Saying Beautifully as a Way of Seeing Beauty: The Life of George Herbert and His Poetic Effort

The Pastor, His Words, and His God

Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors

Pastors are people who do their work with words. If we don’t use words, we cannot do our ministry. Surgeons can do their work without talking to their patients. They may never even meet their patients, and yet do a totally successful work in removing the cancer. Truck drivers can do their main work and carpenters can do their main work without using words. But pastors cannot do their work without using words.

The reason for this is that God has designed the world and the church and the human being and the process of salvation so that his ultimate aims for humanity come about through human words. For example,

  • The new birth comes about through words (1 Peter 1:23–25): “You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God. . . . This word is the good news that was preached to you” (see also James 1:18).
  • Saving faith comes about through words (Romans 10:17): “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
  • The grace of edification comes through words (Ephesians 4:29): “[Let only speech come from your mouth] as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
  • Christian love and purity of heart and a good conscience come through words (1 Timothy 1:5): “The aim of our charge [our words] is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
  • The joy of Christ in the believer comes through words (John 15:11): “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
  • Freedom from the power of sin comes through words (John 8:32): “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
  • That is, sanctification comes through words (John 17:17): “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
  • And final salvation comes though teaching with words (1 Timothy 4:16): “Keep a close watch . . . on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

The Glory of Words

All these glorious goals come about through words. And if that’s all we said about the cause of these great accomplishments (new birth, faith, love, holiness, salvation), brothers, we would be professionals. If the great aims of our work were decisively the effect of our words, we would be professional wordsmiths. But, in fact, as you know, our words are not decisive in producing any of these glorious effects. God is decisive. 

  • God made his people alive while they were dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:5) so that they could even hear the words of the gospel.
  • By the grace of God, our people come to have faith, “this is not [their] own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
  • When our people achieve any measure of holiness it is God “working in [them] that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21).
  • If they experience any Christ-honoring love or joy or peace, it is the fruit of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
  • If they fight successfully against any sin, it is “by [God’s] Spirit” that they put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
  • And if they are saved in the end, it is decisively because God “saved [them] . . . not because of [their] works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9).
  • God kept them from stumbling (Jude 1:24); God completed the word that he began (Philippians 1:6).

In other words, all the aims of our ministry that define it as Christian are decisively the work of God. They are decisively supernatural. And no amount of professional training, and no amount of professional expertise in the use of words, and no poetic effort can bring about the aims of the ministry if God withholds his power.

This is why Paul said to the Corinthians, “I . . . did not come . . . with lofty speech or wisdom. . . . but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:1, 4). In other words, I renounce the professionalism of the Greek Stoics and Sophists who have perfected their eloquence to produce the desired effects on their audience. I renounce that, and I rely on the Spirit and power of God to do what ultimately matters, and what I cannot do.

Do Words Matter for the Ministry?

Which raises the question for every thoughtful pastor: Does, then, the way I use words make any difference in whether the great aims of ministry are achieved? If God is the decisive cause, and my words are a human instrument in his hands, will the aims of my ministry be advanced in any way by how I use my words?

The answer to that from the New Testament is a resounding yes. It does make a difference. The content of the words makes a difference. The clarity of the words makes a difference. The spirit of the words makes a difference.

  • It matters whether the content is true, and it matters whether the content is Christ. “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). And “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). We preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).
  • And the clarity or our words matters. “Pray also for us . . . that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3–4). “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.” (1 Corinthians 14:9, see also verse 19).
  • And the spirit of the words matters. Paul pleads for prayer, “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel . . . as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:18–20).

How Much Do Words Matter?

Which leaves us asking this: If God is the decisive cause of the aims of our ministry, and yet God wills that the content and clarity and spirit of our words make a difference in their effectiveness, are there other aspects of language (besides content, clarity, and spirit) that might make a difference in their effectiveness? And it seems to me that one way to answer that question would be to ask: How does God inspire the writers of Scripture to use language? Surely God cares about the effectiveness of his word, and therefore would not inspire the Scriptures with no sense of fitness or effectiveness.

When we turn to the way the Bible uses words, the variety is overwhelming. There are so many different uses of language that they can’t be quantified. And the life and ministry of George Herbert leads us to ask specifically about poetry. And as you all know, the Bible abounds with poetry. God evidently believes that it is fitting and effective to inspire biblical poetry.

