George Herbert: A Rookie Anglican Guide to the Priest and Poet

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George Herbert, perhaps the greatest devotional poet in the English language, was also a faithful pastor to a small country church.

When I was a student, Herbert helped lead the way of my pilgrimage to Christ. As an adult disciple and priest, I have continually refreshed my spirit by dipping back into Herbert’s prose and poetry.

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A Life Cut Short

Herbert was born in 1593, the fifth son of a noble father and a saintly mother (the priest and poet John Donne was his godfather). George was a noted classical scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and aspired to a post in the royal court; however, as hopes for worldly promotion faded, he prepared to enter holy orders. When some friends objected to this course as being beneath his dignity, 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 late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible; yet 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. . . . And I will labor 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.

After serving ten years as a deacon, he was called in 1630 to become rector of the village parish of Bemerton, just outside Salisbury. The parish was no plum; nevertheless, according to Izaak Walton, “the apprehension of the last great account, that he was to make for the cure of so many souls, made him fast and pray often, and consider for not less than a month.” However, he finally accepted the call and was ordained priest.

Like his Master, Herbert had only three years of active ministry before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1633. In those three short years, the “Holy Mr. Herbert” made such an impression on those near and far that the “odor” of his life has wafted into the annals of the saints, as Anglicans note each February 27.

A Country Parson

Herbert wrote a pastoral manual called The Country Parson: “I have resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastor, that I may have a Mark to aim at: which also I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the Moon, than he that aims at a Tree.” The Country Parson, along with Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, remains a classic of pastoral care.

One of Herbert’s points of emphasis was the importance of prayer. The pastor is to be a man of prayer, keeping the daily offices and periods of private prayer. Herbert saw Sunday as the pastor’s great “Market Day,” preaching and leading services in the morning, catechizing in the afternoon, reconciling neighbors, and visiting the sick in between times (there was no Sunday football in Herbert’s day). Of course, both prayer and preaching are to be based upon the scriptures, as he would write in his poem “The Holy Scriptures”:

Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify all pain….

Moreover, worship is no rote affair: before administering Communion, the priest is to prostrate himself before the throne of grace, acknowledging his own unworthiness. Finally, Herbert has a lovely chapter entitled “The Parson Blessing,” in which he praised the benefits of pastoral blessings and encouraged clergy to give them frequently to their flock: “If temporal fathers bless their children, how much more may and ought spiritual fathers?This practice particularly endeared Herbert to his congregation at Bemerton.

A Christian Poet

On his deathbed, Herbert sent his friend Nicholas Ferrar a “little book” of poems, “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.” This collection, called The Temple, contains some of the finest English verse ever written. Several of these poems appear in Anglican hymnals, e.g., “Come My Way, My Truth, My Life,” and “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing.”

Often, Herbert’s “metaphysical” poetry is not singable but ponderable; it requires concentration and a kind of playfulness. Consider, for example, Herbert’s poem on “Prayer:”

Prayer the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Nearly every phrase of this poem invites contemplation of the riches of prayer. And it is obvious that only a man with a depth of experience in prayer could capture such a depth of poetic language. For a close reading of this poem, I recommend Turning the Diamond by Dennis Lennon, also an Anglican priest.

In Conclusion

For George Herbert, the whole cloth of the Christian soul—the exterior life of the “parson” and the interior life of the “person”—is woven out of Scripture and prayer. “Spelling the Word” for Herbert requires us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the multi-faceted diamond of God’s truth.

I count George Herbert personally as one of the witnesses who led me to Christ as a college student and from there to ordination. He is also a source of continual pleasure and renewal for me half a century later. I commend his life and writing to all Anglicans, whether rookies or veterans.

Further Reading

On Anglican Compass

Basic Texts

Deeper Dives


The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll has written other devotions on George Herbert on his blog.


Image: George Herbert at Bemerton by William Dyce (1860), public domain.

Published on

February 26, 2024

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

View more from Stephen Noll

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