“A verse may find him who a sermon flies.”
– George Herbert (The Church Porch, line 5)
George Herbert is one of my favorite poets. He was born on April 3, 1593 into a privileged Welsh family. He earned two degrees at Trinity College in Cambridge. In 1620 he was elected public orator of Cambridge and was elected to Parliament in 1624. However, in 1627 he resigned from public office and soon after began to prepare for ministry instead.
When challenged by friends who felt that the ministry was beneath his station in life, Herbert responded:
It hath been formerly judged that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven should be the noblest families on earth. And though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued … I will labor to make it honorable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for him that hath done so much for me, as to make me a Christian. 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. (from Isaac Walton’s “Life of Herbert,” in George Herbert: The Complete English Poems; Penguin Classics, 1991, p. 282)
In 1630 Herbert took a small church in Bremerton which he helped rebuild with his own funds. He spent the final three years of his life preaching, caring for the people in his parish and completing the two major works for which he is best known today: The Country Parson, a work of prose which explores the personal life and ministry of the pastor, and The Temple, a collection and sequence of poems on Christian themes.
Herbert died from tuberculosis in 1633. He was only forty years old. On his deathbed he sent a collection of his poems to a friend with the following instructions:
If he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it, for I and it are the least of God’s mercies. (from Isaac Walton’s “Life of Herbert,” in George Herbert: The Complete English Poems; Penguin Classics, 1991, p. 311)
This collection of poems was The Temple, published later the same year Herbert died. It is a beautiful book of poems, filled with startling imagery, ingenious wordplay, and rich devotional thought. You may be familiar with some of Herbert’s poems in hymn form, such as “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life,” “The God of Love My Shepherd Is,” “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing,” and “Teach Me, My God and King.”
Herbert was also well-known for his Proverbs, some of which we still use today:
- “When a friend asks, there is no tomorrow.”
- “His bark is worse than his bite.”
- “Whose house is of glass must not throw stones at another.”
- “Good words are worth much and cost little.”
- “The eye is bigger than the belly.”
- “Half the world knows not how the other half lives.”
- “He that lives well is learned enough.”
- “He loseth nothing that loseth not God.”
I hope I have whetted your appetite to learn more about George Herbert. This is Holy Week, and over the next couple days I will be posting some of Herbert’s poems to assist you in your reflection on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. As with all poetry, you will get the most out of the poems if you take them slowly and read them through several times, out loud if possible.
I invite you to come back later today and throughout the weekend to enjoy these poems by George Herbert. May God bless you this Easter season as you meditate on what He has done for you in Christ our Savior.
Click here for more poems by George Herbert.
Click here for poems by Ray Fowler.