The Prominence of Poetry in the Bible

In Hosea 12:10, God himself says, “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes” (KJV). In other words, God himself claims to have put it in the minds of biblical writers to think of analogies and comparisons and metaphors and similes and symbols and parables — to search out words that point to reality in indirect ways, rather than always describing things directly with the least imaginative words.

How much of God’s inspired word is poetry? Leland Ryken asks and answers:

Given the combined presence of parallelism and a heavy reliance on figurative language, how much of the Bible ranks as poetry? One-third of the Bible is not too high an estimate. Whole books of the Bible are poetic: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. A majority of Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form. Jesus is one of the most famous poets of the world. Beyond these predominantly poetic parts of the Bible, figurative language appears throughout the Bible, and whenever it does, it requires the same type of analysis given to poetry.1

So, pastors are people who do their work with words. If we don’t use words, we don’t do our ministry. Nevertheless, God, not our words, is the decisive cause of all the great aims of our ministry. He is the great Actor, and our words are instruments in his hands. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Our ministry is supernatural.

Learning from George Herbert

Yet, how we plant and how we water — how we use words — makes a difference in the effectiveness of our ministry. The New Testament makes that explicit regarding the content and clarity and spirit of our words, and the whole Bible makes it clear by the amazing variety of the inspired writers use of words. Poetry is a huge part of that variety, and George Herbert continues that lineage into the seventeenth century — not as an inspired writer of Scripture, but as a stunningly gifted poet in the service of the sovereign God of Scripture.

So my question is: What can we learn for our life and ministry from Herbert’s poetic effort? I’m using the phrase Herbert’s “poetic effort,” rather than Herbert’s “poetry” because I’m going to argue that very few of you should give significant time to writing poetry, but all of you should make poetic efforts in the way you see and savor and show the glories of Christ.

Herbert’s Life

George Herbert was born April 3, 1593, in Montgomeryshire in Wales. He died a month before his 40th birthday on March 1, 1633. He was the seventh of ten children born to Richard and Magdalene Herbert, but his father died when he was three, leaving ten children, the oldest of which was 13. This didn’t put them in financial hardship because Richard’s estate, which he left to Magdalene, was sizeable.

It was twelve years before Magdalene married again, this time to Sir John Danvers who was twenty years younger than she was and just two years older than her eldest son. But he was a good father to the family during the 18 years of marriage until Magdalene’s death in 1627. George Herbert never knew him as a father because the year they married was the year he began his studies at Trinity College Cambridge.

Herbert had been an outstanding student at Westminster preparatory school, writing Latin essays when he was eleven years old, which would later be published. And now at Cambridge, he distinguished himself in the study of classics. He graduated second in a class of 193 in 1612 with a B.A., and then in 1616, he took his M.A. and became a major fellow of the University.

Elected Orator

In 1619, he was elected Public Orator of Cambridge University. This was a very prestigious post with huge public responsibility. Herbert wrote to his stepfather what it meant to be elected the Orator:

The finest place in the University, though not the gainfullest. . . . For the Orator writes all the University letters, makes all the orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University, to requite these pains, he takes place next to the Doctors, is at all their assemblies and meetings, and sits above the Proctors. . . . And such like Gaynesses. Which will please a young man well.2

This is going to be one of the most important insights into his life because the academic stimulation, and the prominence even in the king’s court,3 and the pleasures of it all would prove the great battle ground over his call to the pastoral ministry.

He would say eleven years after his election to the Oratorship, on the day of his induction to the parish ministry at Bemerton,

I can now behold the Court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud, titles and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary and painted pleasures: pleasures that are so empty as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed.4

But for now there seemed good reasons to give himself to public service for the sake of the university and its relation to the wider civic life of the country. On top of the Oratorship, he added a one-year term in Parliament in 1623–24.

The Conflict Over His Call

But the conflict of his soul over a call to the ministry intensified that year. And a vow he had made to his mother during his first year at Cambridge took hold in his heart (we will see this later). He submitted himself totally to God and to the ministry of a parish priest. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1626 and then became the ordained priest of the little, country church at Bemerton in 1630. There were never more than a hundred people in his church. The last three years of his life, he was a parson to a remote country parish, after being a nationally prominent orator of a prestigious university.

