George Herbert and his Poetic Technique

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Annual Poet Study by

Laurie Miller

February 14, 2009

I’m going to talk about how George Herbert does some things that only another poet would even notice, that only another poet would appreciate. I’ll show how he integrates his poetic forms – his prosody – more closely with his themes than any other poet that I know.

Herbert wrote during the first third of the 17th century. Born in 1593 and dying in 1633, he’s active just during that magnificent time (for a literary person) when people like Shakespeare and Jonson were producing dramas, people like John Donne were writing poems (Herbert knew Donne well: he was a family friend), and the wonderful prose of the King James Version of the Bible was being published. That gives you some idea of the state of the English language at the time.

The Herberts were the most notable family on the Anglo-Welsh border and George, the fifth son among ten children, inherited both a Welsh temper and a Welsh love of music. He was brilliantly intelligent. Coming from a noble family and having a strong, pushy, well-connected mother certainly didn’t hurt his chances, but he was also a standout student, particularly of the classical languages, even in public school.

He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, at age 15 (1608). He got his BA at 18 (1611, the same year the King James Version was published); at 22 was made a Major Fellow of the College (roughly like an Assistant Professor); a Reader in Rhetoric at 25 (Professor), and University Orator at 26 (a position of power).

He was in. He was on top of the world. Francis Bacon liked him. John Donne was practically an uncle to him. (John Donne was 21 years older than George, and five years younger than George’s mother with whom Donne was very good friends. Donne wrote several poems to her that we know of, including, notably, The Autumnal.) Lancelot Andrewes liked him. The King himself liked him and thought he was wonderful. Herbert lapped up the praise.

Isaac Walton (the author of Compleat Angler, who probably knew Herbert personally) put out a very favourable biography of him in 1670, long after the poet’s death. Here, slightly paraphrased, is what Walton (casting Herbert in the most favourable light) has to say about Herbert as the Cambridge University Orator:

“He was at that time very high in the King’s favour, and not meanly valued and loved by the most eminent and most powerful of the court nobility. This, and the love of a court conversation, mixed with a laudable ambition to be something more than he then was, drew him often from Cambridge, to attend the King wheresoever the court was… [The King gave him a sinecure, a job with few or no duties but a nice salary, and] with this, and his annuity, and the advantage of his college, and of his Oratorship, he enjoyed his genteel humour for clothes, and court-like company, and seldom looked towards Cambridge, unless the King were there, but then he never failed.”
If the King wasn’t at Cambridge he paid somebody else to do the “orating,” a junior faculty member (sort of a TA?).

He was young, he was brilliant, he was proud, he was haughty, he was ambitious, he was a snotty, luxury-loving son of a fine family — and then he took holy orders, then the priesthood, then a little church out in the boondocks north of Salisbury. His court friends must have been astonished. He not only took the appointment to that falling-down little church (Bemerton), but he actually went to live there (further astonishing his friends, no doubt), where he honestly did become the saintly, earnest father figure whom everybody could approach. Really. This learned, witty, brilliant man, who looked like he might be England’s Secretary of State before he was 30, left it all and became a country parson whose parishioners loved him until the day he died. And he wrote a book of poems about it.

We almost didn’t have this book. On his deathbed he gave his manuscript of poems to a friend (Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the Little Gidding community and, like Herbert, a Cambridge graduate) and told him to check them out. If he thought they were any good, then publish them. If not, burn them. Fortunately, Ferrar thought they were good.

So, now let’s get to the poems. Let’s start by establishing his poetic credentials. He is a poet. He is one of “us,” I guess you’d say, and I think you’ll find he’s a master of form.

Let’s start with The Flower.

HOw fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an houre;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offring at heav’n, growing and groning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-showre,
My sinnes and I joining together;

But while I grow to a straight line;
Still upwards bent, as if heav’n were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

It is lovely, isn’t it. “After so many deaths I live and write; / I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.” Only another poet can fully appreciate that.

