Chapter LV: Herbert--The Parson Poet
HAVING told you a little about the songs of the cavaliers I must now tell you something about the religious poets who were a feature of the age. Of all our religious poets, of this time at least, George Herbert is the greatest. He was born in 1593 near the town of Montgomery, and was the son of a noble family, but his father died when he was little more than three, leaving his mother to bring up George with his nine brothers and sisters.
George Herbert's mother was a good and beautiful woman, and she loved her children so well that the poet said afterwards she had been twice a mother to him.
At twelve he was sent to Westminster school where we are told "the beauties of his pretty behaviour shined" so that he seemed "to become the care of Heaven and of a particular good angel to guard and guide him."*
At fifteen he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. And now, although separated from his "dear and careful Mother"* he did not forget her or all that she had taught him. Already he was a poet. We find him sending verses as a New Year gift to his mother and writing to her that "my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God's glory."
As the years went on Herbert worked hard and became a gently good, as well as a learned man, and in time he was given the post of Public Orator at the University. This post brought him into touch with the court and with the King. Of this George Herbert was glad, for although he was a good and saintly man, he longed to be a courtier. Often now he went to court hoping for some great post. But James I died in 1625 and with him died George Herbert's hope of rising to be great in the world.
For a time, then, he left court and went into the country, and there he passed through a great struggle with himself. The question he had to settle was "whether he should return to the painted pleasure of a court life" or become a priest.
In the end he decided to become a priest, and when a friend tried to dissuade him from the calling as one too much below his birth, he answered: "It hath been judged formerly, that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven should be one 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. . . . 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."
But before Herbert was fully ordained a great change came into his life. The Church of England was now Protestant and priests were allowed to marry, and George Herbert married. The story of how he met his wife is pretty.
Herbert was such a cheerful and good man that he had many friends. It was said, indeed, that he had no enemy. Among his many friends was one named Danvers, who loved him so much that he said nothing would make him so happy as that George should marry one of his nine daughters. But specially he wished him to marry his daughter Jane, for he loved her best, and would think of no more happy fate for her than to be the wife of such a man as George Herbert. He talked of George so much to Jane that she loved him without having seen him. George too heard of Jane and wished to meet her. And at last after a long time they met. Each had heard so much about the other that they seemed to know one another already, and like the prince and princess in a fairy tale, they loved at once, and three days later they were married.
Soon after this, George Herbert was offered the living of Bemerton near Salisbury. But although he had already made up his mind to become a priest he was as yet only a deacon. This sudden offer made him fearful. He began again to question himself and wonder if he was good enough for such a high calling. For a month he fasted and prayed over it. But in the end Laud, Bishop of London, assured him "that the refusal of it was a sin." So Herbert put off his sword and gay silken clothes, and putting on the long dark robe of a priest turned his back for ever to thoughts of a court life. "I now look back upon my aspiring thoughts," he said, "and think myself more happy than if I had attained what I so ambitiously thirsted for. I can now behold the court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud and titles and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary, painted pleasures." And having turned his back on all gayety, he began the life which earned for him the name of "saintly George Herbert." He taught his people, preached to them, and prayed with them so lovingly that they loved him in return. "Some of the meaner sort of his parish did so love and reverence Mr. Herbert that they would let their plough rest when Mr. Herbert's saint's bell rang to prayers, that they might also offer their devotions to God with him; and would then return back to their plough. And his most holy life was such, that it begot such reverence to God and to him, that they thought themselves the happier when they carried Mr. Herbert's blessing back with them to their labour."*
But he did not only preach, he practised too. I must tell you just one story to show you how he practiced. Herbert was very fond of music; he sang, and played too, upon the lute and viol. One day as he was walking into Salisbury to play with some friends "he saw a poor man with a poorer horse, which was fallen under his load. They were both in distress and needed present help. This Mr. Herbert perceiving put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blest him for it, and he blest the poor man, and was so like the Good Samaritan that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse, and told him, that if he loved himself, he should be merciful to his beast. Thus he left the poor man.
"And at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed. But he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him, he had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment, his answer was: that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight, and the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience whensoever he should pass by that place. 'For if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practice what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul or shewing mercy. And I praise God for this occasion.
"'And now let's tune our instruments.'"*
This story reminds us that besides being a parson Herbert was a courtier and a fine gentleman. His courtly friends were surprised that he should lower himself by helping a poor man with his own hands. But that is just one thing that we have to remember about Herbert, he had nothing of the puritan in him, he was a cavalier, a courtier, yet he showed the world that it was possible to be these and still be a good man. He did not believe that any honest work was a "dirty employment." In one of his poems he says:
"Teach me my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
. . . . .
"All may of Thee Partake:
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
"A Servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and th' action fine.
"This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told."*
I have told you the story about Herbert and the poor man in the words of Izaak Walton, the first writer of a life of George Herbert. I hope some day you will read that life and also the other books Walton wrote, for although we have not room for him in this book, his books are one of the delights of our literature which await you.
In all Herbert's work among his people, his wife was his companion and help, and the people loved her as much as they loved their parson. "Love followed her," says Walton, "in all places as inseparably as shadows follow substances in sunshine."
Besides living thus for his people Herbert almost rebuilt the church and rectory both of which he found very ruined. And when he had made an end of rebuilding he carved these words upon the chimney in the hall of the Rectory:
"If thou chance for to find
A new house to thy mind,
And built without thy cost;
Be good to the poor,
As God gives thee Store
And then my labor's not lost."
His life, one would think, was busy enough, and full enough, yet amid it all he found time to write. Besides many poems he wrote for his own guidance a book called The Country Parson. It is a book, says Walton, "so full of plain, prudent, and useful rules that that country parson that can spare 12d. and yet wants it is scarce excusable."
But Herbert's happy, useful days at Bemerton were all too short. In 1632, before he had held his living three years, he died, and was buried by his sorrowing people beneath the altar of his own little church.
It was not until after his death that his poems were published. On his death-bed he left the book in which he had written them to a friend. "Desire him to read it," he said, "and 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."
The book was published under the name of The Temple. All the poems are short except the first, called The Church Porch. From that I will quote a few lines. It begins:
"Thou whose sweet youth and early hopes enchance
Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure,
Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.
Dare to be true: nothing can need a lie;
A fault which needs it most, grows two thereby.
Throughout the world. Fool not; for all may have,
If they dare try, a glorious life, or grave.
Who fears to do ill set himself to task,
Who fears to do well sure should wear a mask."
There is all the strong courage in these lines of the courtier- parson. They make us remember that before he put on his priest's robe he wore a sword. They are full of the fearless goodness that was the mark of his gentle soul. And now, to end the chapter, I will give you another little poem full of beauty and tenderness. It is called The Pulley. Herbert often gave quaint names to his poems, names which at first sight seem to have little meaning. Perhaps you may be able to find out why this is called The Pulley.
"When God at first made man,
Contract into a span.'
"So strength first made way,
Rest in the bottom lay.
"'For if I should,' said He,
So both should losers be.
"'Yet let him keep the rest,
May toss him to my breast.'"