He married Jane Danvers the year before coming to Bemerton. But they never had children, though they adopted three nieces who had lost their parents. After less than three years in the ministry, Herbert died of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from most of his adult life. He was thirty-nine years old. His body lies under the chancel of the church, and there is only a simple plaque on the wall with the initials GH.

“Deliver This Little Book”

That’s the bare factual outline of Herbert’s life. And if that were all there was, nobody today would have ever heard of George Herbert. Even the fact that he wrote a short book known as The Country Parson would not have secured his place in memory. The reason anyone knows of George Herbert today, and the reason I am talking about him, is because of something that happened a few weeks before he died.

His close friend Nicholas Ferrar sent a fellow pastor, Edmund Duncon, to see how Herbert was doing. On Duncon’s second visit, Herbert knew that the end was near. So he reached for his most cherished earthly possession and said to Duncon,

Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it 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 now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it: and then, 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 less than the least of God’s mercies.5

That little book was a collection of 167 poems. Herbert’s friend, Nicholas Ferrar published it later that year, 1633, under the title The Temple. It went through four editions in three years and was steadily reprinted for a hundred years, and is still in print today. It established Herbert as one of the greatest religious poets of all time, though not one of these poems was published during his lifetime.

One of the Greatest Poets

Forty-eight years after Herbert’s death, Richard Baxter said, “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in this world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”6 William Cowper cherished Herbert’s poetry in his struggle with depression.7 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, nineteenth-century poet and critic, wrote to a member of the Royal Academy, “I find more substantial comfort now in pious George Herbert’s Temple . . . than in all the poetry since the poetry of Milton.”8

Herbert’s poetry is found in virtually every anthology of English literature. He is one of the very few great poets who is loved both by specialists and non-specialists. He is loved for his technical rigor and his spiritual depth. T. S. Eliot said, “The exquisite variations of form in the . . . poems of The Temple show a resourcefulness of invention which seems inexhaustible, and for which I know no parallel in English poetry.9 He “was an exquisite craftsman.”10 He was part of an era that prized meticulous care with language and poetry of his day. Peter Porter wrote “That Herbert is perhaps the most honest poet who ever wrote in English does not prevent his being also one of the most accomplished technicians of verse in the whole [Western] canon.”11

Herbert As a Reformed Poet

We will come back to his craftsmanship shortly. But linger with me over the power of his poetry to minister deeply to the likes of an opium addict like Samuel Coleridge. One of the reasons for this is the solid rock of God’s sovereignty that Coleridge felt under Herbert’s poems.12 In fact, Coleridge saw more clearly than most people in his day that the criticisms of Calvinism often obscured the comfort of the doctrine itself. Here’s the way he put it:

If ever a book was calculated to drive men to despair, it is Bishop Jeremy Taylor's on Repentance. It first opened my eyes to Arminianism, and that Calvinism is practically a far more soothing and consoling system. . . . Calvinism (Archbishop Leighton’s for example) compared with Taylor’s Arminianism, is the lamb in wolf’s skin to the wolf in the lamb’s skin: the one is cruel in the phrases, the other in the doctrine.13

Gene Edward Veith wrote his doctoral dissertation on this aspect of George Herbert’s life and poetry. He argues that Herbert is the “clearest and most consistent poetic voice” of Reformed spirituality. “The dynamics of Calvinism,” he says, “are also the dynamics of Herbert’s poetry.”14 Veith writes,

Herbert is a lamb clothed in the wolf skin of Calvinism. . . . Calvinism [as Coleridge says] “is cruel in the phrases,” with its dreadful language of depravity and reprobation; Arminianism has gentle phrases (free will, universal atonement), but is cruel “in the doctrine.” Coleridge, perhaps faced with the incapacity of his own will, his inability, for instance, to simply choose to stop taking opium, saw the consolation in a theology that based salvation not on the contingency of human will and efforts, but on the omnipotent will and unceasing effort of God.15

Herbert knew the answer to Coleridge’s need and to his own struggles. And it was not free will. It was daily sovereign sustaining grace:

Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
    Will not suffice our turn:
Except thou make us daily, we shall spurn
    Our own salvation.16

Or again, in a poem titled “Nature”:

Full of rebellion, I would die,
Or fight, or travail, or deny
That thou has aught to do with me.
                  O tame my heart;
        It is thy highest art
To captivate strong holds to thee.17

Herbert called his poems the record of his conflict with God. But through them all, there is the resounding note of solid confidence in God’s covenant with his people. Perhaps the clearest poem about our security lying in God’s providing even our faith and our daily confession is “The Holdfast.”