The poem is a beautiful, thought-provoking, free-standing lyric, right? Well, not exactly. It is actually a meditation on a biblical passage, Job xiv, 7­–11, which goes:

“There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, yet through the scent of water it will bud [which is why he says “I once more smell the dew and rain”], and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth, and where is he? Man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake. O that thou wouldst hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past.”
That passage is from the Old Testament, of course, so Herbert can be more optimistic than Job. Christ has intervened, so Herbert, more than Job, can hope for life after death. He will escape the cycle of death and rebirth in that heavenly garden, so long as he avoids the sin of pride. Pride is a great danger, in Herbert. We’ll come back to that.

As a poet, Herbert is also familiar with the situation where you work out a great line in your head, then can’t for the life of you get the thing to open out into a poem.

See “A true Hymne.”

A true Hymne.

MY joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say:
And still it runneth mutt’ring up and down
With onely this, My joy, my life, my crown.

Yet slight not these few words:
If truly said, they may take part
Among the best in art.
The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords,
Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.

He who craves all the minde,
And all the soul, and strength, and time,
If the words onely ryme,
Justly complains, that somewhat is behinde
To make his verse, or write a hymne in kinde.

Whereas if th’ heart be moved,
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth supplie the want.
As when th’ heart sayes (sighing to be approved)
O, could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.

“Somewhat it fain would say: / And still it runneth mutt’ring up and down / With onely this, [and then that line].” Indeed! We’ve all been there, no? Notice how Herbert resolves the problem, though. In the third stanza he talks about the problem that he sees with conventional poetry. It can appeal powerfully to the reader, and you can heighten the effect with poetic techniques (like, here, rhyme), but if the clever surface is all you have, you haven’t got much. And you know it. Notice, too, that in this stanza, where Herbert is talking about rhyme, the a rhyme and the b rhyme are almost the same. Doesn’t happen in any other stanza. It’s a small point, but it may be worth remembering.

“The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords, / Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.” Just so. I’m going to suggest that Herbert has a unique way of bringing this about, but first we need to get out of the way the two “shaped poems” that you might have come across in school, “Easter wings” and “The Altar.” Don’t just dismiss them, even if the idea of shaping a poem to look like its subject might seem a bit childish or unsophisticated. These, particularly “Easter wings,” are really quite good, and it’s important to realize (as Herbert’s classically aware contemporaries would have) that he is “baptizing” a classical, pagan poetic idea to Christian use. The shaping of a poem to look like an altar, in particular, goes ’way back. And this is certainly a Christian altar, because his whole book of poems is called The Temple, and the main part of that is called The Church, and the first poem you see after coming into “the church” is “The Altar.” Apparently the poems that follow are Herbert’s offerings on that altar. But let’s get on, to the heart of what I want to talk about.

See “Josephs Coat.”

Josephs coat.

WOunded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down I fall into a bed, and rest:
Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will,
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.
For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carrie with it ev’n my heart,
And both would runne untill they found a biere
To fetch the bodie; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil’d the race; and giv’n to anguish
One of Joyes coats, ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.
I live to shew his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

It’s a standard sonnet of the English (or Shakespearian) form, four quatrains rhyming a b a b c d c d e f e f and a final couplet rhyming g g. Right? Well, no. The rhyme scheme in the first quatrain doesn’t work. “Will” does not rhyme with “indite.” Why not? Many editors have in fact decided to “fix” this by, for example, correcting the obvious error in line three by changing the last word to “right.” Right? Wrong. Read the line and the one that follows: “Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will / Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.” The first quatrain of an English sonnet rhymes a b a b, unless God’s will changes it!

The very form of the poem echoes the poem’s sense. Does it matter if you don’t notice that funny business with the rhyme scheme? Not really. The poem makes perfectly good sense without it. But if you do notice it, doesn’t it make the poem a richer experience? There is more like this in Herbert. Much, much more.

Have a look at “Grief.”


