, contains some of Herbert’s most cherished beliefs – that what we hear with our ears must also be heard by our conscience, and though we are crazie (flawed), God might still shine through us, as a window transmits light.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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