I threatened to observe the strict decree
          Of my dear God with all my power & might.
          But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
          Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:
          We must confess that nothing is our own.
Then I confess that he my succor is:

But to have naught is ours, not to confess
          That we have naught. I stood amaz’d at this,
          Much troubled, till I heard a friend express,
That all things were more ours by being his.
          What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
          Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.18

This is what Coleridge felt as a precious gift from Herbert’s poems. Utter honesty about what Herbert called “the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul,”19 and the God-given confidence that all our faith, all our perseverance, all our safety, lies in Christ. The sovereign power of God’s love proves to be a profound comfort.

We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendent, and divine;
Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,
While all things have their will, yet none but thine.20

Herbert the Consummate Craftsman

So from the springs of his Anglican,21 Reformed22 spiritual heritage, Herbert has nurtured wounded and hungry souls for centuries. And he has done it as one of the most gifted craftsmen the world of poetry has ever known. Not only is he regarded by many as “the greatest devotional poet in English,”23 his skill in the use of language has earned him the high praises in the twentieth century of T. S. Eliot,24 W. H. Auden,25 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney.26

Herbert loved crafting language in new and powerful ways. It was for him a way of seeing and savoring and showing the wonders of Christ. The central theme of his poetry was the redeeming love of Christ,27 and he labored with all his literary might to see it clearly and feel it deeply and show it strikingly. We don’t have a single sermon that he ever preached. One can only imagine that they would have been rich with the beauties of Christ. What we have is his poetry. And here the beauty of the subject is wedded with the beauty of the language. Under God, it was the poetic effort of his craft that opened for Herbert more of the glories of Christ.

Bending Over a Rolls Royce Engine

Of the 167 poems in The Temple, 116 are written with meters that are not repeated. This is simply incredible when you think about. He created new kinds of structures for most of his poems. Peter Porter expresses the amazement poets feel when they encounter Herbert: “The practicing poet examining a Herbert poem is like someone bending over a Rolls Royce engine. How is it all done? Why can’t I make something so elaborate and yet so simple? Why is a machine which performs so well also so beautiful?”28

Herbert could not conceive of such a thing as a formless poem. The poet’s duty was to perceive and to communicate the beauty of God. In the process, he would construct out of the chaos of experience and the mass of language an object which would reflect the beauty of the subject.29

True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame
               But borrow’d thence to light us thither.
Beauty and beauteous words should go together.30

For Herbert, Poetry Served the Glory of God

In other words, Herbert never aimed at art for art’s sake, technique for technique’s sake. When he was seventeen years old, he wrote two sonnets for his mother. He sent them with a vow. He seemed to know already that he would give much of his life to poetry. The letter accompanying the poems to his mother lamented “the vanity of those many love poems that are daily writ, and consecrated to Venus,” and that “so few are writ that look towards God and heaven.” Then came his vow: “that my poor abilities in poetry, shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory.”31

He kept that vow in a very radical way. “Not a single lyric in The Temple is addressed to a human being or written in honor of one.”32 He writes all 167 poems of The Temple as a record of his life with God. The reason Herbert writes with consummate skill is because his subject was consummately glorious. “The subject of every single poem in The Temple,” Helen Wilcox says, “is, in one way or another, God.”33

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
       Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
       If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
                  My soul might ever feel!34

His aim was to feel the love of God and to engrave it in the steel of human language for others to see. Poetry was entirely for God because everything is entirely for God.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.35

God’s Secretary of Praise

Herbert believed that God ruled all things by his sacred providence, and that everything spoke of God. God had put man in the world to see that and to savor it and to say it, that is, to be the “secretary of God’s praise.”

O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
Strongly and sweetly movest! Shall I write,
And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
To hold my quill? Shall they not do thee right?

Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to Man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise.36

Lamenting His Dullness

This is why so many of his poems are laments about his dullness and his impending loss of powers. He mourns the diminishing ability to praise “brim-full.”