O Who will give me tears? Come all ye springs,
Dwell in my head & eyes: come clouds, & rain:
My grief hath need of all the watry things,
That nature hath produc’d. Let ev’ry vein
Suck up a river to supply mine eyes,
My weary weeping eyes, too drie for me,
Unlesse they get new conduits, new supplies
To bear them out, and with my state agree.
What are two shallow foords, two little spouts
Of a lesse world? The greater is but small,
A narrow cupboard for my griefs and doubts,
Which want provision in the midst of all.
Verses, ye are too fine a thing, too wise
For my rough sorrows: cease, be dumbe and mute,
Give up your feet and running to mine eyes,
And keep your measures for some lovers lute,
Whose grief allows him musick and a ryme:
For mine excludes both measure, tune, and time.
Alas, my God!

Clear enough, eh? The poet is stricken by grief, as lovers are when they find themselves in a rough patch in the relationship; and, like them, he weeps, but, while they can exorcize (and maybe make some money from) their grief by pouring it out in poems and songs, his real, felt grief is too deep for that. Indeed, Herbert both tells us and shows us how his grief “excludes both measure, tune and time,” with that obvious, heartfelt final outburst, “Alas, my God!,” that doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme, has the wrong number of feet to be a line, and apparently constitutes an overrun of the stanza format. Typical Herbert union of form and meaning, right?

Well, yes: but there’s more.

He’s talking about how poetic conventions are “too fine a thing” for his rough grief. But look how he starts the poem. Really lays it on thick, doesn’t he? “O who will give me tears?” sounds positively theatrical. “Come all ye” is a formula that conventionally begins a ballad — ballads, in the nineteenth century in America, at least, were even sometimes known, generically, as “come all ye’s.” And it just keeps coming, right down to (and past) “My weary weeping eyes” (which are, he dryly notes, “too drie for me / Unlesse” something else happens). But his original audience would immediately recognize “My weary weeping eyes” as a line from John Dowland’s contemporary hit song “Come Heavy Sleep.” It’s as if today we were to see a reference to an “Eleanor Rigby.” We’d recognize it at once.

So the poem goes on in this overblown way. It sounds like a compendium of all love’s grief poems, the mother of all grief poems — but it doesn’t sound like Herbert!

Stay with it. “My weary weeping eyes, too drie for me / Unlesse they get new conduits ….” What conduits? Well, tear ducts, obviously, right? But “What are two shallow foords, two little spouts / Of a lesse world? the greater is but small” should give us pause. There is no anatomical reason for one tear duct to be “greater” than the other. Once again, read the poem. He’s talking about poetry, and the writing of poetry, and he says that poetic convention won’t work for him. “Verses, you are too fine a thing,” so “Give up your feet and running to mine eyes,” etc.

Briefly, “Grief” is a sonnet — that conventional vehicle for the expression of a lover’s grief. Or rather, it’s a poem about the sonnet form. The sonnet is just fine for expressing conventional grief, Herbert says, but of its two parts, the octave and the sestet, “the greater is but small, / A narrow cupboard for my griefs and doubts, / Which want provision in the midst of all.” And that is exactly what Herbert supplies, putting an extra quatrain between the octave and the sestet to allow enough room for his real, felt grief.

I think he put that final part-line in, knowing perfectly well that most readers would immediately see how it reflected the idea of the last full line, and would congratulate themselves for having figured it out. But figuring out the real challenge would be left for the careful readers.

Why on earth would a poet go to all that effort to create a brilliant union of form and meaning, and then not make it obvious to the reader?

The answer lies in a Christian understanding of art that goes back at least to St. Augustine, a thousand years before Herbert.

Artistic creation (of, say, a poem) is a problem in Christianity, because any human who creates anything elegant is in danger. He’s liable to take pride in his work and, worse, he’s liable to find other people praising it, and him, and he will be proud. And pride is the deadliest, the most subtle sin of all. God is the only creator, and whatever this human has come up with is as nothing. So Augustine says, look, it’s okay to create something artistic, as long as the poem (or whatever) leads the reader to honour God. So, ideally, the surface meaning, apparent to every reader, will have a message to that effect. Herbert’s poems are invariably like that.

