George Herbert (1593–1633)
My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation,
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is Man? to whose creation
All things are in decay.
For Man is every thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is or should be more:
Reason and speech we only bring.
Parrots may thank us, if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.
Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides:
Each part may call the furthest, brother;
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.
Nothing hath got so far,
But man hath caught and kept it, as his prey.
His eyes dismount the highest star:
He is in little all the sphere.
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.
For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heaven move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight or as our treasure:
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head.
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.
Each thing is full of duty:
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguishèd, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above, our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat?
More servants wait on Man
Than he'll take notice of: in every path
He treads down that which doth befriend him
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
O mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.
Born to a noble family in Wales, George Herbert was only three when his father died, leaving his mother (a friend and patron of John Donne) to raise him and his nine siblings. After graduation from Cambridge, he served the university as its “Public Orator,” an important post in which he gave voice to the university sentiments on public occasions. Later elected to Parliament, Herbert anticipated a distinguished career in politics and public service, but that was not to be. When King James I, some important patrons, and then his mother all died, he gave up his political ambitions to enter the parish. His friends objected, suggesting that the life of a pastor was beneath his dignity and skills as a scholar and statesman. To this Herbert replied,
It hath been formerly judged that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven should be of the noblest families on earth. And though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible; yet I will labour to make it honourable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities to advance the glory of that God that gave them. . . . And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and meek example of my dear Jesus.
In 1629 Herbert became the rector at Bemerton, a small village near Salisbury, where he spent the rest of his short life.
In Bemerton he preached, wrote poetry, served the pastoral needs of his people with loving distinction, cared for the poor, and even helped to rebuild the church using his own resources. By all accounts Herbert was a deeply pious man, known in his village as “Holy Mr. Herbert.” His book, A Priest to the Temple (1652), offers practical advice to country pastors. Four years later, a month before his fortieth birthday, Herbert died of tuberculosis.
None of Herbert's poems had been published when he died, but upon his deathbed he gave them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, asking them to be published only if they might help “any dejected poor soul.” This “little book,” as he called it, contained “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master: in whose service I have found perfect freedom.” Ferrar did publish the poems under the title The Temple, and they became an enormous success. Published in 1633, by 1680 the book had gone through 13 editions. The poems reflect his lifelong struggle between his privileged background and worldly ambitions as a Member of Parliament and the Cambridge faculty, and his choice to live as a poor country cleric in rural England. Today scholars esteem Herbert as one of the most skilled and important poets of his day, some even suggesting that his work surpasses that of John Donne.