Why do I languish thus, drooping and dull,
                        As if I were all earth?
O give me quicknesse, that I may with mirth
                                          Praise thee brim-full!37

He wrote poetry to show God’s power because he lived to show God’s power. And when God, now and then, restored his strength and gave him relief from his tuberculosis, he exulted in the gift of life because it meant the gift of writing for God’s sake:

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.38

I live to shew his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.39

Poetry as Experiencing God

Writing poetry for Herbert was not merely recording his experience with God that he had before the writing. The writing was part of the experience of God. It was, in the making, a way of seeing and savoring God. Communion with God happened in the writing. Probably the poem that says this most forcefully is called “Quiddity”—that is, the essence of things. And his point is that poetic verses are nothing in themselves, but are everything if he is with God in them.

God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honor, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
    Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play;
    It never was in France or Spain;
Nor can it entertain the day
    With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news;
    Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall:
But it is that which, while I use,
    I am with Thee: and Most take all.40

His poems are “that which, while I use, I am with Thee.” Or, as Joseph Summers says, “The writing of a verse gave to Herbert ‘The Quidditie’ of the spiritual experience.”41 And for Herbert this experience of seeing and savoring God was directly connected with the care and rigor and subtlety and delicacy of his poetic effort — his art. Thus he says in his poem called “Praise (2)”

Wherefore with my utmost art
                I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
                I will bring thee.42

Poetry for the Good of the Church

Yet Herbert wrote and published with a view to serving the church. Pressing in to his utmost art and giving form to the cream of all his heart was not only for his own soul’s joy in God. True, he had never published them during his lifetime, and we know he had been writing seriously for 23 years. So they were clearly for his own soul — his way of seeing and savoring the glories of God. But when he came to die, he sent this life-collection of poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar and said, “[If you] can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public.”43

This is, in fact, what he hoped for, because in the introductory poem to the entire collection, he wrote:

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.44

He believed that the delights he had found in God by writing the poems could become a sacrifice of worship for the reader as well. It may be, he thought, that I can “Rhyme thee to good.”

And this is, in fact, what has happened. People have met God in Herbert’s poems, and their lives have been changed. Joseph Summers said of Herbert’s poems, “We can only recognize . . . the immediate imperative of the greatest art: ‘You must change your life.’”45 Simone Weil, the French philosopher, was totally agnostic toward God and Christianity, but encountered Herbert’s poem “Love (3)” and became a kind of Christian mystic,46 calling this poem “the most beautiful poem in the world.”47

Herbert hoped that the record of his own encounters with God in his poetry would do good to others. And they have. God had brought him through so many afflictions and so many temptations that his poems bore the marks not only of his “utmost art” but also of utmost reality.

I know the ways of learning;  both the head
And pipes that feed the press, and make it run . . .

I know the ways of honor, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesy and wit . . .

I know the ways of pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it . . .

I know all these, and have them in my hand:
Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes
I fly to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale, and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love. . .48

He had found satisfaction and rest49 in Christ not because he didn’t know any alternatives, but because he knew them well and found them to be “guilded clay.”50 

So George Herbert’s impact as a poet was owing to his deep Reformed spirituality — his proven theology of grace, centered on the cross — and to the conflicts of his soul that brought him through the lures of the world to the love of Christ, and to his poetic effort to express all this with his “utmost art” and the “cream of all his heart.”

Saying Beautifully As a Way of Seeing Beauty

And the lesson I want to close with for us is that it would be fruitful for our own soul and for our people if we also made a poetic effort to see and savor the glories of Christ. I don’t mean the effort to write poems. Very few are called to do that. I mean the effort to see and savor the glories of Christ by giving our utmost to finding striking, penetrating, awakening, ways of saying what we see.

In this, I’m proposing one answer to the question: What does it mean to meditate on the glories of Christ? What means are there for lingering over the glory-laden word of God until that glory is seen and savored in your mind and heart in a way that is worthy of its infinite value? What steps can we take to help us fruitfully meditate on the glory of Christ until we see? And of course one essential biblical answer is pray: Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things (Psalm 119:18). Or as Paul prays: Enlighten the eyes of our hearts (Ephesians 1:18). Unless God does the decisive work of revealing (Matthew 16:17), none of our work of meditating will succeed in seeing and savoring.

Saying Freshly As a Way of Seeing Freshly

But I’m asking: When we have asked God to do all his part, and we are trusting him to do it, what is our part? And I am answering that the effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly. The effort to say strikingly is a way of seeing strikingly. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty. And you don’t have to write poetry to make this poetic effort.