But the greatest art will have successive layers of complementary meaning that are perceptible only to careful readers who are sufficiently learned to appreciate them. A biblical scholar may recognize that a certain poem is a commentary on a certain passage from Job, say. A practicing poet may realize that a given poem embodies a commentary on the suitability of the sonnet form. And this technique is good because it gets the reader to read carefully and thoughtfully (so the surface meaning is reinforced, even if nothing else happens), and because if the reader does “get it” there will be a powerful flow of self-congratulation for having figured it out, immediately followed by astonishment at the brilliance of the author to have thought of such a thing and to have created it, and then awe and wonder at the much greater glory of God, who created the very poet! And that, says St. Augustine, is a Good Thing. Herbert’s hidden gems are firmly in this tradition.

But does he reject all poetic conventions? No, certainly not. These are beautiful, meaningful poems on the face of them, whether or not they hold hidden meanings for us to find. Herbert just doesn’t much like ornamentation for its own sake.

Take alliteration, for instance.

He doesn’t use it much, though it was very popular in poetry in his time. See “The Sonne.”

The Sonne.

LEt forrain nations of their language boast,
What fine varietie each tongue affords:
I like our language, as our men and coast:
Who cannot dresse it well, want wit, not words.
How neatly doe we give one onely name
To parents issue and the sunnes bright starre!
A sonne is light and fruit; a fruitfull flame
Chasing the fathers dimnesse, carri’d farre
From the first man in th’ East, to fresh and new
Western discov’ries of posteritie.
So in one word our Lords humilitie
We turn upon him in a sense most true:
For what Christ once in humblenesse began,
We him in glorie call, The Sonne of Man.

Look, he says, you want alliteration? I’ll give you alliteration, “Who cannot dresse it well, want wit, not words.” There! There’s alliteration on four words out of five. It’s not that Herbert can’t do alliteration, it’s just that he thinks it’s a cheap effect. So he doesn’t do it much.

Now he says in the two “Jordan” poems that he wrote that way himself, once. “When first my lines of heav’nly joyes made mention … I sought out quaint words and trim invention; / My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell, / Curling with metaphors a plain intention, / Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.” So he says; but, if he ever did write that way, none of those poems has survived. Only this one book.


LOrd, with what bountie and rare clemencie
Hast thou redeem’d us from the grave!
If thou hadst let us runne,
Gladly had man ador’d the sunne,
And thought his god most brave;
Where now we shall be better gods then he.

Thou hast but two rare cabinets full of treasure,
The Trinitie, and Incarnation:
Thou hast unlockt them both,
And made them jewels to betroth
The work of thy creation
Unto thy self in everlasting pleasure.

The statelier cabinet is the Trinitie,
Whose sparkling light accesse denies:
Therefore thou dost not show
This fully to us, till death blow
The dust into our eyes:
For by that powder thou wilt make us see.

But all thy sweets are packt up in the other;
Thy mercies thither flock and flow:
That as the first affrights,
This may allure us with delights;
Because this box we know;
For we have all of us just such another.

But man is close, reserv’d, and dark to thee:
When thou demandest but a heart,
He cavils instantly.
In his poore cabinet of bone
Sinnes have their box apart,
Defrauding thee, who gavest two for one.

Well (we now ask) what’s he up to here?

This time it’s the rhyme scheme.

The stanza structure is a b c c b a, except in the final stanza. Why? Read the poem. He’s talking about boxes, and how God has two rare cabinets full of treasure that he is quite willing to give us in exchange for what’s in our “poore cabinet of bone,” and each stanza is itself a little box, bounded by the a rhymes and most structurally unified at the couplet in the middle. Except in stanza five, where “Sinnes have their box apart.” And, sure enough, the rhyme scheme changes to a b a (full stop — the only full stop in the poem that does not reinforce the end of a stanza), c b c. He both says “sinnes have their box apart,” and he shows it in the poem’s form.

Again, does it matter if we don’t see that? No, not really. The poem reads perfectly well without our noticing the subtle change in stanza five. But if we do see it, I think we find we are reading a richer poem.

