Please, before continuing, re-read Affliction (I)
George Herbert’s poetry should never have survived. Indeed, barring a few individual poems, it was never supposed to be read by anyone other than Herbert himself. These poems were written for Herbert, by Herbert, as a personal exploration of his own relationship with God over the years he spent as a humble country parson. Deeply autobiographical, they, in part, tell the story of Herbert himself.
George Herbert was born into a large family in 1593. Herbert’s father died when he was young and his family moved house a number of times in the first decade of his life, eventually finding their way to London, where his elder brother took in his mother and siblings. In his brother’s house, George met some of the most distinguished and talented poets, historians, and musicians of the day including John Donne, William Camden, and William Byrd. He was enrolled in one of the best grammar schools of the day at Westminster, under the tutelage of Launcelot Andrewes, the man who was one of the lead translators of the King James Bible.
Starting in his early life and throughout his life, Herbert was frequently ill. This is at a time when death was somewhat more visible than it is in Western culture today. You can see this anxiety regarding illness and the plagues of 1603 and 1608 that decimated London in his poem Affliction (I):
My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.
When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die;
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind. (25-36)
He went to Cambridge where he gained his Master’s degree in 1616 and it was during this time that he began to write poetry, though the poems were aimed at the very select audience of family and close friends. According to a letter he wrote to his mother in this period, “my poor Abilities in Poetry, shall be all, and ever consecrated to God’s glory.” That said, his poetry revealed ambivalent feelings towards the scholarly world of the academy; again, from Affliction (I):
Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town
Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
And wrap me in a gown. (36-40)
Here, the “town” refers to his duty. As the well born son of minor gentry, it was expected for him to take up a position in politics, while the “ling’ring book” refers to the world of the academy. In the 1620s, Herbert seems to have had political ambitions. He took a position that had, traditionally, been a post where occupants were groomed for the position of secretary of state. He was elected to parliament. He lived a life of public service as well as teaching at Cambridge University. Then, in 1624, he gave up his political ambitions and turned to the church. He had clearly been considering divinity as a vocation for some time, according to his letters, yet it was in the mid-1620s that he actively sought out a clerical life.
It was in the period from the latter 1620s to his death in 1633 that most of the poems that we are studying were written – an incredibly short period of time for such a tremendous poetic outburst. The poetry shows a depth of thought that is belied by the plain style that he cultivated in his word choice. The British broadcaster and critic Andrew Marr has described Herbert’s style as “it is as if the language of Shakespeare had been rinsed and rinsed and rinsed until a small number of pebbles come out at the end.”
This plain style is in contrast to the profound paradoxes and complicated conceits upon which the religious life is built. Indeed, the plain style can be seen as responding to, and positioning himself within, the style of the metaphysical poets, a group of writers from the early 17th century with whom Herbert is often classified.