For George Herbert, the poetic effort was a form of meditation on the glories of Christ mediated through the Scriptures. Conceiving and writing poems was a way of holding a glimpse of Christ in his mind and turning it around and around until it yielded an opening into some aspect of its essence or its wonder that he had never seen before.

Getting Glimpses of Glory — And Saying It

This is meditation: getting glimpses of glory in the Bible or in the world and turning those glimpses around and around in your mind, looking and looking. And for Herbert, this effort to see and savor the glory of Christ was the effort to say it as it had never been said before.

He found, as most poets have (and many preachers), that the effort to put the glimpse of glory into striking or moving words makes the glimpse grow. The effort to say deeply what he saw made what he saw deeper. The effort to put the wonder in unexpected rhyme, or a pleasing rhythm, or startling cadence or meter, or an uncommon metaphor, or surprising expression, or unusual juxtaposition, or words that blend agreeably with assonance or consonance — all this effort (I’m calling it poetic effort quite apart from poem writing) caused his heart to see the wonder in new ways. The poetic effort to say beautifully was a way of seeing beauty. The effort to find worthy words for Christ opens to us more fully the worth of Christ — and the experience of the worth of Christ. As Herbert says, “It is that which, while I use, I am with thee.”51

Searching the Unsearchable, Saying the Unsayable

My point is that this can be true for all pastors — all those charged to preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). This is our job. To search out the unsearchable and speak it in a manner worthy of the Lord. Brothers, the effort to say what is in the text is a way of seeing what is in the text. And the effort to say it fresh is a way of seeing it fresh. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen.

And what poetry emphasizes — poetry from George Herbert and poetry throughout the Bible — is that the effort to say it surprisingly and provocatively and beautifully uncovers truth and beauty that you may not find any other way. I say it carefully. I do not claim that the poetic effort is a necessary way of seeing a facet of Christ’s beauty. God may give it another way — by some act of sacrificing obedience, by giving you cancer, or by the death of your wife, or the loss of a child. But the poetic effort is found to be one way — a pervasively biblical way, a historically proven way of seeing and savoring more of Christ.

Therefore, I commend it to you, and one of its greatest patrons, the poet-pastor, George Herbert.

  1. Leland Ryken, “‘I Have Used Similitudes’: The Poetry of the Bible,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (July 1990), 259–260. 

  2. Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert (London: John Murray, 1954), 13. 

  3. “The Court was not merely a spring-board for men ambitious of public office; it was the focus of all talent, literary and artistic, and its patronage extended to preachers and divines as well as to the playwrights and poets.” Ibid., 16. 

  4. Pat Magee, George Herbert: Rector of Bemerton (Moxham Printers, 1977), 15. 

  5. Quoted from Izaak Walton’s The Life of Mr. George Herbert, in John Tobin, editor, George Herbert: The Complete English Poems (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 310–311. 

  6. Helen Wilcox, editor, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xxi. 

  7. Jane Falloon, Heart in Pilgrimage: A Study of George Herbert (Bloomington, Indiana: Author-House, 2007), ix. 

  8. Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert (London: John Murray, 1954), 145. 

  9. T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1962), 36. 

  10. Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert, 1. 

  11. Peter Porter, Introduction to, T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1962), 2. 

  12. “Serious studies of George Herbert invariably come upon his Calvinism. . . . How is it that a theology associated with determinism, austerity, the impoverishment of the liturgy, and ‘Puritanism,’ with all of its negative connotations, can produce such winsome religious verse?” In partial answer, Veith points out, “Calvinism, attacked now for its strictness, was originally attacked for its permissiveness. Far from being ascetic, Calvinism was in conscious reaction to monastic asceticism, which rejected marriage and sexuality and insisted upon fasts and mortification of the flesh. Far from being a ‘theology of fear,’ Calvinism offered to believers who had been taught to continually be terrified of hell the assurance that salvation is free and that it can never be lost.” Gene Edward Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1985), 23, 28. 

  13. Ibid., 117. 

  14. Ibid., 34–35. 

  15. Ibid., 131–132. 

  16. “Giddinesse,” in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 446. 

  17. “Nature,” in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 155. 

  18. Ibid., 499. 

  19. John Tobin, Editor, George Herbert: The Complete English Poems, 311. 

  20. “Providence,” in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 417. 