We might also notice here what’s sometimes called Herbert’s peculiar “counterpoint” structure. That is, he typically has a carefully developed rhyme scheme, and an equally carefully developed (and complex) stanza structure with respect to the number of feet per line, but the two do not match. Only rarely in Herbert do you find adjacent lines that have the same number of feet, and that also rhyme with each other. Not “never,” but “rarely.” In this poem, if we put the rhymes next to the number of feet per line, in each stanza (except the last) we get:

a 3
b 5
c 4
c 3
b 4
a 5

I think, because we humans are hard-wired to perceive patterns, our brains do recognize the two simple patterns here, if only on a subconscious level. The rhyme pattern is simple, the stress pattern is simple — they just aren’t parallel. We do “hear” those patterns, and we find them pleasing even though they do not match. I can’t think of any other poet who does this so consistently, and so well. He was, remember, an accomplished musician. A lutenist, especially, to the point that every Tuesday evening he would come the mile or so into Salisbury to jam with some of his buddies. They’d just hang out, and play music. (Shades of Woody Allen, I guess, and his clarinet.)

Perhaps the ear that made him a good musician also enabled him to keep a prosodical counterpoint melody in his head while he wrote a poem. I can’t do it, and I’ve tried.

Let’s look at “Mortification.”


HOw soon doth man decay!
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way;
Those clouts are little winding sheets,
Which do consigne and send them unto death.

When boyes go first to bed,
They step into their voluntarie graves,
Sleep bindes them fast; onely their breath
Makes them not dead;
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly, who are bound for death.

When youth is frank and free,
And calls for musick, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In companie;
That musick summons to the knell,
Which shall befriend him at the houre of death.

When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes,
That dumbe inclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.

When age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev’ry yeare,
Till all do melt, and drown his breath
When he would speak;
A chair or litter shows the biere,
Which shall convey him to the house of death.

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnitie,
And drest his herse, while he has breath
As yet to spare;
Yet Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be life in death.

No tricks here, right? Ah, you already know the answer.

Rhyme scheme again. Here, it’s simply a b c a b c. But the c pair is always breath / death. Breath / death. Breath / death. “Onely their breath / Makes them not dead.” Hey, I just read this poem with my breath! Only my breath makes me “not dead.” Sometimes it gets almost eerie — no, it’s not eerie, it’s delightful — to feel that George Herbert is right there as we read his poems, watching to see if we will understand.

Well, surely by now you see what I love about Herbert. Finding the hidden delights would be fun anyway, but we never forget that there are so many lovely expressions right on the surface.

Take “Even-song.”


BLest be the God of love,
Who gave us eyes, and light, and power this day,
Both to be busie, and to play.
But much more blest be God above,
Who gave me sight alone,
Which to himself he did denie:
For when he sees my waies, I dy:
But I have got his sonne, and he hath none.

What have I brought thee home
For this thy love? have I discharg’d the debt,
Which this dayes favour did beget?
I ranne; but all I brought, was fome.
Thy diet, care, and cost
Do end in bubbles, balls of winde;
Of winde to thee whom I have crost,
But balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.

Yet still thou goest on,
And now with darknesse closest wearie eyes,
Saying to man, It doth suffice:
Henceforth repose; your work is done.

Thus in thy ebony box
Thou dost inclose us, till the day
Put our amendment in our way,
And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.

I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night: that is the gale, this th’ harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that the garden, this the grove.
My God, thou art all love.
Not one poore minute scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.

Yes, there are a couple of prosodic gems here. The rhyme scheme is a b b a c d d c, except in stanza two, where the second quatrain’s rhymes are c d c d when God has been “crost;” and in the final stanza, where there are only three rhymes — a b b a a c a c — as the poem resolves and he can, finally, “rest.” But what strikes me most in this poem is the beauty of its wording. Herbert has a wonderful ear for the spoken word, and the voice of God here is lovely.

The great theologian Richard Baxter, a few decades after Herbert’s death, remarks that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his book.” I’ll buy that.

And I’ll also endorse more recent critic Helen Gardiner’s addition of “head-work” to Baxter’s list.

For me, at least, Herbert’s poems are a wonderful combination of cleverness, serious philosophy, and just plain excellent writing. I find him a joy to study.

  more PROSE about Poetry . . .