George Herbert, Priest, Poet

Today the Church of England commemorates George Herbert as 'Priest, Poet'. As a teenager I discovered George Herbert's poetry long before I knew he was a priest and for 3 years Rector of Bemerton where he died on 27 February 1633

In 2010, in 'Bed, board and books by the thousands' I wrote about a conference my husband and I attended, led by Justin Lewis-Anthony and based on his book 'If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him: Radically rethinking priestly ministry''. This was about:

  • a redundant model of ordained ministry based on romanticised mythology of how George Herbert is supposed to have done it, or thought it should be done, in the 17th century
  • the damage that has been created for parish priests trying to live up to this idealised role model
  • alternative models for the 21st century.

To me George Herbert is one of England's greatest poets. Today I would rather celebrate him more as poet than priest. After all he only had a very few years in parish ministry. Most of his short adult life was spent in Cambridge as a prominent academic and poet. He also served in Parliament. His poems were published posthumously thanks to his friend Nicholas Ferrar to whom Herbert gave the poems shortly before he died with instructions to burn them if Ferrar did not think them worth keeping. His poems have remained in print ever since. As a poet he gave the church some beautiful and enduring hymns, such as 'Teach me my God and King', 'Come my Way, my Truth, my Life', 'King of Glory, King of Peace', 'Let all the world in every corner sing'.

One of the things I love about George Herbert's poetry is the way he expresses the experience of spiritual struggle, such as in this poem:


Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, 
Guiltie of dust and sinne. 
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack 
From my first entrance in, 
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd any thing. 

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here: 
Love said, you shall be he. 
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, 
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, 
Who made the eyes but I? 

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame 
Go where it doth deserve. 
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve. 
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: 
So I did sit and eat.

Another Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful sonnet for George Herbert. I read this earlier today as part of my Lent reading from Guite's book 'The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (p. 177). He has also posted it on his blog in a post 'A Sonnet for George Herbert'. You can read it or listen to it there.

Today I thank God for all the poets who have inspired, helped, challenged or amused me.