  21. Gerard Manley Hopkins found his love of Herbert “his strongest tie to the English Church.” Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert, 95. 

  22. “George Herbert, the loyal Anglican, was more ‘Puritan’ in literary temper, than Andrew Marvell, the civil servant of the Puritan government.” Gene Edward Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert, 31. 

  23. Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi.  See also Veith’s estimate: “George Herbert, measured by any standard — his craftsmanship, his mastery of language, his poetic and religious subtlety, the profoundness of his spiritual experience — may well be the greatest of all religious poets.” Gene Edward Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert, 20. 

  24. “When we take Herbert’s collected poems and read industriously through the volume we cannot help being astonished both at the considerable number of pieces which are as fine as those in any anthology,  and at what we may consider the spiritual stamina of the work. Throughout there is brainwork, and a very high level of intensity; his poetry is definitely an oeuvre, to be studied entire, and our gradual appreciation of the poetry gives us a new impression of the man.” Jane Falloon, Heart in Pilgrimage: A Study of George Herbert, x–xi. 

  25. Auden said that George Herbert was one of the few artists of genius that he would have liked to have known personally. Cited from the Introduction by Peter Porter to, T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1962), 3. 

  26. Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi.  

  27. “His most frequent and dearest theme is the redemptive love of Christ.” Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert, 88. 

  28. Peter Porter, Introduction to, T. S. Eliot, George Herbert, 4. 

  29. Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954), 93. 

  30. “Forerunners,” in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 612. 

  31. Joan Bennett, Five Metaphysical Poets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 51. 

  32. Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert, 134. 

  33. Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi.  

  34. “The Temper (1)” in Ibid., 193. 

  35. “The Elixer,” in Ibid., 638–639. 

  36. “Providence,” in Ibid., 416. 

  37. “Dulnesse,” in Ibid., 410. 

  38. “The Flower,” in Ibid., 568. 

  39. “Josheph’s Coat,” in Ibid., 546. 

  40. “Quiddity,” in Ibid., 253–254. There is little consensus about the meaning of the last phrase: “And Most take all.” F. E. Hutchinson gives J. Middleton Murray’s  explanation: “The titles to esteem, which verse is not, are first detailed; then it is declared that verse nevertheless is the quiddity of them all, in the very real sense that Herbert in his poetry comes nearest to God and most partakes of the creative power that sustains all these excellences.” Hutchinson, F. E., The Works Of George Herbert (The Clarendon Press, 1941, Kindle Locations, 13457–13460). 

  41. Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art, 107. 

  42. “Praise (2)” in Ibid., 507. 

  43. Izaak Walton’s The Life of Mr. George Herbert, 311. 

  44. Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 50. 

  45. Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art, 190. 

  46. Jane Falloon, Heart in Pilgrimage: A Study of George Herbert, 200. 

  47. Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi. 

    Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lack’d anything.

    “A guest,” I answer'd, “worthy to be here”;
            Love said, “You shall be he.”
    “I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
            I cannot look on thee.”
    Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
            “Who made the eyes but I?”

    “Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.”
    “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
            “My dear, then I will serve.”
    “You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
            So I did sit and eat.

  48. “The Pearle,” in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert, 322–323. See also the last verse of “The Crosse,” Ibid., 562. 

    Ah my deare Father, ease my smart!
    These contrarieties crush me: these crosse actions
    Doe winde a rope about, and cut my heart:
              And yet since these thy contradictions
    Are properly a crosse felt by the Sonne,
    With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done.

  49. See one of his most famous poems, “The Pulley” in Ibid., 549. 

    Yet let him keep the rest,
    But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
    Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
    If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
                   May tosse him to my breast.

  50. “Frailty,” in Ibid., 260. 

    Lord, in my silence how do I despise
                                            What upon Trust
    Is styled honour, riches, or fair eyes;
                                            But is fair dust!
                    I surname them guilded clay,
                         Deare earth, fine grasse or hay;
    In all, I think my foot doth ever tread
                                            Upon their head.

  51. See note 40 on the poem “Quidditie.” His poem “Prayer” is one of the clearest examples of the fruit of lingering over a glory — in this case the glory of prayer — and seeing the wonders of it by the poetic effort to say it in ways it had never been said before. 

    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 heav’n and earth;

    Engine against th’ 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 dressed,
    The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

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