Of Humility and Devotion

Temple1641Hailed as an acclaimed devotional lyricist, George Herbert’s poems in no way resemble the popular ones of the “ambitious” seventeenth century England. Despite technical similarities to the relatively more popular metaphysical poets preceding him (John Donne, to be more specific), Herbert’s poetry is unique in both its tone and subject, and is easily distinguishable from that of his celebrated contemporaries. At a time when poems sought to address broader social and political issues, often speckled with hyperbolic phrases, Herbert wrote of devotion, worship and humility. It is his distinct humility, a quality seldom found in most renowned poets, that, in retrospect, makes him stand out. His influence is further corroborated by an impressive list of followers in modern times that include the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, TS Eliot and Emily Dickinson.

What truly sets George Herbert apart is the time he was writing in. Seventeenth century England was marked with tumult and conflicts in religion, with the first waves of Protestantism taking over the country. Poems espousing stability and peace in religious devotion contrasted strongly with the times they were being written in. Yet, there is a strong conviction in his poems, imparting a certain sense of relevance and importance to the themes he writes about. Herbert managed to gain reverence by fellow parsons and clergymen for his unshaken belief in devotion and worship. This, coupled with his poetic prowess, strengthened his stance as a poet, despite the somewhat controversial theological topics he chose to write about.

His most notable work, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, was published posthumously in 1633. It is a collection of verses exalting God, an act that Herbert originally viewed as a sin of pride and consequently wanted the manuscript burnt while handing it over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar on his deathbed. These poems eventually became characteristic of George Herbert’s poetry, earning him his long-standing label of “holy Mr. Herbert”. They carry a cultural and historical significance today, especially for Literature students. On its publication, the text earned itself high panegyric from noted scholars, one of them being the writer Baxter who proclaimed his poems as “next to the Scripture poems”. Undergoing almost eight editions by 1690, The Temple stands today as an anthology of about a hundred and seventy poems (most of the poems in Greek and Latin have been lost). One of his verses titled “Avarice” for example, expresses a disapprobation of material and monetary obsessions as opposed to religious faith:-

Money, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe
Whence comest thou, that thou art so fresh and fine?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.

ChurchMilitantAbounding in verses like these, The Temple, and some of his other well-known works like “The Church Militant” and  “The Country Parson”, have led readers to view George Herbert as a prominent theological and metaphysical poet. Perhaps not as widely read as John Donne (considered to be the greatest of metaphysical poets) or even John Milton (whose “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, existed somewhat concurrently with The Temple, as its revised editions kept coming out till 1690), Herbert has carved out a niche for himself in the history of celebrated British verse by standing undaunted as a theologian in the face of religious turmoil and uncertainty.

Swara Shukla

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